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.
I looked at people and events long before I owned a camera, more as a silent observer than a participant, sensing this was a woman’s place. It is no longer my place as a woman, but remains my style as a photographer.
Abigail Heyman (American photographer, 1942-2013) originally intended to become a writer and it wasn’t until after she graduated college at 22 years old that she began attending photography workshops. She had her first solo exhibition in 1972. Heyman had been a freelance photographer from 1974 to 1981, before she became the first woman to be invited to join Magnum Photos. Her first book, Growing up Female: A Personal Photo-Journal was published in 1974 and is considered a “landmark” in the field of photojournalism. For the book, she photographed women of all ages and backgrounds in everyday situations and portrayed them posing in the occupational roles to which they were restricted. Heyman herself described her work for the book as “one’s feminist point of view” of the narrow range of choices women had in life. In the mid 1980’s Abigail was director of the documentary and photojournalism department at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. In 1981, she cofounded Archive Pictures Inc., together with Harbutt, Mark Godfrey, Mary Ellen Mark and Joan Liftin. Heyman’s work is most identified with the Feminist Movement, but the idiosyncrasy and psychological approach of her work rose above the movement itself. Heyman wanted to show how women are at risk of being considered as an abstraction, instead of as members of the human race. In her desire to compose and produce the private and taboo moments of women’s lives, she claimed back both the femininity and the humanity of herself and her subjects. The pioneering feminist photographer left a legacy of extraordinary, eye-opening photography and her body of work is often described as brutally honest and harrowing; like the picture of herself having an abortion. She would shock and even anger the viewers, but they had no choice but to finally look at her truth.
Bertien van Manen (Dutch photographer, 1942-) studied French and German language and literature, before starting her career in fashion photography in 1974. After coming across Robert Frank’s 1958 book The Americans, van Manen decided to switch from fashion to documentary. She started travelling around, photographing everything she’d see. She had her first exhibition in The Photographers’ Gallery in London in 1977 and has since exhibited her work in the Museum of Modern Art, the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and the Fotomuseum Winterthur. Bertien’s camera of choice has always been an inexpensive snapshot camera; she once stated that these cameras allow her subjects to consider her “as a tourist or friend, who likes to take pictures”. She has photographed extensively in China, the Appalachian Mountains in the US and the former Soviet Union. Her work is found in major public collections and she has worked on commission and for long running projects. Van Manen would immerse herself in her work and produce intimate documentary pictures that would highlight the bitter side of everyday life situations. She often chose to photograph the overlooked, the underappreciated and the humble. Her 1980’s work is rooted in classic black and white photo reportage, but she later evolved a more personal, poetic form of colour photography.
Virginia Coventry (Australian photographer, 1942-) studied painting in Melbourne and London and that is obvious in her photographic work. Her work contains consistent themes and for over 4 decades she’s been exploring factors of art, such as space and colouring, while using different artistic mediums, such as paintings, collages, drawings and photography. She focuses on private expression through the use of abstraction and thrives on creating a sense of physical reality. Her photography includes pictures of environmental protests, such as the nuclear power industry and a land usage in Australia. She is also credited as the main editor for Critical Distance: Work with Photography/Politics/Writing. Her work has been exhibited in many public and private collections, museums and galleries. Coventry has been exploring the relationships between light, spatiality and colour and continues to explore – what she refers to as – the ‘acoustics’ of colour.
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 use simple, analogue cameras, allowing me to work spontaneously and less intimidatingly for the people I photograph. The uncomplicated cameras lie around in the house, everybody can use them.