Abigail Heyman, Feminist Photojournalist, Dies at 70
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: June 8, 2013
Abigail Heyman, a photographer whose stark portraits of women at work, at home and at weddings gave a visual concreteness to feminist doctrine of the 1970s about the oppressiveness of traditional female roles, died on May 28 at her home in Manhattan. She was 70.
The cause was heart failure, said her son, Lazar Bloch.
Ms. Heyman was known best for her 1974 book, “Growing Up Female: A Personal Photo-Journal,” a sort of illustrated encyclopedia of women performing self-limiting roles. In claustrophobic black-and-white images of almost clinical detail, she portrayed women in curlers shopping for groceries; women as spectators, watching men do things they enjoy; a nude dancer at a strip joint flat on her back, legs apart; a woman at a kitchen table in an apparent stupor of fatigue, a wailing baby on the changing table nearby; little girls playing with dolls.
In one of the book’s most arresting images, Ms. Heyman photographed herself undergoing an abortion.
Her book, she said, was “one feminist’s point of view” of the narrow range of choices women had in their lives, which she hoped her work would help to expand. Frequently displayed in women’s bookstores — in the heyday of women’s bookstores — next to the best-selling feminist guidebook “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” Ms. Heyman’s “Growing Up Female” sold more than 35,000 copies, an unusually high number for photograph collections.
A 1978 book, “Butcher, Baker, Cabinetmaker,” was devoted to working women, and in “Dreams & Schemes: Love and Marriage in Modern Times” (1987), Ms. Heyman explored weddings — she attended 200 — with an eye for backstage drama that anticipated the granular detail, minus the bad taste, of reality television.
In photos and accompanying essays, she portrayed a bride being forced to choose between her divorced parents because one would not come if the other was invited; the parents of a groom who were glum throughout a ceremony because the bride planned to keep her own name; the stir among a groom’s tables when two former lovers of the bride showed up at the reception.
Ms. Heyman was also a photojournalist, her work appearing in Time, Life, Ms., Harpers and The New York Times Magazine. In the mid-1980s she was director of the documentary and photojournalism department at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. She was one of the first women admitted to the prestigious photographer’s cooperative Magnum, founded in 1947 by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and others.
Joan Liftin, the photojournalism director at the photography center from 1988 to 2000, called Ms. Heyman’s work an amalgam of personal, journalistic and political insight.
“As a feminist, she was not so much about marching,” Ms. Liftin said. “She took pictures that showed what the marching was about.”
Abigail Heyman was born on Aug. 1, 1942, in Danbury, Conn., the second of two children of Annette and Lazarus Heyman. Her father was a real estate developer. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, N.Y., in 1964 and had her first photography exhibit in Manhattan in 1972. She was twice divorced. Besides her son, her mother is her only survivor.
“I have been a girl child and, in my expectations, a mother,” Ms. Heyman wrote in her first book. “I have tried to be prettier than I am. I have been treated as a sex object, and at times I have encouraged that. I have been married and have seen my husband’s work as more important than my own.”
Her work as a photographer, she said, reflected “the conflicts inherent in growing up female” and “the conflicts inherent in trying to change.”