WOMEN PHOTOGRAPHERS - Claire Ducresson-Boët

Curated and written by Claire Ducresson-Boët


Straddling both art and science, photography is rooted in two domains whose institutions and workings have structurally kept women at bay for a long time, and whose historiographies are known for their stubborn invisibilization of the women who managed to rise above the assigned and predetermined roles of assistants, models, or muses. As a novel artistic medium and a technique in perpetual development, photography emerged as an uncharted territory, not yet monopolized or formalized by male actors and masculine traditions. However, despite numerous women photographers actively involved in the history of photography from the invention of the medium, most of them have disappeared from its canon and narratives, even those who gained widespread recognition and respect from their peers during their lifetime. As Luce Lebart and Marie Robert write in their introduction to Une Histoire mondiale des femmes photographes (2020), “this historiographical gap became a cultural void.” Coinciding with a critical and feminist reevaluation of the art-historical canon prompted by Linda Nochlin’s seminal and incisive “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971), attempts to fill these gaps, excavate counter-narratives, foster more inclusive perspectives, and question the dynamics at play in the exclusion of women first appeared in the United States in the 1970s, before spreading to Europe in the 1980s. The past fifteen years have seen a noticeable increase in initiatives aimed at reevaluating and recognizing the contributions of women in photography. From Anna Atkins, who self-published the first photographically illustrated book in 1843, to Sara Facio, who co-founded the first publishing house dedicated to photography in Latin America with Guatemalan photographer María Cristina Orive in 1973, the role of women in the history of photography, its technical and artistic developments, as well as its institutionalization and theorization, constitutes a rich and inexhaustible field of research.


© Anna Atkins (1799-1871, British), Alaria esculenta, ca. 1849-1850
© Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879, British), Julia Jackson, 1867
© Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934, American), Lollipops, 1910


Although women’s photography has long been perceived as belonging to the domestic sphere—through specific practices such as botanical photography or the family album for instance—women photographers actually saw their photographic practice as a possible professional career and source of livelihood very early on. The first commercial studios run by women opened in the early 1940s in Northern Europe. The professionalization of women photographers developed in the United States towards the end of the 19th century, championed by important figures such as Frances Benjamin Johnston. In 1897, she published “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera,” a text guiding women on how to make a profitable business out of photography. Alongside 31 fellow women photographers, Johnston also organized an exhibition of women’s photographs for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, thus establishing herself as a mentor for aspiring professional women photographers. 


© Frances Benjamín Johnston (1864 - 1952, American), Self-portrait in the studio, 1896
© Imogen Cunningham (1883 - 1976, American), John Bovingdon, 1929

© Margaret Bourke White (1904 - 1971, American), A worker attends to the generator casing of a Soviet hydro-electric power plant, ca. 1930

© Sara Facio (1932 - , Argentine), Approach to Life, 1963


Women photographers have quickly acknowledged and embraced the emancipatory potential of their photographic practice and the empowering possibilities of the photographic image. The figure of the woman photographer became the embodiment of the “New Woman” that emerged at the end of the 19th century and described the idea of a free, autonomous, fearless, educated, and ambitious woman who challenged traditional gender roles. Photographer Lee Miller exemplified this ideal. Closely associated with avant-garde artistic circles, renowned as a fashion photographer, and running a successful studio, she notably distinguished herself as a photojournalist during World War II. Working for British Vogue, she documented daily life in London during the Blitz as well as the liberation of Paris, and was among the first photojournalists to photograph Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps. 


© Lee Miller (1907–1977, American), Fire masks, London, 1941


Whether in the street, in their studio, or in the intimacy of their home, women photographers have accompanied and documented women’s emancipation movements as well as social and sexual liberation at large. By documenting the Suffragettes movement for women’s right to vote, Christina Broom became a pioneer of female press photography in Great Britain. Seventy years later, on March 8, 1979, Hengameh Golestan documented Iranian women’s protest against the new Islamic government’s decision to make hijab mandatory. Through their profession and their images, women photographers have long challenged gender roles. Artists like Alice Austen, Claude Cahun, or Germaine Krull held a mirror to queer life, photographing lesbian relationships or portraying themselves in androgynous self-portraits. The photo studio became a space for self-expression and experimentations that subverted social and cultural norms, as evidenced in photographs by Maryam Şahinya, the first woman photographer to own a commercial studio in Turkey. For over a century and a half, women photographers have multiplied perspectives on women, their lives, loves, and bodies—much like the kaleidoscope of experiences represented in Carrie Mae Weems’ famous series “From The Kitchen.”


