Sexual, political, radical: How women photographers see themselves -- and each other

Emily Butler is the curator behind "Terrains of the Body: Photography from the National Museum of Women in the Arts," a new exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in London.

(CNN)Since its inception, women have been at the forefront of experimentation with photography, offering visionary images of themselves and their peers. And from beginning, they've depicted the female form as a contested terrain, the subject and object of art, with multiple facets and identities.

In the 1800s, Julia Margaret Cameron transformed the female figure from muse to active agent within the image. Whilst her photographic career was short lived, she experimented with its potential as a new science to offer faithful records and accurate portraits, but also experimented with photography's narrative possibilities, creating soft focused allegorical images drawn from myths and stories.
Jump cut to a century later, when a new wave of feminism demanded even representation of women in social life and the arts. Women began to reclaim the representation of women -- including their own bodies -- through performance, film and photography, as these new media were not yet dominated by men.
"The Hero" (2001) by Marina Abramovic
Pioneering figures include Marina Abramovic, whose seminal early performances include "Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful" (1975), which records her repeating this refrain whilst combing her hair vigorously and continuously for nearly an hour, directly confronting the viewer and their preconceptions about the role of art and the representation of women within it.
Her work "The Hero" (2001) shows the artist astride a white horse, holding a white flag, a symbol of peace or anti-nationalism, offering alternative readings of national history and reclaiming a space in heroic imagery for both women and peace.

Close up and personal

Another key figure in the display is Nan Goldin, whose candid documentation of her friends in downtown New York in "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" the 1970s and 80s brought together social and personal narratives.
Rineke Dijkstra is another artist who collaborates closely with the subjects of her images. Her depiction of teenagers in spaces of leisure -- in a park or on a beach -- captures the moment when they lose their inhibition in front of the camera, as well as that delicate moment in their lives, poised between childhood and adulthood.
The pensive moods of adolescence have inspired Hellen van Meene, too. With their warm light and clear almost fleeting compositions, her enigmatic portraits of young women, which appear casual, gradually reveal themselves as carefully planned.
While many women photographers have used different approaches, the female body has played an important role in the making and conceptualizing of the image, to overcome preconceptions of gender, race and nationality, to express identity, experience and give life to the imagination.
"Terrains of the Body: Photography from the National Museum of Women in the Arts" is on view at Whitechapel Gallery in London until April 16, 2017.