Celebrating Women’s History Month

“Women in Photography”

By Bob Walden

Women were rarely acknowledged in photography. However many contributions to photography were made by women.

Most people have heard of William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) Mathew B. Brady (1822-1896) Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and George Eastman (1854-1932). But how many women can you recall?

Anna Atkins 1799-1871

 Anna Atkins was born in Kent, England in 1799. She was a botanist and botanical illustrator by profession. She was also considered the first woman photographer by some. Anna Atkins 1799-1871

Anna Atkins photographs were actually photograms. By placing an object, in her case botanical objects, on light sensitive paper the object would be accurately recorded on paper. Previously the documentation would have been done by artists as a rendering.

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 Julia Margaret Cameron was born June 11, 1815 in India to British citizens. Her career in photography started late in life for her. When she was 48 years old her daughter gave her a camera as a present that started her career. Sadly her career in photography was short lived. It lasted only eleven years before she became ill. But during that time Julia Cameron became a very prolific photographer. Having famous Victorian friends to use as subjects helped. She photographed friends such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Julia Margaret Cameron   1815-1879

Julia Margaret Cameron   1815-1879From early photography and continuing into the Victorian era, professional photographers still used stiff formal portraiture with their subjects. Unsmiling and photographed from a distance was the studio photographers standard. By this time the advances in cameras, lenses and film materials had greatly reduced preparation and sitting times. However photographers were slow to change their standards. But with the non-professional public, things were different. With George Eastman and his photographic innovations and marketing things were changing. Julia Margaret Cameron had her own style. She introduced the soft focus in a photograph. She used a romantic and closeness approach to her subjects accomplished by using close-ups and dark lighting.

Sir John Herschel
Beatrice 1866
Ophelia Study No. 2

Professional photographers and critics of her time called her style sloppy and out of focus. Photography was considered a science. And science had little room for a woman. Fortunately she did have a large following. And future photographers benefited from her style and advancements in photography. Cameron’s use of “soft focus” and less formal portraiture is now the standard. And her major benefit to today’s photographers was her introduction of using copyrights on all her photos. How many photographers over the years would have lost income and control of their art without copyrights?

 Mary Olive Edis was born in London in 1876.

Mary Olive Edis 1876-1955

 In 1905 Mary Olive Edis and her sister Katherine opened the first of their very successful photographic portrait studios. Mary Olive Edis photographed many famous and influential people including royalty and politicians. In 1912 she started using the autochrome color process. Autochrome’s were like early color slides. Being a slide (transparency) they needed to be backlit. So she designed and patented her own device called a diascope to back light the autochromes. The autochromes produced beautiful images and Edis became known for her color photography.

A beautiful Autochrome self-portrait by Mary Olive Edis.

Edis was also appointed official war photographer for the Imperial War Museum as a photographer for the British Women’s Services in France and Flanders during the First World War.

Women working for the British Women’s Services WWI by Mary Olive Edis

Mary Olive Edis was very accomplished woman as a portrait photographer, war photographer and inventor.


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 Gerda Taro was born in Stuttgart Germany to a middle class Jewish family in 1910. In 1929 the family moved to Leipzig, Germany. It was at the start of the Nazi movement in Germany. Gerda Taro became active in the opposition and was arrested by the National Socialist Party in 1933 for distributing anti-Nazi party pamphlets. Her family convinced her to flee to France.

Gerda Taro 1910-1937

Moving to Paris she met Robert Capa, who would later go on to become a world famous war correspondent and photographer. Interestingly, both Gerda Taro and Robert Capa were made up names.  Gerda’s born name was Gerta Pohorylle and Capa’s birth name was Endre Friedmann. Being Jewish in those times made a name change a necessity!  Taro and Capa quickly became friends and then lovers. In 1934 Capa convince Gerda to take an interest in photography. In a few years she became an accredited member of the press. In 1936 Taro and Capa traveled to Spain the cover the Spanish civil war. Robert Capa was a well-known photographer by this time. Taro was not. Sadly many of the photos taken by Taro were credited to Capa. While covering the Republican army retreat at the Battle of Brunette in 1937, Taro jumped onto the sideboard of a car carrying wounded and was struck by a tank. She died the next day just a month short of her 27 birthday. In death she did receive some recognition. Gerda Taro is considered the first female photographer-journalist to have died on the front lines covering a war. While Robert Capa became as well known as a wartime photographer, it wasn’t until 2007 that Gerda Taro was recognize for her amazing photographic work with an exhibition of hers works was held at the International Center of Photography in New York City.