© Christina Broom (1862 - 1939, Scottish), Suffragettes taking part in a pageant organized by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, June 1908
© Hengameh Golestan (1952 - , Iranian), Untitled, from the series Witness 1979
© Alice Austen (1866–1952, American), Trude and I, Masked, Short Skirts, 1891

© Germaine Krull (1897–1985, German / Dutch / French), Les Amies, ca. 1924
© Claude Cahun (1894–1954, French), Self-portrait, ca. 1927
© Maryam Şahinyan (1911 - 1996, Armenian), Untitled, Istanbul, 1949
© Anne Noggle (1922 - 2005, American), Stonehenge Decoded, 1977 
© Carrie Mae Weems (1953 - , American), from The Kitchen Table Series, 1990


Beyond the question of women and gender, women photographers have used photography as a means to access male-dominated spaces or social circles. In this regard, Margaret Bourke-White was a pioneer in many ways: her photograph “Dam at Fort Peck” was reproduced on the cover of the first issue of LIFE magazine; she was the first accredited American female war photographer, as well as the first Western photographer authorized to enter and photograph in the Soviet Union. Homai Vyarawalla in India and Tsuneko Sasamoto in Japan also count among those who early on managed to carve out a place in the predominantly male universe of photojournalism. Women photographers have documented all major conflicts of the 20th century as well as revolutionary movements and civil wars, exemplified by figures like Gerda Taro who perished on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, or Susan Meiselas whose documentation of the Nicaraguan revolution counts among her most acclaimed projects. As for Letizia Battaglia, she gained recognition as a pivotal witness to the daily violence of the Sicilian mafia.


© Homai Vyarawalla (1913 - 2012, Indian), Rehana Mogul and Mani Turner at work in sculpture class at the J.J. School of Arts, Bombay, late 1930s
© Tsuneko Sasamoto (1914 - 2022, Japanese), Hiroshima Genpatsu Dome, 1952
© Gerda Taro (1910–1937, German), Republican militiawoman training on the beach, outside Barcelona, August 1936

© Susan Meiselas (1948– , American), Muchachos await the counterattack by the National Guard, Matagalpa, Nicaragua, 1979

© Letizia Battaglia (1935–2022, Italian), Child with a gun in Palermo, 1982


While the camera could serve as a passkey, being a woman sometimes also proved to be an asset in accessing certain subjects. This was notably the case for Stephanie Sinclair and her work on child brides in Nepal or for Alexandra Boulat, who has documented the condition of Afghan women since the American invasion of 2001. Many women photographers, particularly attuned to the plight of the marginalized and oppressed, have chosen to focus their lenses on those excluded from mainstream narratives, whether by pushing the doors of psychiatric hospitals like Mary Ellen Mark, highlighting the struggles of indigenous populations in North America like Shelley Niro, or capturing the daily life of Iran’s last nomadic communities as depicted by Catalina Martin-Chico. Women photographers have thus contributed pages of history, producing valuable and crucial visual archives. Commissioned by the War Relocation Authority to chronicle the internment of Japanese American citizens following the Pearl Harbor attack, Dorothea Lange offered a poignant critique of this mass incarceration, with profound respect for her subjects.


© Dorothea Lange (1895–1965, American), Kimiko Kitagaki guarding her family’s baggage in Oakland before leaving by bus for the Tanforan assembly center, 1942
© Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015, American), Laurie in the bathtub of Ward 81, Oregon State Hospital. Salem, Oregon, 1976

© Sandra Eleta (1942– , Panamanian), Untitled, from the series Los Abuelos, 2004

© Jane Evelyn Atwood (1947– , American), Regional Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Les Haut Thebaudières, Vertou, France, 1981
© Shelley Niro (1954– , Mohawk), The Shirt, 2003
© Catalina Martin-Chico (1969– , French and Spanish), Primary schooling in the mountains, near Qir, Fars Province, Iran, 2016, from the series The last & lost nomads of Iran


And yet… Despite the significant efforts made by historians, exhibition curators, researchers, and feminist activists to acknowledge the historical contributions of women photographers, contemporary photography still grapples with their underrepresentation. Recent initiatives have shed light on this disparity, particularly evident in exhibitions, festivals, and publications. In France, for instance, activists like photographer Marie Docher and the collective La Part des Femmes have drawn attention to eloquent statistics: While women represent two thirds of students in photography schools in France, they tend to “evaporate” after graduating. Indeed, in France in 2017, only 12% of photographs published in daily newspapers were taken by women, only 15% of photojournalists holding a press card were women, between 2007 and 2017, less than a third of photographers exhibited in festivals were women, and only 22% in major French photo institutions. While these statistics have raised awareness and prompted changes, this situation also arises from ingrained habits and social factors that require more time to change. Yet addressing these questions is crucial not only for achieving gender equality among male and female photographers, but also because the underrepresentation of women in photography has an impact on the images and stories that reach us and shape our representations of the world.


Claire Ducresson-Boët is an independent researcher and writer. She holds a PhD in art history, specializing in the history of photography.
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