Abigail Heyman: A Feminist & Photographer
Being a woman influenced my ideas about what I wanted to photograph. My interest in women’s issues, in family issues, in social relationships came out of my experience of growing up as a female.—Abigail Heyman
While organizing our library of photography books, my partner asked me a simple yet loaded question, “out of your entire collection of books—what percentage are by women photographers?” My mind cycled through the women photographers who have influenced and inspired my own work … I paused before I answered, “not enough.”
Being a photographer is hard enough, and breaking down barriers of a male driven profession and world is even harder. Abigail Heyman was one photographer who did just that. Abby Heyman was a photographer with something to say, one who created work of consequence through brutally honest and personal photographs. She wove her own identity—that of a woman growing up in a culture not always meant for women—into her photographs. Her own Jewish identity, while not usually at the forefront of her work, was a part of her world. Although she veered away from being observant, the rituals and culture of the Jewish world were important to her.
A close friend of Heymans, and an amazing photographer in his own right, Nubar Alexanian spoke at Heyman’s funeral sharing that, “Abby had a reputation for being smart. But she was more than smart. Her intelligence was soundly connected to her intuition and imagination—so much so that when she started pulling on a thread in a discussion, it would inevitably lead somewhere surprising ... often astonishing. I could never tell if she actually knew where she was heading, or whether she improvised as her argument developed.”
In her 1974 book “Growing Up Female: A Personal Photo-Journal” Ms. Heyman introduced the work writing, “this book is about women, and their lives as women, from one feminist’s point of view.” Through exquisite detail the book chronicles the suffocating lack of choice in women’s lives. What sets the work apart is the steps that Heyman took beyond impartial photojournalism, placing herself, her passions, and her own beliefs onto the film. Of all of the images in “Growing Up Female” the one that sticks with me, and the photograph most written about, is the photograph of Heyman’s own abortion. Written above the photograph are the words, "nothing ever made me feel more like a sex object than going through an abortion alone." The photograph is so brave, so bold, and so real.
Of all of her work, the book that speaks the loudest to me is her 1987 “Dreams & Schemes: Love in Marriage in Modern Times.” As a wedding photographer myself, I’ve been to my share of weddings—though nowhere near the number that Heyman photographed. Heyman attended over 200 weddings to complete her book, lifting the veil of wedding rituals and getting at the heart of the feelings and culture of weddings. Heyman wasn’t just a photographer, she was also a writer and a storyteller. She had her own way of seeing and creating. “Dreams & Schemes” goes beyond effecting photographs to tell the story of the context of weddings. Nubar Alexanian spoke of “Dreams & Schemes” stating that Heyman’s book “examines the underlying emotions and widespread implications [wedding rituals] often conceal”. He went on to say, “the photographs, the writing, editing, sequencing, pacing, image size, type face, every piece of this book hits the mark. When students ask me about the process of creating a photographic book, I suggest that they study 'Dreams & Schemes'.”
When Heyman passed away at the age of 70 she left the world changed and a better place. In "Growing Up Female" she writes, "I have photographed the problems and the strengths of women. Some have suggested that I photograph the solutions. I don't know the solutions." I'd like to think that Abigail Heyman was part of the solution. She broke down barriers, being the first female invited to join the prestigious and highly competitive Magnum photography group. She created a new way of thinking about photojournalism, of injecting oneself into their work. She inspired.