When reflecting on the history of photography there are a lot of men that come to mind, but for each one of those men, there is an equal woman. Throughout the history of photography, women have been underrepresented and overlooked. Recently there has been a greater acknowledgement of their contributions to photography both past and present.
One of the first women to leave her mark on the history of photography was Constance Fox Talbot (1811–1880). Fox Talbot is considered the first woman to take a photograph. Her husband, Henry Fox Talbot, invented the Calotype photographic process in the 1830s and patented it in 1841. What made the Calotype superior to another early photographic process, the daguerreotype, is that the daguerreotype process only produced a single positive image, there is no negative image to make duplicates from. But the Calotype was revolutionary because it produced a negative image from which endless amounts of positive images can be produced from. Her first image was a contact print using a verse from the Irish poet, Thomas Moore. She laid the page from the manuscript directly on top of the photosensitive paper and exposed it to the sun, creating the image.
Around the same time, Constance Fox Talbot was experimenting with a new photographic process, Anna Atkins (1799–1871) was experimenting with a different one. Anna Atkins is synonymous with cyanotypes, which is typically a contact print process.
The cyanotype process was invented by John Herschel in the early 1840s and was often used for making blueprints. Atkins used the process for botanical specimens. She published the book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions which was the first book to ever be published that consisted of only photographs, her cyanotype images.
By the mid-1840s women were setting up daguerreotype studios around the world including Germany, Sweden, France, Canada, and the United States.
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) picked up a camera in 1863, late in her life, once her six children moved away.
She quickly rose from amateur to professional. In under two years, she sold eighty prints to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Victoria and Albert Museum is also where she held her first museum exhibition in 1865 and in 1868 she established a portrait studio there.
Cameron often photographed her friends and family in theatrical costumes, as well as portraits of respected men of the time. Her photographs were primarily soft-focused which in her time was criticised, but has since been viewed as a unique stylistic decision.
The 1920 U.S. Census recorded 101 Black female photographers, Florestine Perrault Collins (1895-1988) was one of them, and the only one recorded in the New Orleans area. In 1909, at the age of 14, she began her exploration into photography by assisting white photographers who assumed she was white because of her lighter complexion. She was then able to learn the skills needed to open her own studio which she ran for almost 30 years. What made Florestine Perrault Collins unique was her ability to subvert the stereotypes that plagued photographs of Black people during that time. All her subjects were photographed with a sense of dignity and pride. She built up a steady client base which allowed her to provide for her family through the Great Depression. As a woman, she appealed greatly to mothers who wanted family portraits and she marketed herself specifically with that appeal in mind.
Beginning in the 1930s women entered the conventionally masculine role of the photojournalist, most specifically, war photography. Three women who revolutionized the woman’s role as war photographers are Gerda Taro (1910-1937), Lee Miller (1907-1977), and Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971).
Gerda Taro is the woman behind famed war photographer, Robert Capa. Originally named Gerta Pohorylle, both she and Capa changed their names after fleeing their respective countries and seeking refuge in Paris due to rising antisemitism. Publications were not interested in hiring Jewish refugees.
Her photographic career was brief, having begun in August 1936 documenting the Spanish Civil War a few weeks after it broke out. In July 1937 she was killed while covering the Battle of Brunete, making her the first female photojournalist to be killed on the frontlines. Her single year of photographic coverage solidified her legacy as a remarkable war photographer. During that time her photographs appeared in publications around the world. In the years after her death, most of her accomplishments fell under Capa, it was not until more recently that Taro’s work has been seen as her own.
Lee Miller ventured into photography from the opposite side of the lens, as a fashion model in the late 1920s. In the early 1930s, she moved from New York City to Paris and studied under Man Ray, who taught her photography; they collaborated on some of Man Ray’s most recognizable work including his solarization photographs. While in Paris she had the opportunity to photograph many prominent art figures including Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
She returned to New York City in 1932 and set up a photo studio. In addition, she returned to modeling and received photo assignments from Vogue. In 1940, Miller covered the London Blitz and its aftermath, those images would be published as a book, Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain Under Fire, in 1941.
