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
What is a photograph? For me, a fragment of quick-silver, a lucid dream, a scribbled note from the subconscious to be deciphered, perhaps, over years. It is a monologue trying to become a conversation, an offering, an alibi, a salute.
Martine Barrat (French photographer, 1933-) is a photographer, actress, dancer and writer. She was discovered by Ellen Stewart at an international dance festival in Edinburgh and she sent her a plane ticket to perform in her theatre in New York. Barrat was born in Algeria, but was raised in France, arrived in the United States at the age of 35 and began collaborating with the Human Arts Ensemble. The group began video workshops for the youth of the neighbourhood and Barrat made it her mission to get children to participate. At the age of 38, she started working with video in the South Bronx. She spent all of her time working with gang members and sharing the video equipment, creating a series of videos between 1971 and 1976. In 1978, she was awarded the Best Documentary Filmmaker Prize for her video series, which was aired in Italy and in the USA. The Whitney Museum in New York also showed the film, along with Barrat’s first photography of the South Bronx, which was well- attended and well-regarded by the press. In the following years, she immersed herself in photography and began exhibiting her work in various galleries around the world. The scope of Barrat’s photography is global: it spans from Paris, to the Caribbean islands, through Africa, Japan, and Brazil. Nevertheless, the core of her work evokes Harlem, the anchor of her life since her arrival in the United States. Her works in photography and video are conserved in both public and private collections.
Eva Rubinstein (Polish-American photographer, 1933-) is a well known photographer, whose work includes portraits, nudes and interiors. Born in Argentina and raised in France, Rubinstein received American citizenship in 1946, after her family had moved there to avoid World War II. She studied drama and even worked as a dancer and actress for awhile, before getting married and having three kids. She began her career as a photographer in 1967 after her divorce, participating in workshops with influential figures such as Lisette Model and Diane Arbus. She worked as a photojournalist, but also had time to create a substantial body of personal work. In an interview with Frank Horvat, Rubinstein explained how she had always shown great respect for the people she photographed, never wishing to intrude. In all of her work, she aimed to establish a sense of connection and respect with her subject. Rubinstein has exhibited internationally and has also led workshops in Europe and in the USA.
Colette Álvarez Urbajtel (French-Mexican photographer, 1934-) was born in Paris, studied law at the Institute of Political Studies and moved to Mexico at the age of 25. With her, she had her first camera, which was a gift from her brother. Colette began taking pictures of the new country and a few years later she married Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Álvarez Bravo became her teacher and Colette worked as his assistant and printer. From 1969 to 1981 she worked as an assistant, photographer and administrator at Fondo Editorial de la Plástica Mexicana. Álvarez Urbajtel’s work, mostly of everyday life, was in black and white until 1990. She has exhibited it both inside Mexico and abroad, individually and in collective exhibitions. Her work has been featured in many books and can also be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Ukrainian Institute of America. Álvarez Urbajtel used to photograph the world around her, during her daily routine. She’d often focus on tranquil scenes and everyday activities, as well as animals, nature, portraits and her family. She had an instinct for composition and she had stated that photography came naturally to her because as a child she liked to wander the streets and remember candid scenes in her mind. Colette’s work has been recognized with membership in the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana, she has had two retrospectives and has been featured in several books and magazines.
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.
That’s all the difficulty and the challenge and the battle: to look through this mechanical thing, these bits of glass and metal, at someone. And not lose the sense that this shape is a human being.