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 allows me to bring my perception and life experience to the pictures I make. My history is a tool that I use to view the present.
Rosalind Fox Solomon (American photographer, 1930-) was always open about her unquenched desire to discover herself through the art of photography. Born in Illinois almost 90 years ago, Rosalind got a degree in Political Science at the age of 21, got married, had two children, got divorced and then moved to France to study under photographer Lisette Model. It wasn’t until 1968 – at the age of 38 – that Rosalind started using a camera to mainly communicate her feelings and thoughts. Solomon has photographed broadly in South and Central America, India, Poland, New York and Southern America. Her work – often metaphorical – goes beyond merely describing the subject in front of her camera. The recurrent themes of ritual, religion, gender and travel had significant importance to her and she’d always pick the ones that mattered, instead of the ones that were convenient. Her legacy includes photographs of race, segregation, religion, human psychology, violence and many other social and political issues, all from an emotional, human angle. Solomon’s work has been shown in nearly 30 solo exhibitions and 100 group exhibitions worldwide, with photographs held in over 50 permanent museum collections.
Toyoko Tokiwa (Japanese photographer, 1930-) knew she wanted to work as a photographer, even before she had actually used a camera. Her brother owned a medium format twin lens reflex camera and a darkroom. Toyoko dreamed of being a photographer herself, while working as a radio announcer. She joined a women-only Camera Club and was influenced by the realism of Japanese photography at the time. Some of her early work depicts sites of emotional partings and reunions of American military families at a local pier. She would capture these scenes close up and from that she swiftly moved to photographing working women, which was her main interest. She would visit the red light district of Yokohama, ask for permission and take portraits of the prostitutes. Tokiwa still works as a photojournalist and is both a member of the Japan Professional Photographers Society and the chairwoman of the Kanagawa Prefectural Photographers Association.
Grace Robertson (British photographer, 1930) is one of the most significant women photojournalists. Her father was a journalist and had given her a second-hand camera when she was 19 years old. At the age of 20, Robertson had already published several photo stories in a local magazine. At the beginning of her career, she worked under the pseudonym Dick Muir and was too busy photographing to recognize herself as a female pioneer of the medium. Her work captures what it was to be an Englishwoman in the years after World War II and her tactic was to spend time with her subjects, to become familiar and therefore unremarkable. In 1992, Robertson was commissioned by the BBC to make a documentary about nonagenarians. She has written and lectured extensively on the role of women in photography and in 1999 received an OBE in recognition of her services to photography, the same year in which she was awarded the Wingate Scholarship, which she used to fund her then current project Working Mothers in Contemporary Society. Robertson is the only British photographer to have featured in an exhibition at the National Photography Gallery, USA, celebrating the first women in photojournalism.
Kay Lahusen (American photographer, 1930-) is the first openly gay American woman photojournalist and the first photojournalist of the LGBTQ+ movement. She developed her interest in photography as a child and liked using a little box camera. After college, she worked at a library and then met Barbara Brooks Gittings, the editor of The Ladder – the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the United States. Pretty soon Lahusen began to add photographs of real homosexual women on the covers of the magazine. She later photographed Gittings and other people who picketed federal buildings and Independence Hall in the mid to late 1960’s. She contributed photographs and articles to a Manhattan newspaper called Gay Newsweekly and photographed thousands of activists, marches, and events in the 1960’s and 1970’s. More recently, Kay’s photographs have been featured in exhibits at The William Way Community Center and the Wilmington Institute Library. In 2007, all of Lahusen’s photos and writings and Gittings’ papers and writings were donated to the New York Public Library.
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.
I felt I was an observer of society. I never thought about my presence in it. My driving force in photographing women was to find out what made them tick.