The high-fliers club: how Susan Wood captured the original rebel girls | Art and design

There’s Jayne Mansfield, striding through New York in a tight dress. There’s fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg, reclining on a flight with a notepad on her lap. There’s lifestyle icon Martha Stewart, leading ducks round her property dressed in a denim romper suit. They’re all here, along with Susan Sontag, Nora Ephron and countless other celebrities, intellectuals and icons of the 20th century – and all of them women.

Susan Wood, the celebrated photographer who took these shots, found that her subjects all shared certain characteristics. “The first thing is intelligence,” she says. “The second is responsiveness. And they all had tremendous energy, joie de vivre, openness. They could understand things that weren’t quite said.”

Speaking by phone from her house in Long Island, Wood says these subjects were not ones she pursued, however. These were just the assignments a female photographer could expect to be given. They were “soft news” features men didn’t want to cover: cooking, fashion, crafts, family. Still, says Wood, they were “a foot in the door for women journalists serious about other topics”.

1500 - The high-fliers club: how Susan Wood captured the original rebel girls | Art and design



Martha Stewart feeds the ducks in Westport, Connecticut, 1976. Photograph: Susan Wood

It was only while digitising her archive that Wood realised this common thread and it has resulted in her new book, Women: Portraits 1960-2000. The collective importance of her subjects may have been lost on her back then, but it isn’t now. “I didn’t realise I was right in the middle of the revolution,” she says.

As she puts it in the book: “I’m a working woman from an age when women still wondered if we could and/or should work.” She recounts how her college graduation speaker suggested the class of young women pick up knitting to keep their minds active while they looked after domesticity and procreation. In the dedication, she gives the book over to women “who dare to fulfil the promise of their talents, beauty, brains and capabilities”.

Born in 1932, Wood grew up in a cultivated New York family who encouraged her creativity. Wood admired Dorothea Lange, whom she met, and personally mixed with other notable photographers, such as Bruce Davidson. Her first job was in the photography lab at Life magazine, cutting up 35mm negative strips for Margaret Bourke-White. She proved herself as a photographer on shoots of such high-powered figures as cookbook author Barbara Kafka who, she recalls, initially “wanted Irving Penn”.

Figuring out the right way to depict women, to emphasise their strength, was always complex. It was a battle between showing them looking “desirable” and showing them looking professional (her images mostly veer towards the latter). “Many women have college degrees from fine institutions,” she notes, “but it seemed as though that wasn’t important to the men.”

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Cheryl Tiegs on the cover of Susan Woods’ book Photograph: Susan Wood

Wood chose a photograph of supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, for her book’s cover. It was taken in California in 1970, for a spa story in Vogue. “It’s not a ‘feminist’ point of view,” Wood says of the shot, which shows the model and fashion designer dressed in a satin robe and idling among newspapers and fruit on a hotel bed. “But it grabs the attention. You want someone to pick up the book and look at it.” It is also worth mentioning that Tiegs’ burly husband, who spans the other half of the photo, is relegated to the book’s back cover.

Wood enjoys recalling juicy behind-the-scenes gossip. Booked to take shots on the set of Easy Rider, she found Dennis Hopper “crazy and drunk”. A photographer himself, he wanted to take all the shots, and he would bully Peter Fonda, bringing up sensitive subjects his fellow actor had expressly forbidden. For a cover shoot she did of Yoko Ono and John Lennon for Look magazine, Wood recalls tensions surfacing between Ono and the writer of the piece. Displeased with the resulting profile, Lennon later made fun of the writer’s thighs on TV.

1500 - The high-fliers club: how Susan Wood captured the original rebel girls | Art and design



Yoko Ono and John Lennon in England in 1968. Photograph: © Susan Wood

Wood’s book contains a startling photograph of Jane Fonda and screenwriter Terry Southern whose “outrageous sexual personality”, she recalls, was renowned in Hollywood. Southern is shown reaching into Fonda’s jacket at chest level. While Fonda politely laughs, her eyes tell a different story – of wild discomfort and fury. Roger Vadim, Fonda’s director husband, is standing right there laughing. In the caption, Wood notes: “I had just raised my camera to take a friendly shot of the three friends in Vadim’s New York office in 1967, and caught this far more interesting shot.”

Has much changed since 1967? In the age of #MeToo, Wood’s portraits still have plenty to tell us about how women are portrayed, how they think about themselves, the opportunities they’re presented with, how they overcome deeply sexist odds to make it in the professional world.

One of the great pleasures of the book is how mischievous Wood can be. She is asked to portray a certain subject “as a Marie Antoinette – a ‘let-’em-eat-cake’ rich bitch”. But instead, she puts the woman in a man’s three-dollar T-shirt, and has her communing with a snake. This, she muses, “was far more interesting”. Quite.

Women: Portraits 1960-2000 by Susan Wood is published by Pointed Leaf Press.

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