Inside a woman’s bag…

My Purse (©Sarah Katherine, photographer, antiquing nerd, beauty admirer)

My Purse (©Sarah Katherine, photographer, antiquing nerd, beauty admirer)

Photographing the contents of women’s handbags: high art or low art?

Photography’s inquisitive gaze goes everywhere. Investigative and voyeuristic it can explore both complex and trivial subject matter. Over the past few weeks, even before the tragic events that led to a rise in bag searches, one photographer was busy snapping the contents of bags and handbags. A photographic experiment that was to yield more returns than first expected.

A light bulb moment for Sarah Benton? The idea was pretty simple and straightforward. It involved asking ladies to tip out the contents of their handbags. And then lay all the items out carefully on a flat surface. Like an inventory almost; a catalogue of contents. An action that produced something halfway between a still life and an abstract painting. The whole lot photographed flat. And then the same process repeated with dozens of bags. Gathering in the process some kind of sociological commentary about handbags and their owners. And occasionally the items coldly spread out under the camera lens provided a touchingly intimate insight into the lives of their owners.

Did Sarah Benton come up with this concept? Not really, as the FlickR ‘What’s in my handbag’ group? had already got 32,000 people to do practically the same thing. And as you might expect, some photographic self-reflection resulted from the ‘What’s in my camera bag group?’ (4,600 members). The latter focused on the contents of bags owned by photographers.

Although this photographic technique may seem somewhat pedestrian visually speaking (sloppy lighting, unwelcome reflections, average framing skills), its roots explore a number of issues tackled by photography throughout history:

– classification and inventory. Since the early days of photography, snaps have captured the world like some kind of visual encyclopaedia, identifying everything photographed and all possibilities therein.
– conceptual photography (founded in the Sixties): the concept or idea becomes more important than the content and formal aspects of the photo.
– deliberately taking average photographs that are not supposed to be artistic.

This final point brings up very contemporary issues relating to so-called communicative photography in which privacy becomes a value of exchange. Pretty soon handbags will have lost all their mystery….


By Bruno Dubreuil, columnist and lecturer in the History of Photography.