Course Highlight: ART 388: “Fascist Aesthetics: Women & Photography Between the World Wars”

May 3, 2023

A&A Lecturer Jessica Williams Stark’s course ART 388: “Fascist Aesthetics: Women & Photography Between the World Wars” examined the rise of fascism through the lens of the female photographer in the interwar period. Alongside key theoretical texts on race, gender, colonialism, and exile, the course explored a diverse range of work by female photographers and attempted to think critically about the unique roles they played in both crafting and critiquing fascist visual culture in Europe and abroad. By examining and reevaluating their work, the course sought to learn about the aesthetic force of complacency, complicity, and resistance.

Jessica Stark addressing a long table of students

“Dr. Stark is so passionate about the women that have been featured from week to week, and she gives so much contextual knowledge that our discussions are always very meaningful and engaging,” said senior French & Italian major Lizzie Curran. “Every class is an exploration of different female artists that each bring a new perspective and a new visual lens to the understanding of fascist aesthetics.”

Visiting collections was an essential component of the course. On a recent visit, the class was joined by Curator of Photography Katherine Bussard to study Life magazine and one of its most well-known photographers, Margaret Bourke-White. On view were prints Bourke-White produced for exhibition which the class could compare with reproductions of the same images in the magazine itself.  “This class was a great opportunity to see what we have been discussing in real life,” said Curran. “The examples shown in Life magazine and other publications of politically and socially charged imagery were very powerful and helped conceptualize the central ideas of the class.” 

South African Gold Miners

In foreground, Margaret Bourke-White, South African Gold Miners, Kimberley Mines, Johannesburg, 1950 Gelatin silver print (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Bourke-White spent five months in South Africa and produced four photo essays for Life between 1949 and 1950. Among the photographs students were able to examine first-hand was one of Bourke-White’s most famous: the recently acquired image of two gold miners laboring underground in Johannesburg. “Considering her print of this image, its reproduction in the magazine, and the story behind its making, affords an opportunity to not only better understand her work, but its shifting politics as it was translated across media,” said Stark. The image prompted important discussion; “questions about intent, agency, and context in relation to this photograph are as critical for us to consider today as they were in the years immediately following the Second World War,” said Stark.

“For me this class was a powerful experience of seeing some longstanding acquisition initiatives put to use,” said Bussard. “Among these multiyear collecting initiatives is one which focuses on photographs made by artists who identify (or identified) as women. This has included nearly 150 photographs joining our collections, representing nearly 50 women artists from around the world, including Margaret Bourke-White. Many of these acquisitions, including those works selected for ART 388, reflect the opportunity for new conversations about the roles photography has played in journalism, fashion, war, and popular culture, to name just a few of the topics covered with the students that day. Their activation of these photographs through observations and questions, visual analysis and complex contexts, is everything I could hope for when growing our collections.”

Jessica Stark and Kate Bussard in conversation across a long table lined with students

Jessica Williams Stark and Katherine Bussard discuss Life magazine photography with examples from the Princeton University Art Museum's collection (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)


Themes of exile and dislocation were woven through the semester as the class examined the unique contributions female photographers made to the genres of fashion, portraiture, documentary, and war photography during the period of focus. Toward the end of the semester, war became a primary topic, considering work that Gerda Taro produced for Regards in support of the anti-fascist resistance in Spain, for example, and the difficult images that Lee Miller published in American Vogue of the liberation of Dachau. “The circumstances in which these photographs were taken, editorialized, circulated, and received have been at the heart of some of our most recent discussions as a class,” said Stark. Curran singled out Stark’s teaching the class “how to appreciate and understand more difficult works that pertain to parts of history that are more nuanced and sensitive,” adding that Stark provided “a great grounding for how to discuss uncomfortable material.”

Students mid-discussion at long table

In addition to fully exploring works and artists in their contexts, Stark also equipped the class to evaluate and better understand photography as an artform. The class learned about the collaborative relationships and processes that go into making analog prints during a presentation at Firestone Library by Gary Schneider and John Erdman. Curran recalls “Gary Schneider…really helped ground our investigation of production and dark-room editing, and allowed us all to ask him more pointed questions about photography that were personally interesting.”

“She really teaches how to analyze photographs, rather than just discuss their wider implications, and so I think we all know how to talk about the images now in a really nuanced way,” said Curran, adding “the class as a whole has broadened my scholarship and interpretation of art.”