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Photography, a women’s story?
Major Questions in Art History
09.10.2020 | Sibylle Vabre

Sabine Weiss, Sabine Weiss chez Vogue, Paris, 1956, © Studio Fllebé

At the time of its invention, in 1839, photography was seen as a young medium with democratic goals, far from the gender discrimination that burdened the academic training of artists. From the outset women took up photography and made major contributions to its history, as well as its technical and aesthetic innovations. This is abundantly illustrated in the exhibition Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839-1945, which was held at the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie in 2015-2016.

Amongst the female pioneers of photography, Anna Atkins (1799-1871) is recognized for her mastery of the cyanotype – a photographic process characterised by blue tints developed by John Herschel (1792-1871) in 1842 – that she used in a botanical publication as early as 1843, inaugurating the use of photography in book illustration. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was an important representative of pictorialism. Although the movement was developed in amateur clubs, several women became involved as it aimed to raise the status of photography to that of art, including Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934) and Anne Brigman (1869-1950). Many of them made their mark in pictorialist circles before carrying out other experiments, following the upheavals of the world by founding an aesthetic adapted to modernity. For example Laure Albin Guillot (1879-1962), who explored microphotography amongst other things, opened the way to abstraction. Many of the photographers who undertook the formal research characteristic of the interwar period were linked to avant-garde movements, such as Florence Henri (1893-1982), whose vocabulary mixed the deconstruction of space and geometric forms echoing cubism and constructivism, and Dora Maar (1907-1997), whose photomontages reflect a dreamlike surrealist iconography. The book Métal (1928) by Germaine Krull (1897-1985) condensed her reflections on photography: the innovative angles and framing complemented modern architecture, making the artist a figure of the New Vision photographic movement.

Most of these artists attest to the increasing professionalisation of photographers in the early 20th century: abandoning the model of the first photographers from the bourgeoisie, female photographers became portraitists, architectural photographers, photojournalists, and worked in advertising. Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) claimed this in her manifesto “Photography as a Profession for Women” (1913). She also worked for the emergence of straight photography in the United States. Documentary photography experienced a new expansion in the United States through the work of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and Tina Modotti (1896-1942), acquiring a social and political dimension. It stood out from the ethnographic photography in the work of Constance Stuart Larrabee (1914-2000), who was also known for being the first South African war correspondent. Embodied by Sabine Weiss (1924) in France, the humanist photography movement developed after the war, gaining a certain uncanniness in the scenes that Diane Arbus (1923-1971) captured on the streets of New York. Similarly Paz Errázuriz (born in 1944) turned her lens towards marginalised people, but her work was part of a genuine political resistance under the Chilean dictatorship.

Since the 1970s photographic practices have undergone an exponential development and diversification, from documentary to more hybrid forms, particularly with the emergence of so-called “fine art” photography. Joining the Düsseldorf School influenced by Hilla (1934-2015) and Bernd Becher (1931-2007), Candida Höfer (born in 1944) gave a breath of fresh air to documentary aesthetics with her large format frontal architectural photographs. Among the practices with which photography is associated, text has played a prominent role, as seen in the visual poems of Lenora de Barros (born in 1953) and the narrative works of Sophie Calle (born in 1953). Between reality and fiction the medium became a favoured tool for questioning representation and the visibility of identities. It is identity that is at the heart of the work of Nan Goldin (born in 1953), whose autobiographical scope and rawness have revolutionised the relationship to the intimate. Ishiuchi Miyako (born in 1947) explores the medium’s expressive capacities by first photographing places, revealing part of her personal history through images of Yokosuka, the city where she grew up, which is marked by an American presence. Some artists explore the theatrical potential of photography to probe the imaginary, such as Pushpamala N. (born in 1956), who quotes and diverts Indian cultural stereotypes and images drawn from Western art. Others approach the image from an openly militant perspective, such as Zanele Muholi (born in 1972), who works on the representation of black lesbian South Africans, among other things.

