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
Women are tough, supportive, sensitive, intelligent and creative. They are survivors. Women have come a long way, but not far enough. Ahead still are formidable hurdles. Speak with your images from your heart and soul. Give of yourselves. Trust your gut reactions. Suck out the juices — the essence of your life experiences. Get on with it. It may not be too late.
Marion Post Wolcott
• Hansel Mieth (German-born photographer, 1909-1998) worked as a staff photographer for LIFE’s New York office and was best known for her social commentary photography, which recorded the lives of working class Americans in the 1930’s and 1940’s. She left her native Germany at 15 years old, traveled through Eastern Europe and settled in the United States. She was quite dynamic and willing to document the real issues of her time, such as single motherhood, yellow fever, and animal experimentation to name a few. In 1941, Mieth and her husband (also a fellow photographer) Otto Hagel moved to California. After the Second World War, they returned to Germany to cover the horrid events. Their work was published in LIFE in 1951. Mieth’s life story was told in a one-hour documentary titled Hansel Mieth: Vagabond Photographer, directed by Nancy Schiesari. The full archive of Hansel Mieth’s work is located at the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona in Tucson, which also manages the copyright of her work. Her photographs have the tendency to evoke and penetrate one’s perception. LIFE would sometimes call her work “too graphic” and even though they edited some of it, her images are among the strongest and most successful works of photojournalism produced in the United States.
• Marion Post Wolcott (American photographer, 1910-1990) worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression and was originally noticed for her documentation of American poverty and deprivation. She studied in New York and in Vienna. In 1932 she started pursuing a photography career in New York. The workshops she attended with American photographer Ralph Steiner led to her becoming a freelancer for Life, Fortune and other magazines. She was the staff photographer of Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and then worked for economist and photographer Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration. Wolcott then traveled to Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and New Mexico. Hew photographs have been included in many group and solo exhibitions at many museums and galleries. She received numerous awards and honors for her powerful documentary work, because of the variation in subject matter. Her body of work provides a view into another side of America in the 1930’s, among that small percentage of people who could afford to escape the damaging effects of the Depression. Wolcott was a true feminist and an advocate for women’s rights.
• Eve Arnold (American photographer, 1912-2012) needs little introduction; especially to fellow female photographers. Born in the USA to Russian immigrant parents, Arnold began photographing at the age of 34 while working at a photo-finishing plant. At the age of 36, she decided to study photography with Alexei Brodovitch at the New School for Social Research in New York. By the time she was 45, she was a full member of Magnum Photos. Arnold was best known for her candid images of the intimate moments among celebrities on movie sets. However, she documented fashion shows, horse trainers, political conventions, and every day life as well. Eve broke the mold for women behind the lens and set out to make women’s voices heard all over the world. She received countless awards and honours for her work and published 12 books throughout her whole career. Arnold was also the recipient of the lifetime achievement award of the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1980. In 1995, she was named a “master photographer” by the International Center of Photography, New York City. She was made honorary OBE in 2003 and believed that “it is better to shoot than to talk”.
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 didn't want to be a woman photographer. That would limit me. I wanted to be a photographer who was a woman, with all the world open to my camera.