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 theme that 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.
I longed to arrest all the beauty that came before me and at length the longing has been satisfied.
Julia Margaret Cameron
• Constance Fox Talbot (British photographer, 1811-1880) was the wife of William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the key players in the development of photography in the 1830’s and 1840’s. She herself briefly experimented with the process as early as 1839 and has been credited as the first woman ever to have taken a photograph.
• Anna Atkins (English botanist and photographer, 1799-1871). Some sources claim that Atkins was in fact the first woman to ever create a photograph. She was certainly the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. Atkins was a British botanist, simply looking for a way to document and archive her scientific findings. Some of her cyanotype photograms and calotypes are held by numerous institutions, museums and galleries around the world.
• Julia Margaret Cameron (British photographer, 1815-1879): Reality Through Myth. Cameron only took up photography at the age of 48, but still managed to influence modern photographers. Her work was not particularly appreciated in her own day, many had a problem with her treating photography as an art, rather than a science. She insisted on manipulating the wet collodion process in a way that caused her works to look “scruffy” and full of “mistakes”. In her photography, Cameron strove to capture beauty; she shot mostly closely framed portraits and illustrative allegories, based on religious and literary works. It was not until 1948 that Cameron’s photography became more widely known and many photographers regret not being able to study her and be influenced by her work.
I’d like to see portrait photography go right back to Julia Margaret Cameron. I don’t think there’s anyone better.
• Shima Ryū (Japanese artist and pioneering photographer, 1823-1900): The Japanese Pioneer. Ryū learned photography together with her husband Shima Kakoku and the couple operated a photographic studio for a few years. In the spring of 1864 Ryū photographed her husband, thereby creating the earliest known photograph by a Japanese woman. The negative is on deposit at the Tojo Historical Museum, a wet-plate print of this portrait remains in the Shima family archives and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston has an albumen print.
• Imogen Cunningham (American photographer, 1883-1976): The Familiarity of Nudes and Plants. After some study of drawing and painting as a child, Imogen became fascinated with photography at the age of 18. She purchased a 4 x 5 view camera by mail order and taught herself. Soon she decided to study photography seriously. “My father didn’t think much of me being a photographer,” she once said. “But he didn’t stand in my way.” And it’s a good thing he didn’t. Cunningham is known for her botanical photography, nudes and industrial landscapes. Together with her husband and fellow photographer Edward Weston, she co-founded the California-based Group f/64. The group was known for its dedication to the sharp-focus rendition of simple subjects. But Cunningham’s interests were always too eclectic, her attitude too flexible, to be constricted by the rigidity of Group f/64 definitions, whose style of realism and general choice of subject matter she later considered a regional West Coast style. As a pioneering adventurer, she had the innate curiosity to experiment beyond signature and safe subjects. She exploited serendipity, cropping an image when she felt it necessary, saving from the darkroom sink a rejected print which had become more interesting from accidental solarization, and “sandwiching” negatives or shooting double exposures when she pleased. Shades of Dada and Surrealism run through her work and the conceptual dogma of the pure print with which she had momentarily associated herself was, by then, a foregone consideration. In 1934, Cunningham was invited to do some work in New York for Vanity Fair. Her husband wanted her to wait until he could travel with her, but she refused. They divorced that year.
Brace yourselves, for this is only the beginning of the discussion on female photographers. A lot of them felt the need to change the way photography was perceived – albeit some of them only became interested in photography and studied the medium because of their husbands’ interest in it. But, almost all of them had the urge to use it as both a communication tool and a creative outlet. Their art will inspire and amaze you, not in spite of their different time period, background and genre, but because of all that. We will be talking about names that left their mark in a great way 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 am so fascinated with this century it will help keep me alive. I'll be there until the last minute, fighting.