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The History of Photography Through The Female Lens

The History of Photography Through The Female Lens

The new book “Une histoire mondiale des femmes photographes” (A Global History of Women in Photography) celebrates the contributions of women to the medium of photography, spotlighting 300 female photographers from around the world.
Our Lady of the Iguana, Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1979 © Graciela Iturbide

Of all the luminary photographers you know, how many are women? Chances are, it’s a slim few. The history of photography is shown through a male lens: since its inception in the 19th century, photography has been practiced by men and women alike, but the work of so many women has been overshadowed or even forgotten.

Annie, my first success, January 1864 © Julie Margaret Cameron / Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

This struck photography historian and curator Luce Lebart when she was working on a book in 2016 on the subject of great photographers of the 20th century. “I tried to include as many female photographers as male, but it was impossible,” she says, as the fame of the male photographers superseded the female ones. The answer, she realized, was to create a book devoted exclusively to female photographers. She approached Marie Robert, the chief curator of photography at the Musée d’Orsay, with the idea; Robert had recently organized an exhibition dedicated to female photographers, and loved the concept of the book. Together, with support from Rencontres d’Arles and Kering, they created “Une histoire mondiale des femmes photographes” (A Global History of Women in Photography) which is hitting bookstores this month. 

Alaria esculenta, extract of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850  © Anna Atkins / The New York Public Library

 The resultant tome spotlights 300 photographers from the 19th and 20th centuries. And of the 300 photographers included, Lebart and Robert insisted upon a diverse list of photographers from all over the world, forgoing Eurocentric view in favor of a global one. To achieve this, they enlisted the help of 160 writers—all women—who each proposed photographers for inclusion. There are familiar names (Cindy Sherman, Berenice Abbott, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann) as well as unfamiliar ones, seeking to give equal space and prominence to those who are lesser known.

“All of them are very exciting,” says Lebart of the resultant selection of photographers. On her personal favorites, she says: “I love the ones who travelled, sometimes alone, all over the world. I am fascinated by the ones who went to jail; the ones who faced and documented wars; the ones who had to dress as men to work; the ones who documented the lives of minorities.” The courage is the constant, and from country to country and culture to culture, entering the field of photography as a woman was not as simple as just picking up a camera. 

Shooter in Pordoi, Dolomites, Italy, 1915 © Alice Schalek / Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna
In the shoals of Newfoundland, aboard the trawler Bois-Rosé, 1952 © Anita Conti / Archives de Lorient

An Extensive Edition

One of the 160 contributors is Pauline Vermare, a photography curator and cultural director of Magnum Photos in New York. Of the four she selected, Vermare wrote about two Japanese photographers, Tsuneko Sasamoto and Toyoko Tokiwa. “It came quite naturally for me to focus on Japanese photographers, especially because so many of them are not known outside of Japan,” she says. Within Japan, writes Vermare in the book, the photojournalist Sasamoto is considered the “Annie Leibovitz” of her country, yet she has never shown her work outside of Japan, nor has she published any books of her work internationally. “Japan is quite an insular country, and communications with the outside world can sometimes be limited, superficial, and difficult.” 

The image included in the book alongside Vermare’s text about Sasamoto is striking: Dome in Hiroshima after Bombing, 1953 documents the devastating and dilapidating effects of the nuclear bomb unleashed at the end of World War II. One of the few buildings left standing at the site of the bombing, all that remains in Sasamoto’s photograph is a crumbling brick wall and a hollow shell of a dome. 

Dome in Hiroshima after Bombing, 1953 © Tsuneko Sasamoto

And yet, for all her work documenting momentous occasions—the signing of the Tripartite Pact, the Hitler Youth visit, the student protests of the 1960’s—Sasamoto is still relatively unknown in the world at large. “We dearly hope that this book will give these incredible photographers more visibility,” says Lebart. “The book is written by 160 female authors, and it aims at making their voices heard, too. For decades, the history of photography has been written by men—and for men. Most of history’s female photographers have been forgotten, and we hope that this book helps a more fair and balanced history to be written.” 

Abortion, 1974 © Abigail Heyman / Estate of Abigail Heyman
Untitled (Man Reading Newspaper), Kitchen Table Series, 1990 © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

“Photography has for a very long time been a boys club, and very few women were able to succeed in the field,” adds Vermare. “All the Japanese photographers I wrote on had to fight a very sexist society and photography world.”

Women also face a disparity in the art market; a 2017 study revealed that paintings by women sold for 47.6% less than that of their male counterparts. As photography is still a young medium slowly gaining value in the marketplace, it is hard to quantify the current disparity, but it is clear that one exists. After all, art by women (photography included) only makes up for 3-5% of major permanent collections in the US and in Europe. 

Carrie at Euro salon, Eatonville, Florida, 2009 © Deborah Willis

There are, of course, some notable exceptions. Cindy Sherman’s work has sold for some of the highest prices ever paid in the photography market, going as high as $3.8 million for her Untitled #96—but she is the only woman on the list of the 25 highest sales recorded in photography, next to Richard Prince, Andreas Gursky, Edward Steichen, Helmut Newton, Edward Weston and others. “Une histoire mondiale des femmes photographes” seek to help raise the stature of female artists in the photography world, and by extension, help to close that pay disparity by raising their collective value.  

In addition to being a history of female photographers, the book serves as a history of photography as a whole, showing daguerreotypes from Germany, cyanotypes from Great Britain, hand-tinted photographs from India, and more. In chronological order (going by the birthdate of each photographer), while flipping through the pages, it shows the development of photography as a medium, and the pioneers who helped push it into new territories. 

Treasure Maps 022, 1994-1995, painted in 2015 © Pamela Singh and sepiaEYE

“I hope that this book will elevate the profile of women photographers, and re-establish them in the history of photography,” says Vermare. “I love the idea that these two women photo historians took it on themselves to garner a female collective in order to empower women photographers, to make them visible at last. This book marks the end of erasure and self-effacement for women in the field.”

Cover: Lotte Lenya, actress, Berlin, 1928 © Lotte Jacobi / 2020 University of New Hampshire

By Christina Cacouris

Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.

Une histoire mondiale des femmes photographes
Published by Textuel

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