She became the first female photojournalist to follow the 83rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army to the front lines, she photographed The Battle of Saint-Malo, the liberation of Paris, as well as the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps.
After she died, 60,000 negatives and 20,000 prints were discovered in her attic, her family began to archive that work to make sure her accomplishments were not forgotten.
Margaret Bourke-White had a great number of firsts, not just for women in the field, but for photography in general.
She became Fortune’s first staff photographer in 1929, she was the first foreign photographer to have free photographic reign in the Soviet Union in 1930, the first female photographer at Life Magazine in 1930, and she was the first female photographer given permission to accompany combat missions.
Her work covered everything from images of the Great Depression, the rise in industrialism in the United States and the Soviet Union, World War II, and the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp and its survivors, to photographing Gandhi.
The 1930s brought the Great Depression across the United States, as a result, the government formed the Resettlement Administration (RA) in 1935. In 1937 the RA became the Farm Security Administration (FSA). These programs hired photographers to document America between 1935 and 1944. The two most notable women to work in that project were Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and Marion Post Wolcott (1910- 1990).
Dorothea Lange began photographing the effects of the Great Depression before joining the Resettlement Administration, but it was through the RA program Dorothea Lange took one of history's most enduring images. 1936’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. The image depicts 32-year-old Florence Thompson with three of her seven children in the pea picker's camp where they were living. Lange’s Migrant Mother image helped her earn the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in 1941, becoming the first woman to receive the fellowship.
Lange continued her work with the US Government into World War II, working with the War Relocation Authority. Her assignment was to document the internment of Japanese Americans, an action she strongly opposed.
The photographs she took were highly critical of the internment program so the US Government seized the photographs until after the war. In the months before she died, Lange helped curate the MoMA retrospective of her work. It was MoMA’s first solo exhibition of work by a female photographer.
Marion Post Wolcott had already been working in the photo industry before being recommended to the FSA by fellow photographer Paul Strand. She had worked as a freelance photographer for publications such as Life Magazine and Fortune before becoming a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in 1937. She remained at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin until moving on to the FSA the following year.
From 1936 to 1951 Photo League influenced and created a generation of photographers. Founded by Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn in New York City, the Photo League’s members were a mix of amateur and professional photographers, the League ran classes, critiques, lectures, and a social network of fellow photographers. One thing that set the Photo League apart from almost all other art collectives during that time was that it had over 100 female members, about one- quarter of the members. They held leadership positions and were encouraged equally to their male counterparts. It was an escape for them, after time spent in the Photo League many returned home to take care of their families and take care of domestic duties, very few reached the same level of fame as their male peers. Female members include Vivian Cherry, Sonia Handelman Meyer, Rae Russel, Lucy Ashjian, Lisette Model, Lotte Jacobi, Rosalie Gwathmey, Elizabeth Timberman, Ruth Orkin.
One of the Photo League's board members was Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Born in Ohio, Abbott studied art in New York, Berlin, and Paris. In Paris, she served as Man Ray’s studio assistant, which introduced her to the world of photography and French photographer, Eugène Atget. Atget started his work in the 1890s and quickly became an influential figure in photography.
When he died in 1927, Abbott purchased his entire archive of work, over 5,000 prints and 1,000 negatives, and arranged for it to be shipped to New York for preservation. This action guaranteed his work would never be lost, for the rest of her career, she promoted his work and can be credited for making sure his legacy lived on.
She returned back to New York in 1929 and began to document the changing city, focusing on the architecture rather than the people. In 1935 she worked with a different government-funded program by the Works Progress Administration, specifically the Federal Art Project, to continue her work documenting the city. The project resulted in the critically acclaimed book Changing New York (1939).
