At the International center of Photography in New York last year, Associate Curator Kristen Lubben found herself talking a lot about a timeless subject: the differences between men and women. She was co-curating part of an exhibit of photos of the Spanish Civil War by Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. The two had been lovers and professional partners at that early point in their careers. While Capa went on to become one of the 20th century's most renowned war photographers, Taro died in 1937 at age 26, after being struck by a tank.
"We had Taro upstairs and Capa downstairs," says Lubben. "It was an interesting test case for some people-do men and women take different pictures? As I gave tours of the exhibition, I was constantly asked about it."
Such fascination makes sense. Gender is an endlessly debatable topic. The debate gets fiercer when it turns to boys-versus-girls. And the stakes get higher as more women take up cameras.
Of course, women have always been a force in photography. Yet in recent years, photo programs have seen a steady rise in the number of female students in everything from advertising to art to photojournalism. At top schools such as the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, women now outnumber men. But do they take different kinds of pictures?
"The perception of what you're asking is: Who makes better pictures?" says Dennis Keeley, chair of photography and imaging at the Art Center. "Nobody. Better pictures are made by better photographers. That is not gender-driven, except we have a society that's gender-divided. In discussing these things, it's not the answers-it's the questions."
THE EYES HAVE IT
Our first question: Do men and women physically see the world differently?
There is some evidence that the answer might be yes.
A report from the Online Journalism Review made a splash in March 2007 when it reported an eye-tracking study that looked at where viewers glanced on a given news page on the web. When presented with an image of a figure, females most often looked at the face, while males focused both on the face and the crotch.
Funny enough for salacious blog posts, but the results may have been onto some serious differences in behavior. In 2000, Life Sciences published a Japanese eye-tracking study that found a marked difference between the gaze of adult men and women. When presented with an image, women looked for longer periods of time at fewer places, while men's eyes moved more frequently over the image.
Such intriguing results lend themselves to a host of ideas about detail-oriented women lingering patiently over a scene while stimuli-driven men scan it (seeking crotches?) like photographic Terminators.
The problem with such conclusions, though, is that they're based more on our own preconceptions about sex than on actual evidence. Laurent Itti, associate professor of computer science, psychology, and neuroscience at University of Southern California, notes that, while differences in visual behavior have been demonstrated in other studies, science hasn't proven what happens physically that creates such differences. "It doesn't tell you what's happening in the head," he says. "It doesn't tell you why."