Today is International Women’s Day 2017, observed globally every year to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. We trace key female figures in the history of photography to honour this important occasion.
Contrary to what has been given priority in the history of photography, women have played an important role in the pioneering processes of the medium since its early beginning.
As we have written about previously, Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), the so-called ‘father of photography’ was responsible for some of the earliest photographs ever taken. What is less documented, however, is the role of his wife, Constance Fox Talbot (1811-1880), who was credited as the first woman ever to take a photograph.
Amongst some of the earliest notes and records by Fox Talbot, recently bought from the family by a New York-based dealer, is an image of a section of verse by Irish poet Thomas Moore, which Constance produced by shining sunlight through the original manuscript on to a piece of treated paper.
Anna Atkins (1799-1871), whose work on photographic printing processes we also touched on in a previous blog, is still remembered worldwide today.
Studio photography work remained a prominent mode in the 19th century. A number of Danish women opened up their own studios during this period, including Mary Steen who, at the age of 28, became Denmark’s first female court photographer.
Alice Hughes (1857-1939), having studied photography at London Polytechnic, opened her own studio in Gower Street, quickly becoming a major player in photographing royalty, fashionable women, and children. Hughes employed 60 women and took up to 15 sittings a day at the height of her career.
In the early days of artistic photography, the contributions of two British women, Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865) and Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), are notable for their pioneering efforts to ensure that the medium was recognised an acceptable art form.
Specialising in portraits themselves, Hawarden opened a studio in her London apartment, often capturing photographs of her two eldest daughters in timely fashions. Cameron’s work involved capturing portraits of children and celebrities, and her commitment to soft focus photography, although considered technically deficient during the 1860s, later inspired the Pictorialism movement.
An international style and aesthetic movement which dominated photography towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Pictorialism is said to have developed under the influence of American Alfred Stieglitz.
Stieglitz worked closely with several women photographers who had studied fine art and were committed to developing their more artistic bent using photography.
This association with Stieglitz led to the development of the Photo-Secession movement in 1902, which promoted the idea of photography as a form of fine art.
Key female figures in this movement included Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934), Eva Watson-Scütze (1867-1935), and Mary Devens (1857-1920). Their work, comprised of romantic portraits, were displayed as part of many influential photography exhibitions.
Another notable name in the history of studio photography, Ruth Harriet Louise (1903-1940) was the first woman photographer active in Hollywood during 1925 to 1930. Running Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s portrait studio, she photographed numerous high profile stars, including Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, who were among the greatest female stars of Classic Hollywood cinema.
In the mid-20th century, the contributions of female African-American photographers began to attract widespread attention. Among the most prominent of these include Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Coreen Simpson.
Collectively their work is crucial, particularly at a time when issues relating to racial diversity are considered as important and intricately intertwined with those relating to gender.
Weems often draws on her own subjective experience in her work, exploring questions of power through interdisciplinary means – incorporating digital images, audio, text, and video as part of her installations.
Lorna’s work aims to challenge traditional views of gender, identity, culture, history, and memory, while Coreen creates visual narratives that tells the stories of those from diverse groups, that aims to evoke strong emotional responses.
Women in contemporary photography
The landscape of contemporary photography continues to be dominated by the work of women. American portrait photographer, Annie Leibovitz continues to be a notable force capturing arresting, technically accomplished images of the famous and the unknown.
She was the first woman to exhibit her work at London’s National Portrait Gallery. She also photographed John Lennon the same day that he was assassinated.
Performance artist and photographer Nikki S. Lee blends photography and performance to investigate fluidity of individual and group identities. Amongst her most renowned work is her Projects series (1997-2001) in which she performed the codes and visual sign of specific American sub-cultures, such as yuppies, swing dancers, drag queens, hip hop fans, and senior citizens.
Cindy Sherman, an American photographer and film director, explores traditional and pop-culture myths of femininity, using herself as a subject. Assuming multiple roles in her work as author, director, make-up and costume artist, and model, has created numerous notable photography series.
With International Women’s Day also marking an ongoing call to action for accelerating gender parity, it is also important to mention the work of those who are a vehicle for this momentum.
1983 marked the year that the women’s photographic agency known as Format was formed, founded by Maggie Murray and Val Wilmer. The only photography agency that consisted of and promoted the work of contemporary women photographers, Format remained operational until 2003. The organisation represented photographers including Jackie Chapman, Joanne O’Brien, and Melanie Friend, among many others.
Platforms like this which elevate the talent of women photographers are integral to their continued success and visibility, particularly as women remain largely underrepresented in many areas of global culture.
Online platforms, in particular, can act as democratic spaces working towards this goal.
Women in Photography, for example, is a website dedicated to hosting the work of female artists, whether pro or amateur, and regardless of genre.
Curated by Nicole Struppert, whose career spans from marketing and advertising, to freelance photography and documentary, she hopes the website will provide inspiration and motivation for other female artists trying to get their work recognised.
This is by no means an exhaustive history of women in photography but has spotlighted some important contributions by female trailblazers of the medium, which will hopefully inspire future generations of women to pursue their passion for photography.