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Minnette Lehmann

Lehmann’s first serious photographic work was a series of photographs of professional, middle aged couples at home in San Francisco. These portraits, done in the early 70s, mirrored troubles in her own marriage and documented a moment in American history when the institution of marriage became problematic. After two years on the project she became convinced that all marriages were full of irony and humor. She stayed married. Those photographs won her a National Endowment award, which made her legitimate enough to teach at SF State, SF Art Institute, and UC Extention for 20 years.

The second serious photographic work (1977 to 1981) were a series of photographs which show people alone and naked, struggling with shame and self-revelation. From her point of view, these formal, frontal, black and white photographs portray liveliness and presence. The photographic events became a part of an optimistic attitude stemming from the 60’s liberation movements.

In the nineteen eighties, while teaching, Lehmann underwent a re-education. Reading postmodernist theorists, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, and Julia Kristeva, and collaborating with the performance artist, Linda Montano, Lehmann did Spoken-word performances. During these Feminist times, she engaged with Yvonne Rainer and Jane Gallup. Her work was influenced by Cindy Sherman and

Sherry Levine’s fictional photographs and appropriations. The camera became her dedicated copy machine.

Straightforward copies of comic book and pulp magazine covers were her next project. For Lehmann, these cartoons were a treasure trove of universal, unconscious representations. Interested in the coded discourses represented on the covers, Lehmann found a wealth of archaic wisdom and stupidity.

After an exhibition, Gory Allegories, at Media Gallery in San Francisco, Lehmann began to cut up and collage the material. In 1991 Lehmann had a show, Thin Skin, in the Grey Gallery at NYU where she collaborated with her eldest daughter, Barbara Lehmann, who had by this time become an East Village artist and writer. Barbara’s early bout with cancer made both of them familiar with the horrendous anxiety that could invade a home.

Invited to mount a retrospective exhibit called Amazing at The Lab in June of 2000, Lehmann refined a method of transferring the collaged cartoons onto large pieces of heavy weight drawing paper which she then colored with pastels. As the work expanded to a study of the history of art, she rethought her work and life: her daughter appeared as an ancient Egyptian funeral portrait. After preparing this exhibit Lehmann began to paint. Without a camera or computer between her and what her eyes and hands conspire, Lehmann says she feels a sense of freedom.

A Woman Straight Ahead, 2017, 30” x 30”, acrylic
The Manifestation of Outrage (Page from A Treatise On Man, 1984), silver gelatin



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  1. […] Minnette Lehman will turn 90 this year. She is a writer, former photographer, painter, and intellectual. Her early memories are of the trappings of childhood, and of her baby sister and attending the cinema in Sacramento, California. From 1948-1958 Lehman was in and around U.C. Berkeley. She began college at age 16 because she needed to get out of Sacramento. There she studied Sociology and married a Trotskyist. Minnette became a Marxist. She says her marriage was in part a way to separate herself from her family. In 1949 she graduated and relocated to Paris where she took up with the nascent Paris Review crowd. She traveled through Europe and the Middle East, all the while writing. Her first marriage ended. Lehman returned to the US and got married again. She married Herbert Lehman, a student psychoanalyst. The couple had three children. The late 1960s were seminal for Lehman in many ways. It was then that she first picked up a camera belonging to her son to document students being teargassed at San Francisco State. During this time her daughter Barbara developed cancer and underwent treatment successfully. In her 40s Lehman attended The Art Institute where she earned an MFA in photography. Lehman earned an NEA grant for her work documenting couples in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She says that through these images she was witnessing the dissolution of the institution of marriage. Lehman next turned her lens on the unclothed human form and found that her images were something of a precursor to the feminist movement. During her time in the cancer ward while her daughter underwent treatment she explains that she spent a lot of time feeling out of control and with people who were dying. Behind the camera she was in control and working with people who were very much alive. Over the course of five years Lehman photographed hundreds of people disrobed. By the early 1970s Lehman was “very feminist.” She was also the mother of a pre-adolescent boy and turned her attention to the discourse of comic books. The decade spanning from 1988 to 1998 “was packed with death,” Lehman says. She lost her mother and her daughter who had survived cancer as a child. It was during this time that she found her way to painting. “I have the temperament of a painter. I make more sense as a painter.” To hear Minnette Lehman discuss her life decade by decade, listen to the complete interview. […]

  2. The interview made me laugh—which is good!
    Thank you so much Brainard. Hope we can talk again.
    If you are ever in San Francisco do reach out to me.

    I will work on those photos again. They could be sharper.



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