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
Photography is a strange phenomenon. You trust your eye and you cannot help but bare your soul. One’s vision finds of necessity the form suitable to express it.
• Helen Levitt (American photographer, 1913-2009) was best known as “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time”. Her New York street photography was iconic and she remained active as a photographer for nearly 70 years. She first learned how to process film as a commercial portrait photographer’s assistant and promptly took her 35mm camera to the streets, intimately capturing the daily activities of women, children and minority communities. Her extraordinary talent moved the art world and The New York Times described her images as “fleeting moments of surpassing lyricism, mystery and quiet drama”. Levitt learned composition by looking at paintings in museums, while also familiarizing herself with the works of the members of the Workers Film and Photo League. In 1939, her works were included in the inaugural exhibition of The Museum of Modern Art’s photography department. She went on to receive two consecutive Guggenheim Fellowships in 1959 and 1960, and today, her work can be found in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others. Helen Levitt’s playful and poetic photographs are an inspiration to female photographers everywhere.
• Esther Bubley (American photographer, 1921-1998) was born in 1921 and became interested in photography while in high school. After two years of study at a College in Wisconsin and a year at the Minneapolis School of Design, she decided she was ready to be a professional photographer. She was a preeminent freelance photographer during the “golden age” of American photojournalism, from 1945 to 1965. At a time when most post-war American women were anchored by home and family, Bubley was a thriving professional, traveling throughout the world, photographing stories for magazines such as LIFE and others. Like most great photojournalists, she found her art in everyday life and she successfully balanced her artistic ambitions with the demands of commercial publishing. Esther Bubley isn’t a familiar name to most photographers; nonetheless, she was a quietly revolutionary figure. She was a product of her time and her time was one of radical change for women.
• Martha Holmes (American photographer, 1923-2006) was studying Art at the University of Louisville and at the Speed Art Museum when someone suggested her working at the Louisville Courier Journal and The Louisville Times newspapers. She was hired and began as assistant to a color photographer and only got the chance to work as a full-time black and white photographer after the male photographers of the newspaper were called to service in World War II. She soon went to work for LIFE magazine, covering the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings during the height of the committee’s investigations into the entertainment industry and alleged communist propaganda. For three decades, Holmes worked as a freelancer for the publication, producing work that remains remarkable for its variety. Her work resonated because it allowed her subjects to shine through and offer personal insight into them. By 1950, she was named one of the top 10 female photographers in America.
• Inge Morath (American-Austrian photographer, 1923-2002) joined the Magnum Photos Agency in 1953 and became a full photographer with the agency in 1955. Born in Austria, Morath finished high school, passed the Abitur and was obliged to complete six months of service for the Reich Labour Service, before entering Berlin University. Towards the end of World War II, she was drafted for factory service in Tempelhof, alongside Ukrainian prisoners of war. During an attack on the factory by Russian bombers, she fled on foot to Austria. In later years, Morath refused to photograph war, preferring to work on stories that showed its consequences. When the war ended, she worked as a translator and journalist and in 1948, she was hired by Heute, an illustrated magazine published by the US Information Agency in Munich. Morath encountered photographer Ernst Haas in post-war Vienna and brought his work to the magazine’s attention. Morath wrote articles to accompany Haas’ pictures and in 1949, they were both invited by Robert Capa to join the newly-founded Magnum Photos in Paris, where she would work as an editor. She began taking pictures in 1951 and was first published in 1953. Morath’s achievements during her first decade of work as a photographer are significant. Along with Eve Arnold, she was among the first women members of Magnum Photos, which remains to this day a predominantly male organization.
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.
Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.