As a historian of photography, I’ve always been grateful that the medium’s canon contains a relatively large number of women’s names when compared to the other visual arts. Anna Atkins and Julia Margaret Cameron are well-known characters in the story of photography’s first few decades, and Cindy Sherman and Annie Leibowitz are only a couple of the medium’s more recent stars. One reason for this may be that the invention of photography occurred in 1839—well into the modern age—whereas painting and sculpture are much older, by millennia. Still, the first famous woman artist that comes to my mind is Artemisia Gentileschi, who worked in the early 1600s. I know that there must have been other female artists and sculptors before her, yet socioeconomic realities and patriarchal customs buried their names more deeply in the annals of history, or worse, eliminated them. Fortunately for women who are photography lovers like myself, photography emerged at a time when women’s presence in public life was growing (though it still had a very long way to go), and the medium greatly amplified the recording and circulation of information, making women’s contributions less easily obliterated. Nevertheless, it is impossible to deny that most people would cite more men than women when asked to name famous photographers. Therefore, I thought I would mention five who, in my opinion, should be better known.
Margaret Bourke-White (American, 1904–1971), Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.
Gelatin silver print, 18 ½ x 14 13/16 in., George Eastman Museum, museum accession 1971.0155.0066
I’ll start with Margaret Bourke-White. Her photograph of Fort Peck Dam in Montana appeared on the cover of the very first issue of LIFE magazine, dated November 23, 1936. The image is both visually dynamic and historically significant. The composition emphasizes the monumental scale of the structure and finds beauty in the utilitarian design and mundane materials. At a time when most of the country was suffering the economic deprivations of the Depression, it heralded the promise of Americans working together under the New Deal, while foreshadowing the imminent dominance of photography over “life” in postwar America.
Barbara Kasten (American, b. 1936), Construct NYC-10, 1983, silver dye bleach print, 29 x 36 15/16 in.,
George Eastman Museum, purchase with funds from the Lila Acheson Wallace Foundation. © Barbara Kasten
Elaine Mayes (American, b. 1936), Pegasus, 1972, gelatin silver print, printed 1982,
George Eastman Museum, purchase with funds from the Lila Acheson Wallace Foundation. © Elaine Mayes
Two of my favorite women artists worked during the “photo boom” of the 1970s, when the medium’s presence became ever stronger in art museums, university and art school curricula, and the collecting market. This climate supported a wide range of photographic styles, from Barbara Kasten’s pioneering color still lifes, which still look contemporary, to Elaine Mayes’s more documentary wandering through America’s social landscape.
Bertien van Manen (Dutch, b. 1942), West Yorkshire, New Sharlston, 2004, chromogenic development print, 16 x 20 in.,
George Eastman Museum, purchase with funds from Steven and Claudia Schwartz and the Charina Foundation. © Bertien van Manen
More recently, I’ve been struck by the prescience of Bertien van Manen, whose photography always encourages personal reflection while delivering insights into the lives of others with whom we share the globe. For her project Give Me Your Image she visited the homes of emigrants to Europe and asked them to show her a photograph that they had brought with them from their homeland. Then she made her own photograph of it within its new domestic environment. The result prompts us to realize how important photographs have become in their 175-year history; they are not only reminders of who we were and where we came from, but they are also objects that help us communicate to others about things that are important to us.
Gillian Wearing (British, b. 1963), Me as Talbot, 2013, gelatin silver print, 57 7/8 x 48 13/16 in., George Eastman Museum,
purchase with funds from the Photography Collection Committee, the Charina Foundation, Kate and Steve Foley, and the Rochester Collectors Circle. © Gillian Wearing
That brings me to Gillian Wearing, whose art is deeply engaged with photography’s outsized role in the construction of personal and collective identity. Her photograph, Me as Talbot, brings us back to where I started, with the invention of photography. By disguising herself as William Henry Fox Talbot, whose invention of the photographic negative laid the groundwork for popular photography, she points to the fungible nature of identity while inhabiting the guise of British photography’s progenitor. I like the idea of a female psyche at the core of the photographic enterprise.
Lisa Hostetler, Ph.D.
Curator in Charge, Department of Photography