On the threshold of the first part (1839-1919) of the great exhibition on women photographers (through January 24, 2016), I wondered how many women photographers I could name in that timeframe. I am not an expert on the nineteenth century, but I am not an ignoramus either, and I think I can list fifty male photographers from this era without too much trouble. Try it out for yourself. I ended up naming only two women: Julia Margaret Cameron and Anna Atkins (who, incidentally, was more precisely a botanist using photogenic drawing, but anyway…). Once inside the exhibition, I recognized two names which were familiar but did not automatically came to mind, Gertrude Käsebier (who took the splendid Mater Dolorosa pictured above, and a portrait of Sioux activist Zitkala-Sa pictured below) and Lady Hawarden. Well, this is quite clear and quite telling: a total of 2 or 4 out of the 90 artists featured here, not even 5% at best. Among all the artistic disciplines of the nineteenth century, photography might be the one (along with military music, perhaps?) in which women have been erased the most, a fact that this first half of the exhibition (at the Orangerie) allows us to realize, invaluably so. That is to say, it enables us to discover these women photographers and their talents and, at same time, to uncover how, if not why, they have been occulted thusly from the history of photography, then as well as now.
This is why I would like to talk about the artists I discovered, rather than talk about Cameron, a well-known figure who paired prudishness with heroic exaltation, or about photographers who were talented but who simply followed in the footsteps of men, and unoriginal assistants such as Mrs. Talbot or Mrs. Disdéri. I want to talk about the transgressors, the ones who made representations evolve through photography, the ones who went beyond the usual feminine stereotypes linked to home and to domestic chores. Some of those women photographers travelled in faraway countries, others were on the front lines during World War I. Some were suffragettes but surprisingly they were very few of them. Most of the breakthroughs and most of the ground those women conquered were related to the body. When Lady Hawarden, the Victorian aristocrat, photographed her daughters in front of the mirror, in their underwear, with bare legs –two features then associated with prostitutes–, capturing the awakening of their pubescent sensuality, and even if the images were destined to remain within the family circle, it signaled how the relation between women and their bodies evolved towards more freedom, in milieus where it was least expected. It should be noted in passing that, after her death in 1865, it was her husband, Viscount Hawarden, who, despite never having manipulated a camera in his lifetime, was admitted in her name as a member of the Photographic Society of London.
When, in 1891, Alice Austen, a rich American heir, overtly displayed her sapphism and depicted herself kissing her lover Gertrude, it faced what was then a radically taboo blind spot of society, one that would only become banal in thirty or forty years time. When, in 1910, Imogen Cunningham, at the dawn of her career, photographed a naked couple (pictured below) –with the man as a supplicant, to boot–, it was sure to elicit scandal.
As for Frances Benjamin Johnston, her 1896 self-portrait shows her smoking and drinking beer, her legs indecently visible under her lifted up petticoat, with a defiant chin and a stern look, while the men she captured… photographically are aligned on the mantelpiece as trophies: scandalous! Another word on a stranger with an intriguing name, Zaïda Ben Yusuf: the catalog does not say much about her, except that she lived in New York and was the daughter to an Algerian father and a German mother. The exhibition features the quite saturated portrait she did of another “mixed-blood,” the American critic of German and Japanese descent, Carl Sadakichi Hartmann. Zaïda Ben Yusuf might very well be the first photographer of Arab origin.
Yet the great merit of this exhibition (and of its remarkable catalog) does not only lie in showing and exposing new talents, but also in raising questions. Why, since it is now known as fact that these women existed and created during the first eighty years following the invention of photography, why aren’t they better known? Why aren’t they more discussed? In terms of overall quality (technical as well as aesthetical), but also in terms of breakthroughs or innovations (sometimes technical ones, but most often social and aesthetical ones), women photographers are not “less good” and it would be impossible to discard them on those grounds, as the exhibition so patently shows throughout. So, what was the –more or less conscious– discourse at play in their being occulted? To me, it seems that it was essentially institutional and critical discourses (and not economical rationales, for instance, as many women photographers quickly reached professional status). Art critics enclosed them in a feminine, mawkish, domestic realm: quotations line up on the Orangerie walls, evoking a feminine hobby, a whim, a gracious practice of photography.
One of the striking facts revealed by the historical analysis accompanying the exhibition is the radical difference between the situation in France and the situation in the United Kingdom and the United States. (Except for a Belgian here and a German there, no other countries are represented –an unfortunate shortcoming.) In Anglo-Saxon countries, photography first appears as a hobby for aristocrats (such as the Royal family) and bourgeois who fray with aristocrats (such as Cameron). Then, it became a real trade, in which they earned (a lot of) money and status (Cameron was considered a businesswoman). Open to women from the start, photographic societies counted lots of them as members. Social recognition was immediate.In France, most women photographers were doing menial work, evolving from assistants to photographers, from neighborhood shopkeepers to daguerreotypes sellers. Most of them came from middle- and lower-middle-class backgrounds –except Jenny de Vasson, from a family of lesser nobility of the Berry region, who never married so she could dedicate herself to painting and photography (the inspired author of the exhibition labels wrote this quite mysterious sentence about her: “Her virginity was quite tickled”). Learned societies –the Heliographic Society, and the French Society of Photography (SFP) which replaced the former in 1854– were extremely reluctant to accept women as members and only did so sparingly: one (Belgian, by the way) woman in 1856, a second one the following year, a third one in 1864; none of them rocking the boat (landscapes of Normandy or Flanders, military uniforms… rather tame subjects).
Misogyny from critics and institutions was the main reason for such an occultation. Even if the situation has evolved, this lack of recognition lasted until around 1970 in the United States and around 1995 in Europe, and still persists today, save for a few exceptions (such as Ute Eskildsen’s work). Indeed, as the curator Ulrich Pohlmann states in her essay in the catalogue, two authoritative French reference books, by Lemagny and Rouillé, in 1986, and by Gunthert and Poivert, 2007, only feature 7% and 8.2% of women respectively. And they mostly reference women photographers from the twentieth century (the topic of the next post); the nineteenth century has remained largely untouched until this exhibition.
So, yes, it was men like me, critics (and members of the SFP) who were afraid of women photographers, who occulted them, and this analysis and this exhibition have merit in making us realize it. (I talked about it, albeit more in the contemporary context, on November 12, 2015 at the Rencontres photographiques of the tenth arrondissement in Paris, during a roundtable organized by the Hans Lucas collective.)
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: November 9, 2015.
Translation by Lucas Faugère + Ludmilla Barrand contributed to this translation.