Picture This

June 1, 2007
Arch march: "Five Women," three generations, one architectural detail
Arch march: "Five Women," three generations, one architectural detail
Arch march: "Five Women," three generations, one architectural detail

Arch march: "Five Women," three generations, one architectural detail. Top, middle: Duke University Archives; bottom: Kadi-Ann Bryan

It all started with two pictures, taken thirty years apart. The first, from 1946, depicts five crisply dressed women, one in a pinafore, another in a suit, the rest in shirtwaist dresses. They walk in step in front of a West Campus arch, hair bobbed, smiles bright. They are summer-school students, candidates for Gargoyle Beauty Queen.

The second was taken in 1976: Same arch, different women. They wear high-waisted, flared pants, dark aviator shades; one has an Afro. Their loose and freewheeling pose suggests a different era. Four are students; one is an employee.

Claire Robbins had found a copy of the 1976 photo on her desk when she first began working as a program coordinator at the Women's Center. When Women's Center staff members discovered the earlier, strikingly similar photo in the university's archives, they decided it was time to update these images of women at Duke.

The Women's Center teamed up with the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture to organize a photography contest to create a 2007 version of "Five Women" open to students and faculty and staff members. The purpose of the contest, Robbins says, was to "celebrate, visually, the diverse experiences of women at Duke."

In the eighteen entries submitted—now on view at the Lilly Library—the women depicted are undergraduates, medical students, graduate students, staff members. They tend to be dressed casually, in jeans and sweaters. Most of the photos are black and white, like the earlier ones. A few are in color. Photographer Andrea Coravos, a freshman, writes that her choice of color helps to "amplify the vibrancy of the new millennium."

In Coravos' photo and several of the other entries, the five women selected are posed in ways that mimic those of the women in the earlier photos, smiling and walking toward the camera. Other photographers played with the composition. Matthew Campbell, a junior, submitted a photo in which his subjects were walking toward him through the arch. In a second photo, he depicts them walking away, still smiling and laughing.

Women's accomplishments are among the themes that recur in the photos as the photographers and subjects seek to provide a new image of women at Duke. There is a photo of female medical students; a group of graduate students in the natural sciences submitted several entries.

Another common theme is racial and ethnic diversity. Many of the photos depict women of different races. In one, five flags are draped behind five biology students who all come from different countries: Australia, Colombia, France, Taiwan, and the U.S. The women are holding hands.

Robbins, who helped organize the contest, says that the idea was driven, in part, by the depiction of Duke women in a Rolling Stone article last year and the discussions of the ideal of "effortless perfection" that came out of the Women's Initiative.

Many women at Duke said they didn't see themselves in those portrayals, Robbins says, and that's okay. Though the contest was presented as updating the "image" of women at Duke, the goal wasn't necessarily to settle on one particular image. Rather, she says, it was to "honor the fact that there's no one way to describe women at Duke."