Focusing on the female gaze

The pioneering women who, over more than 150 years, embraced photography — a medium for free-spirited women who wanted to chart their own course

Christian House

While on a hiking trip in 1906 in the Sierra Nevada mountains, photographer Anne Brigman stumbled across an ice cave. Inside she discovered a glacial pool, a setting which was to inform one of her most enigmatic images. Brigman pictured a naked nymph, modelled by one of her outdoorsy friends, kneeling in the water and setting adrift—or birthing—a crystal globe over the tranquil water. It’s the American West recast as a womb. She titled the work The Bubble.

As several new books illustrate, Brigman is emblematic of the free-spirited women who have, over more than 150 years, embraced photography. Here, at last, was a medium for women who wanted to chart their own course.

Brigman certainly followed her own compass. Born in Hawaii in 1869, she married a mariner, sailed the South Seas, ditched the skipper and reinvented herself as a San Franciscan bohemian just in time for the arrival of the 20th century. Two recent studies—Anne Brigman: The Photographer of Enchantment and Anne Brigman: A Visionary in Modern Photography—situate her work somewhere between Pre-Raphaelite paintings and Kate Bush videos.

Her staged shots presented nudes en plein air—twisted around tree-trunks, bookended by rocks—in the ridges and lakes of the high Sierras. The results are a fuzzy mix of naturism, paganism and classical allusions. She wasn’t interested in revering nature but rather creating—via Kodak and gelatin silver prints—an earthy fiction of sirens among the pines, what she describes in a poem as “a sanctuary under gracious skies”.

Brigman also appears in Women Photographers, Thames & Hudson’s new series of three books which collectively profile 190 women—pioneers, revolutionaries and contemporaries—who became shutterbugs. While Brigman’s lens sought the ecstasy of the elements, these books also present photographers who found surrealism in cats (Wanda Wulz), beauty in solitude (Sophie Calle) and drama in circuses (Mary Ellen Mark).

In recent years a corrective in the art world has seen a reappraisal of women painters—the Lee Krasner show at the Barbican highlighted what a one-drip pony Jackson Pollock was compared to his wife—but the history of women photographers is different: they were always there, front and centre. “When the emerging profession was not yet subject to any codes or rules, women were free to immerse themselves in photography. They opened studios, filed patents and travelled,” notes Clara Bouveresse in her introduction to Women Photographers.

In the mid-19th century, it was class rather than gender that was a hurdle for fledgling photographers. In the cumbersome days of glass plate negatives, monumental stands and convoluted chemical processing, photography was expensive and required considerable space and time. It was not a pursuit for anyone, man or woman, who had to earn a living.

The female pioneers were often well-heeled amateurs, Julia Margaret Cameron being the most famous, but there was also Lady Clementina Hawarden, who produced stereoscopic images of her debutant daughters; La Castiglione, the Italian aristocrat who took risqué pictures of legs; and Alice Austen, the Staten Island heiress whose photographs illustrated the pages of Bicycling for Ladies.

Technical developments in the early 20th century, including negative film and affordable and portable 35mm cameras, placed photography into the hands of a new generation of women. And they ran with it, seeing in the medium a way both of recording their daily routines and expressing their internal lives.

From the 1920s through the 1960s there were prominent female figures working on various fronts, from reportage and commercial work to landscape and portraiture: Eve Arnold and Inge Morath focused on the stars of Hollywood; Lee Miller went to war (famously exposing the domesticity of evil in Hitler’s bathtub); Grete Stern and Ellen Auerbach set up an advertising and design agency in Berlin; and across six decades Jane Bown, the doyenne of photojournalism at the Observer, photographed subjects from Bertrand Russell to Björk.

But there were many talents who shot in the shadows. Vivian Maier was the hidden maestro whose story is now told as a fable of success deferred. A mercurial figure, Maier was a Chicago nanny who secretly took thousands of photographs on her days off, beautiful images of everyday encounters. Following her death, this huge cache, which undoubtedly classifies her as a modern master, was discovered in a storage facility. Yet, it is the value placed on fame that frames Maier’s posthumous celebration as a good thing. It is not something she sought for herself, or her photographs, during her lifetime.

