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 serious 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 theme female photographers use differ from those of male photographers. At a time when most women were convinced that their place was in the kitchen and certainly not in the dark room, there were those that were struggling to surpass their male counterparts and work towards gaining respect and recognition for their work.
I never would have believed that I would be so strong and not lose my head in a situation where the wind of collective insanity is blowing.
Dorothea Lange (American documentary photographer and photojournalist, 1895-1965) had almost no interest in classifying her work as art; her motivation was to effect social change. She was educated in photography at Columbia University in New York City and was informally apprenticed to several New York photography studios. A few years after that she established a portrait studio in San Francisco, but with the onset of the Great Depression, Lange had to start photographing life outside the studio. That’s when other photographers started noticing her. Lange’s Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration humanized the consequences of the Great Depression and influenced the development of documentary photography. In 2003 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and in 2006 an elementary school was named in her honour in Nipomo, California. In 2008 she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.
Tina Modotti (Italian photographer, 1896-1942) was a captivating personality whose life reads like a novel: an extraordinary adventure with a tragic end. She wasn’t just a photographer; she was a revolutionary, a seamstress, an anti-Fascist activist, a model, an actress and a prisoner. Modotti was supposedly introduced to photography as a young girl in Italy, where her uncle maintained a photography studio. Later in the U.S. – where she immigrated at the age of 16 – her father briefly ran a similar studio in San Francisco. While in Los Angeles, she met photographer Edward Weston and slowly developed as a fine art photographer and documentarian. In 1922 Modotti moved to Mexico, where she captured the city’s sights and people. Her influential work blended formal rigor with social awareness and many attested to how she wasn’t afraid to dive into contemporary politics and dangerous action. Even though her autopsy concluded that she died of heart failure, there are those who suspected that her death was foul play.
Berenice Abbott (American photographer, 1898-1991) is considered a central figure in the photographic circles of the 19th century. She studied sculpture and was close friends with avant-garde artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. In fact, it was Man Ray who introduced her to photography. She began a series of documentary photographs and mastered the medium in no time. Abbott is best known for her portraits of between-the-wars 20th century cultural figures, New York City photographs of architecture and urban design of the 1930’s and science interpretation in the 1940’s to 1960’s. She never believed in manipulating her work, in both subject matter and developing processes. The film “Berenice Abbott: A View of the 20th Century” showed 200 of her black and white photographs and suggests that Abbott was a “proud proto-feminist”; someone who was ahead of her time in feminist theory. Before the film was completed she questioned, “The world doesn’t like independent women, why, I don’t know, but I don’t care."
Aenne Biermann (German photographer, 1898-1933) was one of the major proponents of New Objectivity, a significant art movement that developed in Germany in the 1920’s. A self-taught photographer, Biermann received an education in culture and music. Her first photography subjects were her two children and the majority of her photographs were shot between 1925 and 1933. Her work became internationally known in the late 1920’s, when it was part of every major exhibition of German photography. The year 1926 began a period of intense productivity for Biermann that lasted until her death at the age of 35. In those years, Biermann published in international photography journals and participated in numerous exhibitions, including a solo show in 1929 at the Kunstkabinett, Munich. This exposure led to art historian Franz Roh’s choice to feature her work in the monograph 60 Fotos: Aenne Biermann (1930), securing her place in the photographic discourse of the era.
Ilse Bing (German photographer, 1899-1998) was a leading avant-garde and commercial photographer who produced pioneering monochrome images during the inter-war era. She developed her lifelong interest in photography when she started photographing buildings for her dissertation in architecture. Bing turned her photographs upside-down and sideways to assess their compositional relationships; she was attracted to the banal details of urban living and had established a reputation as “queen of the Leica”, since she exclusively shot with a Leica camera. Bing’s work kept evolving throughout the years; the softness that characterized her work in the 1930’s gave way to hard forms and clear lines, with a sense of harshness and isolation. Bing's photographic activity subsided when she moved to the United States in 1941, but continued until 1959, when she decided she “had said all that she had to say with photography”. She was among the first to use solarization, the electronic flash and the 35mm camera.
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.
That frame of mind that you need to make fine pictures of a very wonderful subject, you cannot do it by not being lost yourself.