The 1940s ushered in the decade spanning reign of what is known as “street photography”. Street photography is notorious for its lack of female inclusion. Helen Levitt (1913- 2009) was a street photography pioneer and Vivian Maier (1926-2009) independently began documenting her streets in the 1950s. Levitt and Maier were both early adopters of color photography in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Helen Levitt, inspired by photographers Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, took to the streets after being uninspired by studio work. A large majority of her work in the 1940s are photographs of children playing in Spanish Harlem. It is that work that inspired James Agee and Janice Loeb to approach Levitt about making a short film about the same subject. That film became In the Street, shot in the mid-1940s and released in 1952. In the Street is a beautiful time capsule of what it was like to be a child in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s. In 2006, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. During her lifetime, Levitt saw much acclaim for her work. In 1974, she had a slideshow installation of her color work at the Museum of Modern Art, which marked one of the first times photographs were displayed that way in a museum. That exhibition also marked one of the first exhibitions of color photography.
Vivian Maier has quite a different legacy. It was not until around 2007 that anyone was aware of her work at all. Beginning around 1949 Maier began pursuing photography, and she continued with this for almost 50 years, amassing over 100,000 negatives, but never sharing them with anyone. Over those 50 years her ability to process her film and print her images varied, resulting in a massive backlog of unprocessed color and black and white film. Around the end of the 1990s, she packed away all her photo supplies in a storage unit, where they sat until 2007 when she failed to continue the payments on the unit and the contents were sold off. Public interest in her work arose when one of the people who purchased the storage unit’s content, John Maloof, began posting the images on the internet in 2009, only a few days after she passed away, although he did not know that at the time. Maier, posthumously, became an icon of street photography and has since had multiple exhibitions and publications of her work, in addition to a documentary about her life.
Diane Arbus (1923- 1971), known for her photographs of people often on the fringes of society, got her start in the mid-1940s by producing commercial work for magazines. For about 10 years she worked alongside her husband, Allan Arbus, photographing for publications such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and advertising agencies. Arbus quit the corporate photography world in order to pursue her own art. The inspiration came after taking a photography class with the photographer Lisette Model (1901- 1983). Model was known for her candid portraits on the street, but also her fashion work that was published regularly in Harper’s Bazaar, Cue, and PM Weekly in the 1940s and 1950s. Arbus took one of her classes at the New School for Social Research in New York, where she worked until her death. Her students included other notable photographers Larry Fink and Peter Hujar. Arbus retraced a lot of the territory Model did by photographing in locations such as Coney Island and at Hubert’s Freaks in Times Square.
These places then inspired her to go further into the world of strange and eccentric people. In 1963, Arbus received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which was renewed in 1966. She also ventured back into commercial photography as publications were seeking more artistic and unconventional images. The assignments she received worked with her newfound interests. In 1967, Arbus had 32 photographs chosen for the Museum of Modern Art’s “New Documents” exhibition. Her work hung alongside fellow up-and-coming photographers Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. The exhibition introduced a wide audience to her photographs, some praising the work and some criticising it. Nevertheless, people were talking about it. Arbus struggled with mental health issues throughout her life and in 1971 she took her own life at the age of 48. The following year MoMA held a retrospective of her work, that same year she became the first photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale.
Other women who were making their mark in photography in the 1970s and 1980s were Jill Freedman (1939-2019), Arlene Gottfried (1950-2017), Mary Ellen Mark (1940- 2015). Jill Freedman lived in and photographed Resurrection City in Washington DC for 42 days in 1968, the photographs were published in Life. She then went on to live with a circus in order to document who they are as people and not just performers. One of her most notable series began in 1975 when she lived with and followed firefighters in the Bronx for two years, and that inspired her to create a similar body of work with New York City cops.
Arlene Gottfried (1950-2017) photographed the characters on the beaches of Fire Island, Coney Island, and Brighton Beach, NY, and the culture that thrived in New York’s Puerto Rican neighbourhoods. In the 1980s she immersed herself in New York’s nightclub and bar scene. She captured the spirit of the city at a very specific moment in time, soon to be lost.
