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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.

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