Published  03/12/2015

Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839-1945

Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839-1945

The first of its kind in France, this exhibition shines a light on the great accomplishments of early female photographers in Europe and the United States

Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris
14 October 2015 – 24 January 2016


A woman gazes out of the frame, as she stands next to her camera. The scene is illuminated. As she tilts her lens towards her subject, she appears to have a natural confidence. This is a self-portrait of Margaret Bourke-White (1904-71), a staff photographer at Life magazine and a photojournalist during the second world war. One of her many talents was her brilliant use of flashlight photography in the 1930s.1 The portrait is among the captivating images currently on display in Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839-1945.

The challenging title is borrowed from Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, staged on Broadway in 1962. The artistic production refers to Woolf, the 20th-century feminist writer, who emphasised the importance for women to have a room of their own for their creative work.2 In this spirit, the show features pioneering female photographers, many of whom had their own studios, and considered that photography gave them the chance to exist independently, and to assert themselves as attentive subjects.

Curated in two parts at the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay, the show covers a breathless sweep through more than a century of photographic history, from the official invention of photography, in 1839, until the events of the second world war. Along the way, you will find pictures by significant artists, including Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) and Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934), and early photojournalists such as Bourke-White, Christina Broom (1862-1939) and Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952). In placing women centre stage, the exhibition aims to break free from the idea that photography is a “man’s matter” and to emphasise that women played an important role in the history of photography, more so than in the history of the traditional fine arts.

The first of its kind in France, the exhibition draws on new research into many histories of photography, which, over the past 40 years, have re-evaluated women’s extraordinary contribution to the development of the medium of expression – in Europe and the United States. As Guy Cogeval, president of the Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie, writes in the beautiful catalogue that accompanies the exhibition: “The role of women in creation and especially in photography has not yet been taken seriously enough in France. Yet they are essential for understanding modernity running in the arts.”3

Ulrich Pohlmann, chief curator of the photographic collection at Stadtmuseum, Munich, and Thomas Galifot and Marie Robert at the Musée d’Orsay, have done an admirable job in curating this vast exhibition. They bring together famous and lesser-known names and cover many genres, ranging from portraiture to reportage, while illustrating the great accomplishments of women in the increasingly egalitarian field of photography.

As Roland Barthes states in Camera Lucida, a photograph is a “transparent envelope”,4 which you look through to discover information about the world. This notion springs to mind in the first part of the exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie. This reveals that when photography was invented officially, women were often sidelined to the edges of the art world. Early images by amateur photographers suggest that the ideology of separate spheres prevailed in the 19th century, which defined the public arena and fields of creativity as a man’s world, while women belonged to the realm of the private life.

Grace and gentility emanate from flower studies and portraiture, such as The Picnic Party by Mary Dillwyn (1816-1906), one of the first women in Britain to use the early photographic process of the calotype, invented by WH Fox Talbot. Elegantly staged portraits by the great amateur photographer Cameron are luminous odes to her friends, including her 1867 portrait of Mrs Herbert Duckworth (later Mrs Leslie Stephen), mother of Virginia Woolf. Yet among the standout images are those by Käsebier, whose studies of the human condition are deeply moving, for example Blessed Art Thou Among Women (1899), where the protective gesture of a woman next to a child has an affective emotional register. Käsebier was a member of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession Society, an early-20th-century movement notable for the pictorialism of its photography – the first issue of the society’s official publication, Camera Work, was devoted to Käsebier.

One fascinating aspect of this show is that it tells the stories of often-forgotten female photographers, who stepped into the professional arena around the turn of the 20th century, whether organising gallery exhibitions or running commercial studios. In the US, Benjamin Johnston is said to have received her first camera as a gift from the founder of Kodak, and went on to open a studio in New York and build a national reputation as a professional photographer of the Washington elite. In the UK, Broom showed her bold creativity in taking images of the women’s rights movement, recording life in London at the start of the 20th century, for example in Jeunes suffragettes faisant la promotion de l’exposition de la Women’s Exhibition de Knightsbridge, Londres (1909).

This sense of photography as a historical record flows into the second part of the exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, where there are images of the new world of modernity by Bourke-White, such as Fort Peck Dam, Montana (1936), which graced the first issue of Life magazine. Yet while there are images of progress, there are also pictures of decline. The documentary study of a woman and her children on the breadline in Depression era California, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936), by the well-known photojournalist Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), still has a capacity to affect the viewer in the subject’s expression of suffering.

Interestingly, this show reveals that in the first world war, British Red Cross nurses documented the lives of soldiers in the tradition of female philanthropy in the health field, whereas during the second world war, dedicated female photojournalists were on the frontline. In this exhibition, you can see astonishing images by Bourke-White for Life magazine, Germaine Krull (1897-1985) for Vu, and Lee Miller (1907-77) for Vogue. Julia Pirotte (1908-2000) is worthy of mention for her bravery in documenting the French resistance in Marseille. This show not only brings to light the growing professionalism of female photographers during the 20th century, but also presents images that bear witness to key events in history. This exhibition is a revelation from beginning to end.

1. The History of Photography from 1839 to the present day by Beaumont Newhall, published by Secker and Warburg, London, 1964, page 158.
2 A Room of One’s Own; and, Three guineas by Virginia Woolf with an introduction by Hermione Lee, published by Chatto & Windus, London, 1984.
3. Guy Cogeval writes: “Le rôle des femmes dans la création et en particulier dans la photographie n’a pas encore été suffisamment pris au sérieux en France. Elles sont pourtant essentielles pour comprendre la modernité en marche dans les arts” in his introductory essay to the catalogue Qui a peur des femmes photographes 1839 à 1945 by Thomas Galifot, Ulrich Pohlmann and Marie Robert, published by Hazan, Paris, 2015, page 12.
4. Camera Lucida: reflections on photography by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard, published by Vintage, London, 2000, page 5.


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