Much like Freedman and Gottfried, Mary Ellen Mark was interested in the people on the fringes of society and understanding their lives. In 1978 she created the body of work Ward 81, where she lived with the woman of Oregon State Hospital’s maximum security section, Ward 81, for 36 days. She wanted to capture their personalities and present them as they wanted to be presented to the outside world. She discovered these women while working as a set photographer on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Set photography was something she covered throughout her career, from the late 1960s into the early 2000s.
Mark’s most known work is that of Streetwise. Beginning in 1983 she began photographing homeless teenagers in Seattle, WA for Life Magazine, it is through this project that she meets 13-year old prostitute Erin Blackwell who went by the name Tiny. The following year Mark returned to the Seattle teens to film the Academy Award- nominated documentary Streetwise with her husband Martin Bell. Mark went on to photograph Tiny for 30 years, documenting her life from a child to motherhood.
Ming Smith faced plenty of challenges as a Black woman in the field of photography, but she was not discouraged and she persevered. In 1972 she was invited to join the Black photo collective, Kamoinge Workshop which was established in New York City in 1963. She was their first female member.
In 1978 her work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, making her the first female African American photographer to be a part of their collection. That milestone came with its challenges. When Smith dropped off her portfolio at the museum the receptionist assumed her to be a messenger. When the museum saw two images in the portfolio they wanted to acquire for their collection they offered her a very low price that would not even cover the cost of creating the images.
Being included in the MoMA’s collection should bring recognition to a photographer who is still early in their career, but for the next 40 years, Smith received little recognition. It took until MoMA’s 2010 show “Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography” for her to gain the attention she deserved all along.
Nan Goldin (1953- present) undertook photography as a teenager as a means to commemorate her relationships with the people around her, that approach to photography is something that Goldin has explored her entire career. Her work often centres around figures in the LGBTQ communities. After attending Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Goldin moved to New York City and began photographing the underground subcultures of the city. The photographs she took during this time, 1979- 1986, would make up The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was first exhibited at the 1985 Whitney Biennial and is a slideshow comprising about 700 photographs that present that moment in history. These images captured downtown New York’s drug scene, the post-Stonewall gay scene, as well as Goldin’s own friendships and relationships. In 1986 The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was published as a book. By 1990 most of the people she photographed for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency had died from drug overdoses or AIDS, solidifying The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as a true record of time. Goldin has continued to make very personal work in both photography and film and has become an important activist against prescription opioids and pharmaceutical company’s donations to the arts.
Carrie Mae Weems (1953- present), known for her installations that merge photography, video, audio, and text. Her most famed work is The Kitchen Table Series from 1990, where she shares a whole life through the happening at a single kitchen table. The series was highly influential for many artists because of its universal understanding, but it became even more influential for Black artists because there were finally images that hung on museum and gallery walls that they could see themselves in.
Weems next project From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, explored racial stereotyping in early photography. She appropriated photographs from museums and archives taken in the 19th and 20th-century and used them to highlight how the images were showing how white Americans were using these photographs to create a sense of power over African Americans.
Weems rephotographed the images, added colored filters and text that raise awareness for what the original use of the images was. In the latter half of the 1990s, Weems shifted her focus to video and produced a series of short films which explore police brutality against African Americans. In 2014, Weems became the first Black woman to receive a retrospective at the Guggenheim
One photographer that was influenced by the work of Carrie Mae Weems is LaToya Ruby Frazier (1982- present). Frazier was a student of Weems at Syracuse University in 2005 and both women have won the MacArthur "Genius" Award. Much like Weems, Frazier works in installation based art, merging photography and video. The work she creates is deeply socially conscious, where she builds long- term relationships with her subjects and uses her platform to raise awareness to large social and racial issues.
There are countless other female photographers that have contributed to the history of photography. Each of their bodies of work are a unique vision of how they see the world. Only recently have many of these women received the credit that has long been overdue to them.