Gerda Taro Spanish Civil War

According to the British and American census, by 1900 women accounted for over 7000 professional photographers. Many owned their own studios. Women photographers tended to take an artistic view of photography and added a more personal and informal touch to portraits. Most came from middle to upper income families. Well educated and not of the need to actually make a living from photography. And there was still a sigma about working women. Most studios would use a last name or a last name with initials.

Photographer could have been male or female.

It was common to see a male name as owner of a photography studio.

Man’s signature

Rarely do you see a photo studio advertised with a woman’s full name.

Women did travel in wagons alongside the men through hard terrain and hostile conditions. They had many of the skills used by men. Making chemicals and preparing materials. Hauling heavy equipment and actually taking photographs were part of their days. However it’s the male figures you see in photos of these early studios. The photos were in many cases taken by the women! But a woman would soon advance photography much faster than most men! The women were the females used in Kodak’s marketing and advertising.

The Kodak Girl

It was mainly women who took the family photos. Women bought the cameras and film and took the exposed film to the drug stores to be processed. Not a man’s job. And Kodak used this discovery to market to woman. From the simple Brownie box cameras to the slightly more sophisticated folding cameras, women took their cameras everywhere. And with the spending of women on photography the entire industry rapidly advanced.

More people are familiar with the contemporary women photographers, mainly by a few iconic photographs.

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Dorothea Lange was an American photographer born in New Jersey in 1895.

Dorothea Lange 1895-1965

She was a photographer and photojournalist during the Depression. Her photos took her to the breadlines and poverty of the country. With a sympathetic eye she showed the terrible conditions of the out of work men and women and the rural poverty caused by the depression. Lange also photographed the plight of the American farmers for FSA (Farm Security Administration).

Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph of a destitute mother with her children was taken in depression-era California. The woman has been identified as Florence Thompson, who at the time was working as a pea picker. She was 32. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Farmers suffering from the drought of the Dust Bowl moving west.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Dorothea was assigned by the WRA (War Relocation Authority) to photograph the internment and treatment of American Japanese citizens

Japanese being moved to an internment camp.

 Margaret Bourke-White was born in New York City in 1904.

Bourke-White 1904-1971

She worked for the US Army as a military Photographer.

White started her career at Cornell studying biology, using her photography skills to pay for her education. In 1929 she became the first photographer at Fortune magazine. She later went on to become a photographer Life magazine. As an army photographer, as the first woman photographer to be attached to the US Military.

In 1945 White, who was attached to General Patton’s third army when it entered the German prison camp, Buchenwald and photographed the horrors of life in the prison camp.

Prisoners Buchenwald 1945

The 1940’s through the 1960’s brought resurgence in street photography. Women documenting the street lives of people showed how people lived happily and sadly. Black and white photos were the norm.

Times had changed and women had gone from being war photographers and journalists to more artistic endeavors.

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Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015) was born in Pennsylvania. She photographed the streets of New York City.

Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was born in New York City. Born to wealthy parents she concentrated on the downtrodden in on the streets of New York. Diane married her childhood sweetheart Allan Arbus. Allan went on to become the actor Dr. Sydney Freedman on “Mash”. Arbus was one of the first to use a flash in daylight to separate the subject from the background. Sadly in 1971 she committed suicide.

Vivian Dorothy Maier was born in New York City in 1926.

Vivian Maier 1926-2009

Vivian Maier was a true street photographer. She was a nanny in the Chicago suburbs. A complete unknown until the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” was released in 2013. An amazing documentary I highly recommend seeing. I lived in the area she wandered and lived in.

Anne Geddes was born in Australia in 1956.

Anne Geddes

Anne Geddes has a style that is instantly recognizable. While staying with a particular style can limit a person’s work, in Geddes case her style never tires. Her inventive poses and props make her work stand out from other baby photographers. She is a noteworthy original photographer.

Baby in a pot.
See babies in veggies? Probably Anne Geddes.
Babies in flowers? Yep! Anne Geddes!

Rhian White is one of my favorites.

Rhian White

Pets are difficult to photograph. Very much like children! It takes patience, skill and great treats! And a great style to separate a photo from a snapshot. I love the way she manages to get down with her furry friends and create portraits of the inner soul and playfulness of these family members. While there are many dog photographers I admire her style her ability to create memorable work. Using low doggie view angles and framing with warm coordinated colors makes her work stand out. And the capture of action from the low perspective drives the eye directly to the subject.

Great use of soft focus, a dog’s eye view and coordinated colors.
Action from a dog’s level.

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Women in photography today are mostly involved in either fashion or artistic work. Very few have a recognizable style, IMO. But then I’m an old black and white guy. I am a bit disappointed that I couldn’t find much information on contributions made by women in the manufacturing field of photography. No chemists, engineers or designers. I’m sure there were many but however it looks like they have been lost to male overshadowing history