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
My husband and I are just ordinary workers who gave our lives for the foundation of a new China.
• Henriette Grindat (Swiss photographer, 1923-1986) was one of the few women to use photography primarily as a means of artistic expression and one of the first women to develop an independent visual language. Grindat was a major female contributor to artistic photography, taking a Surrealist approach inspired by the literary trends of the post-war years. She studied photography at Gertude Fehr’s school, first in Lausanne and later in Vevey. In 1948, Grindat established her own studio in Lausanne and worked for Swiss newspapers and journals. She then moved to Paris to work for international journals and local publishing houses. On returning to Switzerland, she received federal grants and went on to publish several photography and art books. She completed many photographic projects in the 60’s and turned her work to the human body and nude photography in the 70’s. Sadly, Grindat committed suicide in 1986, shortly after the death of her life partner. Her complex surrealistic images were often achieved by means of collage, photograms, or solarisation and she often produced beguiling photographic poetry that had the character of a quest for existential qualities.
• Walde Huth (German photographer, 1923-2011) was especially known for her work in the fashion industry and for her street-style composition. She studied photography from 1940 to 1943 at the State School of Applied Arts in Weimar and worked in the color photography development area at Agfa Wolfen, until 1945. By 1953, Huth had her own fashion and advertising photography studio in Stuttgart, with resounding success. Together with her husband, architecture photographer Karl Hugo Schmölz, they opened an advertising and public relations studio, which they kept until 1986. It remains one of Huth’s biggest successes. Huth was also a member of the German Society for Photography and the Bundesverband Bildender Künstlerinnen und Künstler, while continuing to photograph haute couture in France and Italy, as well as abstract themes.
• Hou Bo (Chinese photographer, 1924-2017) and her husband Xu Xiaobing were among the best known photographers of paramount Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Hou Bo joined the Communist Party at the age of 14 and learned photography with Japanese prisoners during the Second Sino-Japanese War, in order to present a better image of the Party’s work to the world. From 1949 and onwards, she and Xiaobing lived in the same compound as Mao and took both official and more private family photos, taken informally behind the scenes. From 1950 to 1961, Bo, her husband and two children, lived in the residence of the top party officials where Bo had set up the Photography Department. She was the only woman on the film crew and took more than 400 of the 700 officially published photographs of Mao during that period. The awarded Bo also received recognition outside China and had her work exhibited in other countries. Bo immersed herself in China’s culture with an almost childlike joy and always aimed at giving her main subject a natural and vivid shot, an effect of her diligence and perseverance.
• Dominique Darbois (French photographer, 1925-2014) was also an author, noted for her humanist studies of exotic locales, artifacts, children and primitive peoples. She participated in the Free French Forces during the Second World War in 1941, got arrested and imprisoned at an internment camp for two years. On liberation in 1944 she received the Croix de Guerre for her work with the French Resistance. After the war ended, she returned to France and became the assistant of the French photographer Pierre Jahan, which prompted her career as a photographer. In 1946 Darbois began photographing professionally, beginning with journalism work in Cambodia. From 1949 to the end of her life, she worked throughout the world. In 1952, she received the “Prix Exploration” from the President of the French Republic. From 1952 through 1978, she completed 20 books for the collection Les Enfants du Monde, typically featuring candid black and white photographs of children of various races and nationalities. Beyond the juvenile market, Darbois published books about Amazon Indians, African sculpture, Chinese landscape painting, Egyptian art and Oriental carpets. In the late 1960’s she acquired a number of publications for her work on Afghanistan art. She had her first solo exhibition during 1951 in Paris. From 1984, she held numerous exhibitions of her African photography and her work on women of different cultures. In the late 1990’s, she did a major exhibition on women.
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.
Resident of freedom, photographer of the ungraded, courageous woman.