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Powerful women shine in Susan Wood's 'Portraits'

Published 24th October 2018
Heather Higgins
Credit: Susan Wood
Powerful women shine in Susan Wood's 'Portraits'
Written by CNN Staff
Whether it's wiry young Gloria Steinem at one of the first big gatherings of New York feminists, or a fresh-faced Martha Stewart carrying a basket of eggs on her Connecticut farm, Susan Wood's images capture what her new book calls "achievers" and "trailblazers."
But it was only recently that the American photographer and photojournalist saw a pattern emerge from her early career -- many of her most arresting pictures starred women.
"I realized with an 'a-ha' as I looked through the archive," she said in a phone interview. "I realized I was doing terrific work about women. I hadn't thought about or deliberately gone out to do it."
Instead, Wood said, she had simply been drawn to her subjects' "terrific intelligence" and "openness."
"There's a can-do attitude about most of the women that I photographed," she added.
"To me, it's about getting them into their own activities," Wood says, of how she chose to capture her subjects. "We just walk around a place. Like Martha Stewart in early photographs. She had a wonderful farm, this was before the Martha Stewart we know."
"To me, it's about getting them into their own activities," Wood says, of how she chose to capture her subjects. "We just walk around a place. Like Martha Stewart in early photographs. She had a wonderful farm, this was before the Martha Stewart we know." Credit: Susan Wood
With the benefit of hindsight, Wood is now showcasing the powerful and influential women she has captured in the book "Women Portraits: 1960-2000," where Steinem and Stewart are joined by the likes of Diane von Furstenberg, Jayne Mansfield and Nora Ephron.
"The picture of Nora Ephron, I wasn't even assigned," said Wood, recalling that she had initially been sent to profile Ephron's interior designer for House and Garden magazine.
"I came in and met (her) then," Wood said of the serendipitous encounter. "I said, 'Nora go sit on the couch.' They became actors in this play. It was that kind of thing.
The American journalist, writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, shot by photographer Susan Wood.
The American journalist, writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, shot by photographer Susan Wood. Credit: Susan Wood
"I just responded because they were attractive and interesting, smart and stylish. The 1960s and 1970s -- this period was so amazing, where women decided to go to work and do things that were significant."
Wood's photos started appearing in major publications such as Vogue, Life and New York Magazine in the 1970s and 1980s. Her assignments were varied, ranging from food photography to a cover story on John Lennon and Yoko Ono for Look magazine.
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At the time, she too was breaking into a male-dominated profession, often assigned softer features rather than hard news or sport. Perhaps that shared experience -- of breaking down gender barriers -- created empathy and trust between the photographer and her subjects, allowing her to capture their private lives, unguarded.
The process wasn't always easy, Wood explained, especially as she wanted to shoot her subjects doing something either natural or exciting.
Wood shot the feminist Gloria Steinem during a bra-burning event in the 1970s.
Wood shot the feminist Gloria Steinem during a bra-burning event in the 1970s. Credit: Susan Wood
"I tried not to let (the women) make me take photos with a bookcase behind them, showing how smart they are," Wood recalled. "I tried to get them away. All of them are very vibrant women with strong personalities that they don't hide."
The compilation of the 86-year-old photographer's works seem especially poignant in the age of #MeToo and the women's marches taking place around the world.
"What we need is higher positions of power for women," Wood said. "I just wonder how we get there."
"Women: Portraits 1960-2000," published by Pointed Leaf Press, is available now.