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
Later, as a feminist, when I became more aware of my own socialization as a ‘woman’ (and of the process of ‘bourgeoisification’ which I had undergoing—which had taken me completely away from the working class roots and struggles of my own family) I began to think about how I had been represented by others.
Jo Spence (British photographer, 1934-1992) was a key figure in the mid 1970’s from the British photographic left, crucial in debates on photography and the critique of representation. Her work engaged with a range of photographic genres, from documentary to photo therapy, and responded to the prioritisation from the late 1970’s onwards of lens-based media in art-critical discourse. Spence was also a writer and a cultural worker. She started off as a commercial photographer, taking family portraits and wedding pictures. She soon began documentary work, motivated by her political concerns. Both a socialist and a feminist, she worked to represent these issues through her practice of photography. Spence was active in establishing the Photography Workshop (1974), a group focused on education and publishing, including its Camerawork magazine (1976–1985), along with the socialist historian of photography Terry Dennet, with whom she continued to collaborate for the rest of her life. It wasn’t until she was 45 years old that she studied Photography in London and then co-founded the photographic group The Polysnappers. During the late 1970’s and into the early 1980’s her work became more focused on themes of domesticity and family life. At the age of 48, Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer and started to focus on identity, subjectivity, mental and physical health. She rejected conventional therapy and explored holistic therapy and the personal and feminist political dimension of living with cancer. It was through experiencing the effectiveness of using photography in confronting and documenting her hospitalisation and illness that Spence, together with Rosy Martin, developed ‘photo therapy’, in which the subject was empowered to control their image to discover and represent unexpressed or repressed feelings and ideas. Spence held the firm belief that photography has an empowering capacity when applied to complex issues of class, power, gender, health and the body. Her work has been featured in solo and group exhibitions worldwide.
Hildegard Ochse (German photographer, 1935-1997) was 43 years old when she opted for a professional career as a photographer. From 1975 on, she attended photography courses in Berlin and took part in workshops of renowned American photographers, including Lewis Baltz, Ralph Gibson and Larry Fink. At this time, the artistic value of photography changed, particularly after 1977 photographic works were exhibited extensively at the Kassel art exhibition documenta 6. Her photographic works reflect social structures and symbolise social and/or cultural conditions – photographed in black and white, lacking distortion and unusual image sections. Ochse was keen on depicting authentic reality and everyday life. She was aware that photographs are not just a reflection of the world around us; she believed they create their own content and aesthetics instead. Her images of people on the streets of Berlin represent isolation, harshness and despair as a partial aspect of urban culture. Her imagery can be described as profound, multi-layered, philosophical, dense, highly concentrated, conceptual and documentary. She created images primarily for herself and per her own wishes. From 1978, Hildegard taught photography in Berlin and could present her images in galleries for the first time. She established herself as an independent photographic author as of 1981. She received extensive commissions, grants and exhibitions at home and abroad. A portion of the body of work she produced is housed in public and private collections. Ochse travelled extensively with her camera and thus unintentionally documented her own life.
Joan Harwood Almond (American photographer, 1935-) is a self-taught photographer who specializes in black and white photography and prints all of her own prints using the platinum process. After an early active life in Los Angeles with four children, Joan began taking film production stills, which then brought her to the Middle East. Over the last 25 years she came to love the primitive people inhabiting remote deserts of North Africa and India. Since her first exhibition in Montreal in 1987, she has had a dozen solo shows across North America and Egypt. Her recent book, ‘The Past in the Present’, contains many of these images. She is included in several museum, corporation and private collections. Her photographs seek to reveal the truth about their subjects, while they maintain an exceptional sobriety of form and treatment. Critic Henry Lehmann once stated that “while some of Almond’s pictures are intentionally devoid of depth, transforming life into geometric abstraction, others delve into deep space, but ultimately arrive at the same patterned effect”.
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.
Through her patient pursuit of natural moments, an intimacy unveils, blurring the borders between outsider and native.
Jo SpenceAmerican artist Susan Scafati on photographer Joan Almond.