In Brigman’s ethereal photographs, rendered in soft and gauzy film, women are not pictured in the home, but in the unconfined spaces of the American West—the rocky cliffs and winsome headlands of the Sierra Nevadas, amid the juniper and pine. In a visual entwining of body and landscape, the female nude is often posed among knotted twisting trees, the limbs and branches so deeply entangled they first appear as one. The photographs for Brigman were a sublime expression of unity with the earth, a recognition of the sacred in the natural world, and they would become an important emblem of West Coast modernism.
Brigman’s love of nature was rooted in her childhood spent in Hawaii. She was the daughter of a wealthy missionary family—a “child of the tropics,” as she described herself. At 16 years old, Brigman moved with her family to Los Gatos in northern California. Nine years later, in 1894, she married Martin Brigman, a sea captain. They sailed the Pacific together before eventually settling in the bohemian scene of the Bay Area, where she began taking photographs of her sisters and friends in the high altitudes of the nearby mountains, regions chiefly mountaineered by men. “They were real, modern women, like her, acting on their own will, not professional studio models who presented only conventionalized bodies,” scholar Kathleen Pyne writes in “A Tale of Two Coasts: Anne Brigman’s ‘Wonderful Terrible.’”