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
One of just two female founding members of
Originally inspired by Käsebier, Imogen Cunningham later became an original member of which rejected Pictorialism and championed the “straight” photography of
From her adopted, gender-neutral first name to her lesbian relationship with illustrator Marcel Moore, French photographer and
By 1928, German photographer Germaine Krull had already worked as a fashion photographer for
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
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
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.
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