In addition to their diverse practices, some photographers also contributed to the history and theory of photography, such as Lucia Moholy (1894-1989), who wrote a cultural history of the medium in A Hundred Years of Photography, 1839-1939 (1939), as well as Gisèle Freund (1908-2000), whose Photography and Society (published in French in 1974 and English in 1980), based on her pioneering thesis on the sociology of photography, remains an important reference.

Explore the artists
1899 — Germany | 1998 — United States
Ilse Bing - AWARE

Ilse Bing

1869 — Hawaii | 1950 — United States
Anne Brigman - AWARE

Anne Brigman

1883 — 1976 | United States
Imogen Cunningham - AWARE

Imogen Cunningham

1879 — 1962 | France
Laure Albin Guillot - AWARE

Laure Albin Guillot

1893 — United States | 1982 — France
Florence Henri - AWARE

Florence Henri

1907 — 1997 | France
Dora Maar - AWARE

Dora Maar

1897 — Poland | 1985 — Germany
Germaine Krull - AWARE

Germaine Krull

1895 — 1965 | United States
Dorothea Lange - AWARE

Dorothea Lange

1896 — Italy | 1942 — Mexico
Tina Modotti - AWARE

Tina Modotti

1924 | Switzerland
Sabine Weiss - AWARE

Sabine Weiss

1944 | Chile
Paz Errázuriz - AWARE

Paz Errázuriz

1934 — 2015 | Germany
Hilla Becher - AWARE

Hilla Becher

1944 | Germany
Candida Höfer - AWARE

Candida Höfer

1953 | Brazil
Lenora de Barros - AWARE

Lenora de Barros

1953 | United States
Nan Goldin - AWARE

Nan Goldin

1956 | India
Pushpamala N. - AWARE

Pushpamala N.

1972 | South Africa
Zanele Muholi - AWARE

Zanele Muholi

1894 — Czech republic | 1989 — Switzerland
Lucia Moholy - AWARE

Lucia Moholy

1908 — Germany | 2000 — France
Gisèle Freund - AWARE

Gisèle Freund

1864 — 1952 | United States
Frances Benjamin Johnston - AWARE

Frances Benjamin Johnston

1896 — Poland | 1990 — United States
Lotte Jacobi - AWARE

Lotte Jacobi

1901 — Austria | 1983 — United States
Lisette Model - AWARE

Lisette Model

1913 — 2009 | United States
Helen Levitt - AWARE

Helen Levitt

1949 | France
Sophie Ristelhueber - AWARE

Sophie Ristelhueber

1951 — 1997 | Switzerland
Hannah Villiger - AWARE

Hannah Villiger

1962 | Cameroon
Angèle  Etoundi Essamba - AWARE

Angèle Etoundi Essamba

1957 | Spain
Ouka Leele - AWARE

Ouka Leele

1852 — 1934 | United States
Gertrude Käsebier - AWARE

Gertrude Käsebier

1910 — Canada | 1997 — United States
Ida Lansky - AWARE

Ida Lansky

1934 | United States 

Lorraine O’Grady - AWARE

Lorraine O’Grady

1956 | Morocco
Lalla Essaydi - AWARE

Lalla Essaydi

1914 — United Kingdom | 2000 — United States of America
Constance Stuart Larrabee - AWARE

Constance Stuart Larrabee

1941 — 2010 | Germany
Sibylle Bergemann - AWARE

Sibylle Bergemann

1912 — German Empire | 2000 — Germany
Marta Hoepffner - AWARE

Marta Hoepffner

1799 — 1871 | United Kingdom
Anna Atkins - AWARE

Anna Atkins

1948 — New Zealand | 2014 — England
Alexis Hunter - AWARE

Alexis Hunter

1959 — 2018 | United States
Laura  Aguilar - AWARE

Laura Aguilar

1815 — India | 1879 — Sri Lanka
Julia Margaret Cameron - AWARE

Julia Margaret Cameron

1929 | Argentina
Ilse  Fuskova (Felka) - AWARE

Ilse Fuskova (Felka)

1901 — 1988 | United States
Carlotta Corpron - AWARE

Carlotta Corpron

1873 — France | 1961 — Switzerland
Céline Gracieuse  Laguarde - AWARE

Céline Gracieuse Laguarde

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