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
Since I assume my audience to be women, I am participating in the construction of a woman’s language and culture. The language I’m talking about is largely nonverbal. It depends on the participation of people who either have a common experience to share or have access to identifying with what that experience must be like.
Honey Lee Cottrell
Marrie Bot (Dutch photographer, 1946-) initially started her career as a graphic designer and then went on to study art at the Vrije Academie in The Hague. By the time she started focussing on photography, she was 30 years old and had already been settled as an independent artist in Rotterdam. She experimented with street photography, portraiture and nude photography before finally deciding on documentary photography. She has been working as a photographer since 1976 and has an on-going project entitled Hanging Around, of which she exhibits - from time to time - pictures of situations she meets during her travels and which she describes as the particular of everyday life. Bot works on long-term photo projects with delicate social-cultural subjects – with the help of grants – and has several publications under her name. She awarded the Maria Austria Photography Prize in 1989 for her photobook Bezwaard Bestaan, which was about mentally handicapped people. She was also awarded the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Art for her complete oeuvre, in 1990. Bot isn’t afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions and often chooses socio-political themes which are still thought to be a taboo. She always prefers researching her subjects before every project; subjects such as European pilgrimages, Dutch tribes, Alzheimer patients, the mentally challenged and so many others. Marrie’s work is purchased by museums, archives, institutes and private collections. Her photographs have been exhibited all over Europe in various galleries and museums. Bot has been a member of selection committees for documentary photo projects. In 2008 she was a member of the jury for the First Appearances Award at the International Documentary Film festival IDFA in Amsterdam. Today, Bot gives lectures and paper presentations at symposia, workshops and master classes at art schools and visual anthropological studies.
Honey Lee Cottrell (American photographer and filmmaker, 1946-2015) is a well- known name among female photographers. She started learning photography in her 20’s and went on to receive a BA in film studies from San Francisco State University, at the age of 35. She was always interested in gender equality, feminism, human sexuality and the LGBTQ community and her papers on such subjects are part of the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University Library. Cottrell started exhibiting her work in the mid 70’s in San Francisco and soon became known for her portraits of women. Cottrell collaborated with videographer and sex educator Joani Blank in 1978 and co published the book I am My Lover. The themes of the book were women and their reflections on masturbation and self-pleasure. Sweet Dreams was Cottrell’s first film and is described by film critics as part of a tradition of the ‘feminist autobiographic art of masturbation demonstration’. Others have described the book as ground-breaking, since it combines feminism and lesbian erotica. All these milestones were achieved in the 70’s, but Honey Lee kept on working. Through the 80’s and 90’s, she was a contributing photographer for a lesbian sex magazine. She focused on lesbian culture and feminist lesbian portraiture. At times, Cottrell’s work was considered controversially pornographic, even by the most feminist of critics. Honey Lee was a visionary and a pioneer and she revolutionized the female nude, while validating women’s right to guilty-free pleasure. She photographed her lovers and friends and documented queer and kink cultures for decades with her first camera, a 35mm Nikkormat. She was exacting and precise in the photographs and collages she created, as well as in her dark room work. Anthropologist and sex theorist Gayle Rubin stated that Cottrell ‘had a kind of strength and solidity that seemed to anchor things around her; as if she provided the gravity that held various circling planets in their stable orbits. And she just kept generating images, events, relationships, connections’.
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.
Sometimes my pictures are like journal entries. They document my interior states of being as well as situate this experience in the world. I also use these photos in the process of constructing myself. When I share that process with others my intentions are twofold: to be honest about who I am; to assist in the viewer’s process of self-construction.