Ever since its invention back in the 18th century, photography has been documenting life. At the same time, it focuses on inviting audiences to a rather subjective world while trying to be taken seriously as an art form. Photography has always been considered a male dominated profession, but luckily things are changing. Scholars, writers, bloggers, photography students and enthusiasts have been giving due to the female pioneers of the field. Most of them were always standing and/or hiding in the shadows, oblivious to how much they could acclaim and accomplish. Arguably, the technique, concepts and themes female photographers use, differ from those of male photographers. When most women were convinced that their place was in the kitchen and certainly not in the dark room, there were those who were struggling to surpass their male counterparts and work towards gaining respect and recognition for their work.
20th Century Female Photographers
A photograph isn’t necessarily a lie, but nor is it the truth. It’s more of a fleeting, subjective impression. What I like most about photography is the moment that you can’t anticipate; you have to be constantly watching for it, ready to welcome the unexpected.
Astrid Kirchherr (German photographer, 1938-2020) never had anticipated that she would forever be associated with The Beatles. She’d met them by accident and eventually became known for photographing the rock band’s early days in Hamburg. Kirchherr took a photography course at the College of Design and Fashion in Hamburg, where she demonstrated a talent for black and white photography. She later worked as photographer Reinhard Wolf’s assistant, before getting involved in the European existentialist movement. At 26, Astrid became a freelance photographer and, with her colleague Max Scheler, took behind the scenes photographs of The Beatles during the filming of A Hard Day’s Night. Kirchherr was a quite confident photographer in a mainly male dominated field, even though she often talked about how difficult it was to be accepted as a female photographer in the 1960’s. She also admitted that she was not good at business because of insufficient organisation, and had never really looked after the negatives of her work to prove ownership. Her business partner Ulf Krüger successfully found many of Astrid’s negatives and photographs and had them copyrighted, although he believes that Kirchherr lost money over the years because of people using her photographs without permission. She mostly shot in graphic black and white and used to position her subjects before a portraiture session. In many ways, Astrid was an eccentric bohemian who appreciated the ways in which art had in impact on pop culture and vice versa. Starting in the mid 1990’s, Kirchherr and Krüger operated the K&K photography shop in Hamburg, offering custom vintage prints, books and artwork for sale. She died on the 12 th of May 2020, in Hamburg.
Martine Franck (Belgian photographer, 1938-2012) was a British-Belgian documentary and portrait photographer. She was born in Antwerp and spent her childhood in the United States and in England. She studied Art History at the University of Madrid, then at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris. In 1963, Franck’s photography career started, following trips to the Far East, having taken pictures with her cousin’s Leica camera. She officially began her career as a photographer as a photography assistant at Life magazine. She was part of the first Vu agency in 1970 and helped found the agency Viva two years later. She joined Magnum Photos in 1980 and was a member for over 32 years. She took portraits of artists and writers, but her main focus was humanitarian reportages. She had photographed every production of the Théâtre du Soleil since its founding. Martine was well known for her documentary-style photographs of important cultural figures and of remote or marginalized communities, such as Tibetan Buddhist monks, elderly French people, and isolated Gaelic speakers. She worked outside the studio, using a 35mm camera, in black and white film. The British Royal Photographic Society has described her work as “firmly rooted in the tradition of French humanist documentary photography”. Throughout her career Franck, who was sometimes described as a feminist, was uncomfortable being in the shadow of her famous husband, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and wanted to be recognized for her own work. In 1970, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London planned to stage Franck’s first solo exhibition, but when she saw that the invitations included her husband’s name, she cancelled the show. Martine was a key figure of 20 th century photographic art; she devoted herself to a career in photography and chose a field that included very few women at the time. She managed to carve out a place for herself by concentrating on subjects rarely addressed by her male colleagues, such as the work environment, women, old age, solidarity and humanitarian issues.
Helga Paris (German photographer, 1938-) occupies an outstanding position in German photography and is mostly known for her black and white photographs of daily life in East Germany. She was born just over a year before the outbreak of the WWII in Gollnow. In May 1945, while the war ended in defeat for Germany, frontier changes mandated by the victorious powers and large scale ethnic cleansing forced Helga’s mother to flee with her two daughters. They ended up in Zossen, where she was raised by a community of mostly women, many of whom worked. She started studying Fashion Design at 22, worked as a fashion lecturer and as a commercial artist, before starting to take pictures with a 6x6 Flexaret camera. Paris described herself as a self-taught photographer and believed that much of her photographic passion and skill was acquired from her two aunts who were themselves enthusiastic photographers, constantly taking pictures through the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, which now Paris herself keeps carefully stored in a collection of show boxes adapted for the purpose. She began taking photography seriously around 1967. Her first freelance job was a slaughtering at a home in Thüringen; in 1970 she shot fashion photographs for a youth magazine and in 1972 she joined the National Association of Visual Artists, which was virtually a prerequisite for success in what was now her chosen career. Since 1996 Paris has been a member of the Berlin Academy of Arts. Helga would often look at her subjects through the eyes of an explorer, who is inspired and galvanized by a new environment.
We will continue talking about female names that left their mark in photography and about contemporary female photographers who are still to emerge. There are a lot of female photographers out there deserving of praise and we can only hope to cover as many of them as we can. Please, follow this space to find out more.
I was very ill at ease with people in social situations, and I realized that if I photographed I wouldn’t have to chat.