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“Why Have There Been No Great Women Photographers?” a lecture by Dr. Francine Weiss at the Griffin Museum of Photography on May 9, 2015
Guest Blog by Suzanne Revy
It could probably best be described as dumb luck that the photographs of Vivian Maier were not lost forever. With an interest in historic preservation, John Maloof purchased the contents of Maier’s storage locker at auction, hoping to find historic photographs of northwest Chicago for a book he was writing in 2007. Though not relevant for that project, Maloof eventually scanned and shared the images of Chicago that Maier made in the 1950’s and 60’s through an online blog and Flikr, where in 2009 they gained widespread attention.
With this anecdote about Vivian Maier, Dr. Francine Weiss launched into the role that women have played in photography at the Griffin Museum of Photography this past weekend. Her provocative title, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Photographers?” is a riff on Linda Nochlin’s important essay published in 1971 which asked the same question of artists and injected feminist theory into the rarified, paternalistic air that pervaded the history of art. In her talk, Dr. Weiss described the often difficult task of finding and researching the work of women who were making or assisting in the production of photography in the mid-19th century.
At its inception, photography was not viewed as a medium that could be as broadly expressive as painting or sculpture, but by the mid and late 19th century, photographic portrait studios were flourishing in Europe and North America. Among the practitioners making Daguerrotypes in the 1840’s to the early 1860’s were several women whose presence was integral to the successes of the early portrait studios. Nancy Southworth-Hawes, for example, was the sister of Albert Southworth, and she married his partner Josiah Hawes, and worked in their Boston based Southworth & Hawes studio that was active from 1840 to 1863, and in France, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disderi (1819-1889) worked in full partnership with his wife, Geneviève Elizabeth Francart in a studio they opened in Brest. In fact, he left her fully in charge of that studio when he opened another in Nîmes. Eventually, they ran the largest portrait studio in Paris, and patented the small format technique that produced portraits quickly and inexpensively that became known as cartes-des-visites, which were popular as calling cards through the 1860’s. For the most part, however, women employed at portrait studios were given the task of hand painting the portraits and assembling the small leather cases that housed these delicate objects.
There were a few intrepid women photographers who made work beyond the confines of the portrait studio in the 1840’s, but much of their work is lost to us today. As Dr. Weiss explained, the only surviving work made by early women photographers was that of practitioners who valued and understood their own work as being significant, who had the support of family who saved that work, and whose work was discovered, studied, exhibited and collected. Anna Atkins (1799-1871), for example, grew up learning science from her father, and became a botanist. She made camera-less cyanotype prints of algae, and is thought to have been the first person to publish a book of photographic prints. Though motivated by science, many of her arrangements became artful in their execution, and her work holds an important place in the canon of photography. For some women, privileged socioeconomic status allowed their pursuit of photography. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was given a camera by her children at the age of 48, and created revolutionary close-up portraits, as well as allegorical and Biblical tableaux employing family and friends who were some of Victorian England’s most interesting minds. Lady Georgina Mary Filmer (1838-1903) created photo collages from pictures she made of her many acquaintances in the upper echelons of Victorian Society.
The introduction of the Kodak Brownie Camera in 1888 opened photography to many amateurs and, in response, professional photographers established Camera Clubs to pursue photography that was technically and artistically more sophisticated than the Brownie snapshot. Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934) and Sarah Choate Sears (1858-1935) became established members of the pictorial camera club scene, Käsebier in New York, and Choate in Boston in the 1890’s into the 1900’s. Choate grew up in a wealthy Brahmin family, and was friendly with several painters including Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. She and her daughter were, in fact, the subject of several Sergent paintings, but when he saw the photograph she had made of her daughter, Sergent declared, “how can an unfortunate painter hope to rival a photograph by a mother? Absolute truth combined with absolute feeling!” Käsebier pursued photography well into the 1920’s, and mentored younger photographers, including Laura Gilpin and Imogene Cunningham.
As the breadth of the medium expanded beyond portraits and art, the 20th century saw the establishment of photojournalism as one of the most influential and widely viewed aspects of photography. One of the first photojournalists was Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) who worked as the White House photographer through five administrations, was commissioned to make “celebrity portraits” for magazines, travelled widely through her thirties photographing coal miners, iron and mill workers, and was an advocate for women pursuing photography and business. Early in her career, she co-curated an exhibition of pictures by twenty-eight women photographers that was displayed at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Dr. Weiss touched on photography’s political role in the 1920’s and 30’s with the work of German photographers Germaine Krull (1897-1985) and Hannah Höch (1889-1978) whose graphic pictures and collages incorporated the avant garde modernism of the time with purposeful propaganda of political activism, while in the United States photographers such as Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) employed the traditionally straight documentary photograph to shine a light on the deep economic divisions of the Depression.
All the women Dr. Weiss presented showed a deep commitment to their work as photographers and artists, but the story of Vivian Maier is, perhaps, the most prophetic. Without the resources of time, money or familial support to complete work that was clearly made from a deep well of passion, Maier came very close to remaining undiscovered. How many more are there like her? There can be no doubt that artists marginalized by economics, gender and race have been silenced or dismissed through most of history. While highly revered art found in history books can certainly be regarded as great, it ultimately represents a frustratingly narrow view of human creativity and expression. Back in 1971, Linda Nochlin urged artists to create the institutions in which true greatness is a challenge open to all who are willing to take the risk. Did her call to action prevail? Part Two of Dr. Weiss’ lecture will reveal what happened next to great women in photography, on Sunday, May 17th at the Griffin Museum at 4pm. For more information and directions, go to: http://griffinmuseum.org/
To learn about Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, go to: http://www.artnews.com/2007/11/01/top-ten-artnews-stories-exposing-the-hidden-he/
Feature Image: Photographer Vivian Maier in an undated self-portrait (courtesy John Maloof and Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC).