The Women of Experimental Photography

Surrealism began in the early 1920s when artists started to experiment with photomontage, collage, double exposure and solarization techniques; unleashing emotions freely, without the weight of conscious thought. Photographers explored the unconscious by making the imaginary real. It gave woman a voice through which they were able to express their beliefs and experiences through challenging gender roles and conventions.

In the surrealist movement, women were innovative creators and not just muses for their male counterparts. There were many notable artists exploring alternative processes, such as Florence Henri, Grete Stern, Dora Maar, Kati Horna, Hannah Hoch, Lee Miller, Francesca Woodman and Claude Cahun.

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Florence Henri (1893-1982, American)

Florence Henri was a central figure of avant-garde photography. Between the 1920s-1940s, she produced iconic work pushing the boundaries across photomontage, abstract photograms and collage. Henri’s background in painting influenced her artfully crafted images showing inventive composition and perspective. Relating painting to her photographic practice, Henri once stated, “what I want above all in photography is to compose the image as I do with paintings. It is necessary that the volumes, lines, the shadows and light obey my will and say what I want them to say.” Influenced by Constructivism and Cubism, she began presenting multiple perspectives through the use of reflections and mirrors—showing an interaction between the subject and the object, asking the viewer to distinguish what is real. Her complex body of work showed the capacity of the camera combined with the artists vision to create images that had multiple layers of meaning.

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Grete Stern (1904-1999, German)

Since the 1930’s, Greta Stern was working as a photographer focusing on gender discrimination and stereotypes. During her time contributing for the psychoanalysis column of the women’s magazine, Idilio, Stern developed her photomontage aesthetic. For the magazine’s column on dreams, she created 150 photomontages—each image had a twist with a commentary on gender, domestic roles, and the disbalance of power between the sexes.

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Dora Maar (1907-1997, French)

Dora Maar developed a body of work encompassing surreal collages, photomontage, collage and portraits. Although she had faded into obscurity, her accomplishments were celebrated posthumously. Maar photographed many famous artists of the 20th century and inspired by Man Ray and Brassai. Her photography took on its own unique style—poetic in its emotional depth and experimental. She was at the center of the surrealist movement with her connection to André Breton and George Bataille. Being the source of inspiration to a lot of artists within the surrealist circles, she was both a creator and a muse. In her portraits of female painters, she often conveyed the shadow aspect of human nature, along with the strength and sensuality of the women artists in her life, such as Nusch Eluard and Leonor Fini.

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Kati Horna (1912-2000, Hungarian)

In Kati Horna’s experimental works, she used photomontage and layered image techniques that she learned from Moholy-Nagy. There was a delicate quality to her photography as she explored a myriad of emotions, creating an aura that was disquieting and macabre—using masks, mannequins, sculptures and antique dolls as props. The 1960s was a significant time for her career as she developed her craft and projects for magazines, exploring the issues on gender, impermanence and desire. In her staged compositions, she created mysterious scenes about the transient aspect of reality.

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Hannah Hoch (1889-1978, German)

Hannah Hoch was the inventor of photomontage and an artist of the Dadaist movement of the Weimar era. Her work was ahead of its time and used both photomontage and collage. Despite her talents and inventiveness, she faced many challenges being one of the few women involved in the male dominated Dada scene. Regardless, she flourished with her work which challenged gender norms, class and race—producing work that critiqued society and its perception of women and ideas about femininity.

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Lee Miller (1907-1977, American)

Lee Miller is largely known for her photojournalistic, fashion and fine art photography, as well as her creative collaborations with Man Ray. As a couple, they inspired one another and produced beautiful work and portraits. Despite being a muse to many artists, Miller refused to be defined by her gender or beauty—she was an artist with her own voice. She contributed to the discovery of the solarisation method while working in the darkroom—inversing blacks and whites, creating a silver-like halo around objects. Throughout her career, she continued to create provocative and intimate images. Her fierce nature and independence were not confined to gender roles and she was often drawn to creating photos that were framed from an unconventional point of view.

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Claude Cahun (1894-1954, French)

The chameleon and gender fluid French avant-garde photographer Claude Cahun created many portraits of herself in the 1920’s, taking on the role of different characters using costumes and makeup. A major focus in her work was challenging gender norms and identity, strongly believing that the way we view gender was influenced by childhood and societal conditioning. For Claude, self-portraiture was a way to reveal the multifaceted aspects of her nature, thereby becoming an intimate exploration of the self by adopting multiple personas.

Dina Shirin
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Dina Shirin is a photographer from Latvia based in New York. She spends her time working on portrait... [read more]