11 Pioneering Women Photographers, from Julia Margaret Cameron to Helen Levitt
From Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz to Man Ray and Walker Evans, there is no doubt that the canonized history of photography is dominated by the names of men. Often regrettably omitted from this narrative, however, are the many women who made pioneering strides in the medium.
Currently, two Paris museums—Musée D’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie—aim to exhume these histories and bodies of work in “Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839–1945,” the first-ever exhibition in France to look at the history of photography through a gender-specific lens.
The 11 female photographers below, all of whom are included in the exhibition, exercised technical and aesthetic ingenuity, asserted their own voices and subjectivities, and broke into arenas traditionally monopolized by men. As the exhibition argues, perhaps it is high time to recast the photographic canon with these artists in mind.
Influenced by early photographer Oscar G. Rejlander and Pre-Raphaelite painting, British pictorialist Julia Margaret Cameron captured tightly framed portraits of friends, and staged scenes from literature and religion, all rendered in soft focus. Through this effect, Cameron strove to elevate photography to the level of fine art. Emotive and psychological, her photographs reveal an ability to communicate not only sitters’ outward appearances but also their inner qualities—and explore the meaning of “truth” in representation.
One of just two female founding members of Alfred Stieglitz’s pictorialist Photo-Secession Society, Iowa-born Gertrude Käsebier exhibited and published her portraits of mothers and children, and of Native Americans from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, to overwhelming critical acclaim in her time. A businesswoman as well as an artist, Käsebier made a living from photography in an age when few women were part of the professional world, even urging other women to follow in her footsteps.
Originally inspired by Käsebier, Imogen Cunningham later became an original member of Group f/64, which rejected Pictorialism and championed the “straight” photography of Edward Weston. One of the only women in the group, which included Ansel Adams and Weston himself, she is lauded for crisply detailed images of plants and flowers, as well as portraits of illustrious creatives like Frida Kahlo and Cary Grant. Cunningham also photographed male nudes—a groundbreaking and taboo subject for a female artist at the time.
From her adopted, gender-neutral first name to her lesbian relationship with illustrator Marcel Moore, French photographer and surrealist writer Claude Cahun (née Lucy Schwob) carefully crafted her own identity and challenged both gender and sexual norms. This spirit of boundary-pushing self exploration also extended to her curious, and often humorous, photographic self-portraits. By combining cropped hair and masculine garb with accentuated lashes and puckered lips, Cahun presented gender as both fluid and fabricated, and prefigured feminist, performative photography by the likes of contemporary practitioner Cindy Sherman.
By 1928, German photographer Germaine Krull had already worked as a fashion photographer for Sonia Delaunay and Paul Poiret, explored self-portraiture, and photographed the female nude with erotic and lesbian underpinnings. That year, she presented a body of pioneering architectural images in Métal, one of the first photobooks produced as a stand-alone artwork, and began shooting for VU magazine, just one of the many publications to which she contributed. A left-wing political activist, Krull captured subjects from working-class Parisians to communities in Southeast Asia with emotional sensitivity and formal innovation.
Frankfurt-born Ilse Bing moved to Paris in the early ’30s, where she was surrounded by the avant-garde community. Working solely with a hand-held Leica—the only professional Parisian photographer to do so during the decade—Bing captured street scenes, people, and architecture from unexpected angles and in high contrast. She published photojournalistic work in both German and French publications, shot for fashion magazines including Vogue Paris and Harper’s BAZAAR, and showed alongside male contemporaries including Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kértesz, and Man Ray.
At just 25, Margaret Bourke-White impressed Henry Luce of Fortune magazine with her photographs of American industry and became the publication’s first staff photographer. When Luce created LIFE in 1936, Bourke-White was the first female photographer on staff, and her work graced the magazine’s inaugural cover. As photojournalism assignments took her around the U.S. and abroad, Bourke-White’s remarkable oeuvre grew to document pressing social issues—from the devastation and racial inequity of the Great Depression, to German concentration camps (she was the first woman accredited by the U.S. military as an official war correspondent), to South African apartheid.
Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA (1936) is one of the most iconic images to come out of The Great Depression in America. Drafted to photograph for the Resettlement Administration—a government program intended to aid rural workers affected by the Depression—Lange’s images of migrant workers are both illuminating records of poverty and intimate portraits born out of empathy. Using what she described as a hands-off approach, Lange was able to authentically capture subjects in the context of their social and cultural landscape.
To create her expressive images of modern dance, Barbara Morgan used the 1930s-invented “synchroflash” technique, in which multiple flash bulbs could be placed around a space to light a photograph with greater precision and drama. By spotlighting areas of importance, Morgan communicated the dynamic movements and spatial dimensions of dance in still images. Morgan and pioneering choreographer Martha Graham’s collaborative book, Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs (1941), has been widely regarded as the authority on photographic documentation of dance.
Interested in Surrealism, Lee Miller innovated new photographic techniques with Man Ray, creating her own images of nude figures that confounded gender lines. In 1940, she began a career as a photojournalist for Vogue, later moving into the role of official war correspondent for the magazine, which published her candid images of French combat zones and the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, as well as an image, taken by David E. Scherman, of Miller herself sitting in Hitler’s bathtub.
The year she turned 30, Brooklyn native Helen Levitt’s pioneering images of New York City’s streets were recognized with a major solo exhibition at MoMA. Now considered one of the leading street photographers of the last century, Levitt drew early influence from seasoned documentary photographer Ben Shahn, as well as Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans (both of whom she befriended). During the late ’30s and early ’40s, she produced and published photographs that masterfully captured the poetry and subtle drama of urban human life—and anticipated her transition to filmmaking in the late 1940s.
Part two of “Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839–1945,” which covers 1918–1945, is on view at Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Oct. 14, 2015–Jan. 24, 2016.
Part one of “Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839–1945,” which covers 1839–1919, is on view at Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, Oct. 14, 2015–Jan. 24, 2016.