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
Some people take photographs, I find them.
Jane Bown (English photographer, 1925-2014) has been described as “a kind of English Cartier-Bresson” and has received widespread critical acclaim for her work, especially her black and white portraits. Her minimalistic approach and use of natural light make her a national treasure in Britain and her pictures tend to go beyond the physical expression of her subjects, only to bring something profound about them. Bown was born in a small English village and studied photography at Guildford School of Art. She began her career as a wedding portrait photographer until 1949, when she started working for The Observer; her career there spanned for six decades. The fact that Bown was working within a male-dominated industry was not an issue for her, since her modest and reflective personality would become her biggest asset as she developed an inimitable photographic technique. Unlike her male contemporary counterparts, she had little interest in complex equipment, often all she required was one reel of film, fifteen minutes with her subject and some natural light. Her extensive portfolio ranged from women’s demonstrations, political strikes and poignant street photography to her more recognised portraits of cultural figures, such as Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher, Björk, Eve Arnold and many more.
Mariana Yampolsky (American-Mexican photographer, 1925-2002) was born in Illinois and received her Bachelor of Arts in social sciences from the University of Chicago in 1944. A year later, she went to Mexico to study, became a Mexican citizen and spent the rest of her life there. One of the most prominent and influential artists of Mexico, Mariana became a part of the Taller de Grafica Popular, who attempted to create and maintain an independent space for the collaborative production of lithographs, posters and broadsides for the public. In 1948, the Taller collectively produced a portfolio called Prints of the Mexican Revolution; Yampolsky contributed her images of Emiliano Zapata and became the first woman member of the studio’s executive committee shortly after that. While best known for her photography, she did printing, lithography and painting. She also worked as a curator and editor. Yampolsky began her work in photography in 1948, initially to record her personal travels and the activities of the Taller. She studied photography at the San Carlos Academy with Lola Alvarez Bravo and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. The classic division of Mexican art into pre Hispanic, colonial and post Independence periods appears frequently in Mariana’s work, along with classic Mexican images such as cacti, agave plants, horses, field workers, masks, women working and skulls with themes such as scarcity, death and poverty. Yampolsky had naturally accumulated heritage and obviously accessed this heritage with her creative spirit, freedom, personal curiosity, respect and good humour. She was recognized by the Sistema Nacional de Creadores of the Secretariat of Culture and received Miguel Othón de Mendizábal Prize from INAH in 2000. She was honored posthumously by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in 2012 for her life’s work.
Rigmor Mydtskov (Danish photographer, 1925-2010) was a court photographer, remembered for her portraits of artists performing in Danish theatres, but especially for her many portraits of Queen Margrethe and other members of the Danish royal family. She learned photography from her father and would often disappear into the darkroom. In 1944, she completed her training as a portrait photographer and copyist and – ten years later – began working as a theatre photographer. It was her empathy and artistic approach that helped her in her theatre work and it was in the theatre that she learned about the human character, photography and decor. Her theatre photographs were often taken during actual performances, revealing additional intensity and action. She worked with great concentration and without interruption. For a short period in 1952, she worked as a still photographer for film director Johan Jacobsen at Flamingo Film. In 1962, she married Steen Rønne, a gifted artistic photographer, with whom she shared a studio. As a portrait photographer, Mydtskov was gentle, intuitive and confident. Her life’s work is a result of a constant, concentrated effort and has also been offered at auction multiple times.
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.
People ask me, ‘What kind of pictures do you take?’ And I don’t know how to answer, because I can’t stand the word ‘artistic’ — it’s not important to me if something is art, or not. When I see a photograph that moves me, I don’t wonder if it’s art….