The Women Who Reshaped Modern Photography

At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House, Nora slams the door on domesticity, tired of how her whole life she’s been nothing but a “doll child,” first to her father, then to her husband. Performed in England in 1889, the play exemplified the emerging “New Woman” that would be named by Irish writer Sarah Grand a few years later. Audiences at the time were scandalized that, in search of greater freedom, Nora would leave her husband—even her children!—in order to do what, exactly? And to what end?

Unknown photographer, Tsuneko Sasamoto, Tokyo, 1940
Unknown photographer, Tsuneko Sasamoto, Tokyo, 1940
Courtesy Tsuneko Sasamoto/Japan Professional Photographers Society

The New Woman may be most familiar as an aesthetic: sporting bloomers (later trousers) and cropped hair, “rational dress” and androgyny lite, she stands by her bicycle with a cigarette, exuding freedom and sexual liberation. Facing obstacles different from her working-class (who were already laboring outside the home) and aristocratic (who had more freedom generally) peers, the bourgeois nineteenth-century New Woman strove to free herself from the confines of the Victorian “angel in the house” ideal that emphasized a separation between public and private spaces, itself a function of the developing middle class. Fundamentally born of increased rights and opportunities for bourgeois European women, the New Woman (or nouvelle femmeneue Fraumodan gāruxin nüxingal-mar ‘a al-jadida) would develop into the twentieth century as women around the world sought new freedoms.

The New Woman Behind the Camera—organized by National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC) curator Andrea Nelson, and now on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—uses this first-wave feminist framework to revivify the contributions, a few decades later, of women photographers to early twentieth-century modernism. But picturing her is only a small part of the show’s purpose—the New Woman is, after all, behind the camera. The exhibition, as clarified by the catalogue, argues that New Womanhood arose in conjunction with major developments in photography. How this historical marriage offered alternatives to women at the time animates the ample array of images on view at the Met, making a case for the overlooked significance of these photographers and their innovative work.

Dorothea Lange, Japanese-American owned grocery store, Oakland, California, March 1942
Dorothea Lange, Japanese-American owned grocery store, Oakland, California, March 1942
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

More study than survey, the exhibition brings together a dizzying range of photos taken between the 1920s and the 1950s by 120 international women photographers (the wall text notes, “the designation ‘woman photographer’ is imperfect [as is the adjective ‘female’], yet it remains a useful framework for analysis”). Remarkably varied subjects and approaches are organized into imperfectly general categories, no doubt needed to mitigate audience overwhelm, but not fully up to the task: The City, Avant-Garde Experimentation, Ethnographic Approaches, Fashion and Advertising, Social Documentary, Modern Bodies, and Reportage—each one granted a room of its own.

The central revelation of the show is the fact that the early twentieth-century New Woman found a natural home in commercial photography. As critiques of gender norms collided with the rise of the Picture Press and the two world wars pushed women further into the workforce, fashion and portrait photography were deemed, to varying cultural degrees, socially acceptable pursuits, and more women experienced increased access to the public sphere. The importance of commercial photography, though represented in number on the walls of the Met, really clarified itself only with the catalogue texts, which I found to be integral to understanding the interplay between the emerging New Woman and the developing medium.

Lillian Bassman, Translucent Hat, ca. 1950
Lillian Bassman, Translucent Hat, ca. 1950 
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Advances in technology made cameras more affordable, easy to use, and portable, multiplying the number of studios, camera clubs, and amateur societies. Women have worked in studios since the camera’s invention in the 1830s, but professional training for women expanded into the early twentieth century, especially in Germany and Austria. Opportunities were influenced by class and culture, and those without means or access pursued training in studios, crafts schools, or vocational programs, or were self-taught.

Weimar-era Berlin, the fashion capital of its time, saw women forming 36 percent of the workforce by the mid-1920s as the ready-to-wear Konfektion clothing industry boomed—an early iteration of fast fashion, much of it Jewish-owned, making affordable France’s haute couture—and along with it, the largest and most modern print media in Europe (both industries were violently “Aryanized” with the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933). Fashion photography allowed many women access to public life, and in some cases, economic independence and professional success; in 1931 Berlin, women ran 130 of the 430 photography studios (the subversive advertisements and surrealist collages of Grete Stern and Ellen Auerbach’s ringl + pit studio are particularly witty).

