Award-winning photographer Nancy Honey

Award-winning photographer Nancy Honey

‘One hundred women, one hundred portraits, one hundred unique stories to inspire and pioneer a vision for women of the future.’ So reads the tagline to Nancy Honey’s 100 Leading Ladies exhibition of photographic portraits whose focus has been trained on the 100 most respected and influential women over the age of 55 in Britain today.

It’s a powerful rallying cry for a powerful body of work which, for the very first time, is being shown outside of London at Cartwright Hall Museum and Art Gallery in Bradford. “It’s really interesting because I have this strong connection with the North of England and especially with Bradford: I’ve worked with Bradford Grammar School [which is ranked as one of the UK’s top ten best value independent schools] and I was a Fellow of Photography at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television,” says the California-born, London-based Honey.

“It’s also wonderful to have the exhibition specifically at Cartwright Hall because it’s a gallery where the project can be on view for a total of five months (which gives people plenty of time to go and see it) and where there’s a book shop so that people can buy the accompanying book should they wish to.” (100 Leading Ladies, the book, is published by Dewi Lewis Media and costs £30.)

From Shirley Williams, the Lib Dem politician/academic, (“It was fascinating to talk to her”) to Helen Browning, organic farmer/chief executive of the Soil Association, via Martha Kearney, journalist/presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The World at One programme, (“It’s obvious from listening to her that she’s super bright”), the 100 Leading Ladies project includes a diverse range of women; the common link between each of them being that they are a leading figure within their field of work and have helped defy gender stereotypes.

Lib Dem politician and academic Shirley Williams. (Photograph by Nancy Honey.)

Lib Dem politician and academic Shirley Williams. (Photograph by Nancy Honey.)

“The most difficult thing about the project was the logistics,” says Honey of the body of work which was two years in the making. “All of the women I photographed have really busy schedules so it was very hard for them to stick to our arranged photography appointments…especially the politicians. It was actually very tough.”

But Honey’s patience paid off: by asking each subject to choose a location in which to be photographed (a location where they go for inspiration, to think or to relax), Honey gained access to the inner sanctum. “It was a real privilege because a lot of the leading ladies chose to be photographed in their home which is obviously a private, personal space; and then there were those like Martha Kearney who chose to be photographed in the Chelsea Physic Garden, and Averil Mansfield, the UK’s first professor of surgery, who wanted to be photographed against her favourite view in Cumbria with a viaduct in the background.”

Included in the list is Nomad Atelier’s very own Rita Britton who decided to be snapped in Pollyanna. “Nancy wanted the leading ladies to be shot in an environent that they had influenced and Pollyanna seemed the obvious choice,” says Britton. “Obviously, it was a great honour to be included in the project but I did find it a bit daunting. Why me? I can always think of others who are more deserving. Having said that, it is wonderful to be in such inspiring company.”

Rita Britton at Pollyanna, October 2012. (Photograph by Nancy Honey.)

Rita Britton at Pollyanna, October 2012. (Photograph by Nancy Honey.)

And yet 100 Leading Ladies is much more than an opportunity to celebrate a bunch of inspring/successful women and preserve them in a photographic frame for posterity — these portraits document an interesting period of social change over the past 50 years, and tell living stories by the women who have lived through these changes. Perhaps more importantly, these stories offer an important counterbalance to the leading ladies of celebrity culture who dominate mass media today, and will hopefully have a positive impact on the future generation of influential women.

“In my own lifetime I have witnessed a profound shift, from little girls imagining their future options as marriage and children to the now total belief from childhood that a woman will grow up to have a career outside the home,” says Honey. “It is more important than ever to see important women from all fields in our society and hear their voices of experience.”

Honey herself, who studied fine art, graphic design and photography both here in the UK and in the US and has been working as a photographer for more than 35 years, is a prime example of this social change. “When I was an emerging photographer, balancing my career with mothering two young children, one of my heroines was Eve Arnold, the highly successful photojournalist. So when I saw that she was going to be giving a talk near my home, I was quite eager to attend. I knew she had a family and a career, so I hoped she would address how she was able to manage them both. She didn’t mention it.”

“After her talk, I realized that this question was important to me and that I couldn’t leave without asking it. Tentatively I raised my hand. When she pointed at me, I summoned the courage to ask, ‘Ms. Arnold, how did you manage to be so successful and also have a family?’ Her answer was abrupt, as if to quickly put a stop to my line of questioning. ‘That subject,’ she said, ‘is too painful to talk about.’”

Helen Browning: organic farmer and chief executive of the Soil Association. (Photograph by Nancy Honey.)

Helen Browning: organic farmer and chief executive of the Soil Association. (Photograph by Nancy Honey.)

“That incident and her words haunted me. I had so many conflicts about looking for and taking on interesting photography assignments when I had children at home who deserved as much attention as I could possibly give. I desperately needed some insight, some guidance and some inspiration. I know now that the question I asked was not unique to me. In every field of endeavor, women have struggled, and struggle still, with this question and many more.”

Britton offers a different point of view: “It was never a problem for me because there was never any other option: I had to juggle and cope. I have worked since I was 15-years-old, and things in my life, whether they be kids or career, were never planned; they just happened. Saying that, I had a hell of a good family to back me up. My dad would fetch the kids from school; my mum would cook them their tea, and my auntie would take them out. If you don’t have that back-up system then I think it would be very difficult to cope.”

So, having completed the project, is Honey any closer to finding out the ultimate answer to the question which she asked Eve Arnold all those years ago and that has inspired this phenomenal portfolio? “No,” she says, laughing. “There is no one answer. Every woman’s story is different but there are common threads which crop up when talking to these ladies: there’s not enough hours in the day; the importance of being passionate about one’s work; the need for re-invention, and the fact that women can have it all but not all at the same time.”

“I’m not sure you would even know if you had it all and all at the same time,” says Britton. “But what I do know is that the lady who was officiating at the opening of the exhibition in London,  said that there was one woman who wasn’t included in the 100 leading ladies but who should have been — Nancy herself. And I couldn’t agree more.”

Nancy Honey’s 100 Leading Ladies is on at Cartwright Hall Museum and Art Gallery, Bradford, until 10 April 2016.