the women who changed photography forever

Discovering the hidden histories of the women who created the images we adore.

by Edward Siddons
11 March 2016, 11:23pm

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

Representation matters. It matters that you can breeze through school without ever encountering an author who isn't a dead white man. It matters that you can study art through seven years of secondary education and encounter no women, queer people, or people of color. It matters that you still probably can't name five photographers who aren't men.

At this point, people get uncomfortable, especially when a woman raises the issue. If you listen closely, you can already hear the men's rights activists' hearts beating a little quicker. "Why's it always about identity? Why are women getting special treatment, yet a-bloody-gain?" they mutter, shuffling uncomfortably as their fragile masculinity cracks under the slightest sign of resistance.

The MRAs ready themselves for debate, polishing their finest discursive weapons. They're going to engage like intelligent, mature, and reasoned commentators do: with sexual harassment, attacks on the woman's appearance, misogynistic slurs and, if you're really special, they'll pepper the whole shitstorm with the occasional rape threat.

On Twitter -- the cesspit where nuanced discussion goes to die -- it's easy to lose the point. Representing women, queers, people of color, and every other minority group is important because it determines the aspirations and self-realization of people today. If you can't see it, you can't be it. By ignoring issues of representation, assuming it's nothing but narcissism, we're perpetuating precisely the conditions that have kept minorities out of the mainstream. And that's bullshit.

That said, it isn't about rewriting history, or twisting it for our own ends. It's that oppressed groups have always contributed disproportionately to almost all fields of culture. Rock, the shaggy-haired white boys' exclusionary playground, doesn't make sense without blues. The twentieth century's revolution in sculpture doesn't make sense without non-figurative African carving.

In the same vein, photography doesn't make sense without women. While writing and fine art often required institutional training that women were forbidden from undertaking, photography offered particularly fertile ground for women artists. The possibility to teach oneself, the relative speed with which you could produce an image while still caring for a family, and the idea that it was an "acceptable activity" one could pursue in the home gave women an opening.

Since its inception, women have shaped photography more than they've been permitted to in other fields of culture. They pioneered new photographic techniques, established new genres, took to the streets when they were excluded from the mainstream press, shaped institutions and cleared space for their lenses in the midst of the bloodiest conflict the Western world has ever seen.

Lee Miller, Two Women on a Park Bench, 1945© Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

Julia Margaret Cameron, the most enduringly famous practitioner of the nineteenth century, made seismic leaps forward. According to Marta Weiss, Curator of the V&A's recent retrospective of Cameron's work, "She pioneered the close-up, she took photos out of focus because she thought they looked more beautiful, and she left traces of her process in her photos" -- aesthetic legacies which still figure prominently in contemporary photography.

At the turn of the twentieth century, women's work expanded exponentially. While their realm of expertise in the nineteenth century was predominantly domestic, shooting portraits of their friends and children, photographing plants and flowers, and occasionally landscapes if they were wealthy enough to own extensive grounds, the turn of the century marked a break with the past, parodying and subverting the genres they were traditionally encouraged -- or forced -- to work within.

Women began to rebel against what men had deemed was acceptable. Where they had been limited to photographing flowers and natural life, photographers like Lola Alvarez broke stifling codes of sexual decency with photos exploring the sensuality and sexuality of natural forms. In other words, she took some amazing photos of plants that looked like vulvas. Others sought to interrogate the limits of childcare and the family as the expected role for women to adopt. Ruth Bernhard's iconic images of disfigured dolls rendered symbols of childhood grotesque, unnerving and perverse.

One of women photographer's most enduring contributions to the genre, however, came with their work on auto-portraits, the proto-selfie. Auto-portraits allowed women to claim autonomy over their own representation, and a freedom to experiment and push at gender binaries well before genderfluidity became enshrined as a certified political movement.

Frances Benjamin Johnston, Self Portrait, 1896

Frances Benjamin Johnston -- the cycling, smoking, cross-dressing pioneer -- was one of the earliest and most accomplished explorers of androgyny in self-portraiture. Oh, and she looked shit-hot cool as well. Later figures like Claude Cahun went further, exploring genderfuck aesthetics as boldly as anyone today. In 1930, she wrote "Masculine? Feminine? Well, it depends. Newter is the only gender that always fits me." Breaking the binary isn't as new as everyone likes to think.

As the twentieth century unfolded, women repeatedly transgressed barriers, expanding into commercial photography, fashion, art photography and most boldly, war photography. Lee Miller shot everything from high-fashion to the liberation of sex slaves in Nazi concentration camps. She was on the frontline, one of only four women to be accredited as US Army photographers, and vitally expanded the line of vision of her male counterparts. According to Hilary Roberts, Research Curator at the Imperial War Museum and curator of the ongoing exhibitionLee Miller: A Woman's War, "She exposed the impact of conflict on women's lives. She showed how women of different countries responded to the different challenges that the war threw in their way." And, I shit you not, she took a selfie in Hitler's bathtub. Hats off for that alone.

The examples of women shaping the face of photography go on, and on, and on. Despite a small-scale revival of interest with the major retrospective, Who's Afraid of Female Photographers? at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris last year, the V&A retrospective of Julia Margaret Cameron, and the Imperial War Museum's retrospective on Lee Miller, women are still underrepresented, and women of color are rendered almost completely invisible.

Lee Miller in Hitler's Bathtub, 1945 with the caption: © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved.

Susan Bright, the acclaimed author and curator, is skeptical that we're really getting anywhere: "There's a dangerous complacency that comes with retrospectives, as if we've done it and we can put [women] away for the next decade. There needs to be constant grassroots interest. […] It's dangerous to say were having a moment and that everything is now fine: it isn't."

Bright also asks a particularly pertinent question: "Photography at college is predominantly a woman's discipline now, but how many actually go on to be photographers?" If the media representation is anything like an accurate reflection, then the answer is relatively few. The absence of visibility of their historical forebears might provide one tentative answer.

That said, women's photography doesn't deserve representation just because it empowers our generation. It deserves representation because it's really fucking great. Ignoring women's contributions isn't just disrespectful, and it isn't just lazy. It paints a fundamentally incomplete picture of photography's diverse history. Women helped to shape the field, so why are they still disappearing in the mists of history?


Text Edward Siddons

edward siddons
women in photography