In The New Woman Behind the Camera, a phenomenal work of research published by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, readers can discover how photography obsessed 20th-century women across the globe. Written to accompany a blockbuster show (postponed to 2021 due to the Coronavirus pandemic) the volume surveys the impact of 120 women—fearless, radical, involved—a sprawling community engaged in photography spanning some 20 countries. 

“The Handcrafts Group Organised by Families of Shanghai Business Owners Making Chinese Dolls”, by Niu Weiyu, 1956 (©Gao Fan & Niu Weiyu Foundation)

“Many of these ‘new’ women found the camera to be a means of independence as they sought to redefine their position in society,” observes curator Andrea Nelson. The gallery of images she has uncovered is astounding, broaching industry, warfare, community, sexuality and parenthood as well as abstraction and form. These women often photographed within extraordinary constraints. Taking pictures in the early days of the People’s Republic of China, Niu Weiyu was limited to shooting “women-related topics” such as the doll-makers of Shanghai. And in wartime Stalingrad, Galina Sanko created Soviet propaganda on the front line.

There was also fun. In Weimar Germany, Etel Fodor-Mittag recorded the erotic undercurrents and zany antics of the Bauhaus crowd. Later, in post-war Jamaica, Toni Frissell photographed fashion models lazing under the glare of the Caribbean sun. And there was adventure: a picture of Niu Weiyu on assignment in the Chinese mountains in 1960 sees her heroically perched on a rocky path, relaxed and camera in hand.

“During an Attack”, by Galina Sanko, 1943. (© Robert Koch Gallery)

As these sometimes jarring, sometimes joyous images highlight, every woman has a unique view. The nonagenarian British street-photographer Dorothy Bohm explained that there was a benefit to being a woman: children and elderly subjects were put at ease. Bohm shot all around the world and, in London, worked with Sue Davies, the maverick who founded the Photographers’ Gallery in a former Lyons tearoom, the first public gallery dedicated to photography.

Men took photography seriously as soon as status and money arrived on the scene. In 1968, the National Portrait Gallery, under the aegis of its director Roy Strong, presented its first photographic exhibition with a major Cecil Beaton retrospective. The event marked an intersection of society gentlemen rather than an acceptance of the medium. “Women photographers are still vastly under-represented in scholarship and exhibitions of the modern period,” Nelson notes.

And then in the 1970s the auction houses sat up, initially offering vintage albumen prints from the 19th century and then modern works. And perhaps the most obvious litmus test of the gender equation is the marketplace: of the five most expensive photographs sold at auction only one is by a woman (Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #96).   

Today, colour photography, long considered the poor cousin to monochrome, is dominated by women with wild ideas. In the Thames & Hudson volumes readers can enjoy the seedy Americana of Nan Goldin, Ouka Leele’s vivid mash-ups of oil-paint and photographs and the Iranian portraits of Shirin Nashat which incorporate coloured Farsi calligraphy.

“Birds in Marseille, France”, by Dolorès Marat, 2003 (©Dolores Marat)

Perhaps the most atmospheric example of a woman who has made colour photography entirely her own is Dolorès Marat, the French photographer who once processed film for L’Oreal’s beauty magazine and whose woozy images are like half-remembered nights out. She produces skewed cinematic atmospheres in throbbing colours—blood-clot reds and queasy greens—in which people loiter in alleyways and birds swarm ominously across the sky. “Dolores Marat is to photography what Edith Piaf is to the French song,” observed one critic.

As an adolescent growing up in post-war Paris, Marat already knew that she wanted to be a photographer. No, said her mother, she would be a dressmaker. “I went to sewing school, without protest,” Marat
recalled. After several years making waistcoats, she strategically took a holiday job as a maid for the local photographer. “I’d do the cleaning in the morning,” she recalled. “In the afternoon the photographer taught me how the cameras worked, how to develop, to print, to touch up the passport photos. I think I picked everything up in a week.”

Marat’s story echoes the observation of Anne Brigman: “I wanted to go and be free, that was all I wanted.” Those liberties have been fundamental in shaping a modern medium. Women photographers shouldn’t represent a secret history of photography; they were truly its founding mothers. 


Anne Brigman: The Photographer of Enchantment by Kathleen Pyne is published by Yale, £50; Anne Brigman: A Visionary in Modern Photography is published by Rizzoli, £87; Women Photographers is published by Thames & Hudson, £35 (set);

The New Woman Behind the Camera is published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, £48

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