Consuelo Kanaga, Annie Mae Merriweather, 1935
Consuelo Kanaga, Annie Mae Merriweather, 1935
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

Through studio work, women were able to live out their New Womanhood while also experimenting with expressing it. During the 1930s and 1940s, there were a number of women-only portrait studios in Iraq, Jordan, India, Korea, and Japan. In Palestine, Karimeh Abbud advertised herself as a “Lady-Photographer,” helpfully bringing her own makeshift studio into private homes. Armenian Maryam Şahinyan ran a studio for almost fifty years in Istanbul; among her 200,000 images of mostly family portraits and passport pictures are striking photographs of people expressing nonnormative gender. With the post-Reconstruction influence of the New Negro Movement, Black American portraiture worked to counter the media’s racist imagery with photos asserting humanity and respectability. Black women photographers faced additional barriers to entry, and “the extent of their . . . contributions to the field has yet to be properly established,” writes Nelson. In one remarkable example, Florestine Perrault Collins of New Orleans, who worked almost exclusively with Black and Creole clients, pictures her friend Mae Fuller Keller looking casually glamorous—from her pose and expression to her bobbed hair and ruffled dress, Keller is all modern mettle.

For the most part, history has discounted the fruits of this fascinating feedback loop between photography and New Womanhood. Commercial work was not seen as serious art, but instead considered technical, market-driven, clichéd. (Photographs of children, an especially marketable and conventional subject for women, have largely been written off by history, despite the fact, as Elizabeth Cronin argues in the catalogue, that some women photographers made innovative and radical artistic choices within socially acceptable constraints.) Fashion photography was often dismissed as frivolous. Here’s Siegfried Kracauer, quoted in the catalogue, on the mass ornament and popular media’s “blizzard of images”: “The new fashions also must be disseminated, or else in the summer the beautiful girls will not know who they are.”

Yevonde Cumbers Middleton, Lady Bridget Poulett as 'Arethusa,' 1935
Yevonde Cumbers Middleton, Lady Bridget Poulett as ‘Arethusa,’ 1935
National Portrait Gallery, London

Behind Kracauer’s acerbity is the accidental observation that these images really did offer women new ways of seeing and understanding themselves—photographs of the New Woman, but also the bylines of women photographers. From 1931 to 1937, Shanghai’s Linglong magazine advertised modern images of the Chinese New Woman, including those of women as hobbyist photographers on the model of the Kodak Girl. Margaret Bourke-White was a Life celebrity. To be sure, not all commercial photographs by women were interesting, artful, or radical. But one can imagine the refractive power of seeing, in 1921, the portrait of artist Mariette Pachhofer in hat, tie, and lace-up riding boots—a paragon of New Woman chic—made by Madame d’Ora (Dora Kallmus), the most established international fashion photographer of the mid-1920s to late 1930s.

D’Ora portrayed women, she said, “as they wished to be seen.” It’s rarely that simple, but as advertising was wholly changed by the advent of photography, experimentation there actually could blur the lines between the commercial and artistic, the realistic and abstract. The New Vision aimed to reflect the reality of the everyday with its geometry, photomontage, and abstraction, spreading parallel to photographic surrealism, in which women participated as much more than merely muses. Photomontages by Hannah Höch, Marianne Brandt, Toshiko Okanoue, and Grete Stern picture a fragmented and frenetic modernity, critiquing gender norms, inequality, and war. Yvonne Chevalier’s Nu (Nude) (1929) is a study in abstracted and ungendered sensuality. Ergy Landau’s 1932 self-portrait shows the photographer in full dark dress positioning her body and camera to capture a serpentine nude on the floor, a twist on the odalisque trope.

Galina Sanko, During an Attack, 1943
Galina Sanko, During an Attack, 1943
Robert Koch Gallery

In this way, the relation between women and photography unfolds in The New Woman Behind the Camera not so much as linear history, but as a circuitous process of seeing and being seen; picturing, being pictured, and picturing anew. In each room and essay, she threatens to burst the frame, resisting containment by any one category, theme, or definition. Nelson and the other essayists flag areas of study they hope will be further explored; this would be welcome, particularly from parts of the world less represented here. The exhibition gives the sense of a bursting, righteous, meticulous, and sometimes messy beginning.

To take down the “great man” theory of photography is not simply to celebrate great women, but to understand photography as a collective and collaborative endeavor.

Between two world wars, global economic depression, movements for decolonization, and the rise of fascism, communism, and the modern city, reportage and social documentary were popular genres for capturing a time distinct from, but not wholly unlike, our own. Fantastic photographs by famous names like Bourke-White, Helen Levitt, Berenice Abbott, and Dorothea Lange—including the latter’s powerful accounts of Japanese-American internment camps—are joined by many less widely known, such as one of India’s first female photojournalists, Homai Vyarawalla, whose kinetic, peopled photos document the beginning of Indian independence. Tsuneko Sasamoto’s Tokyo street photos and Niu Weiyu’s images of newly communist China are not to be missed. (Mao Zedong floating in the Yangtze River, taken in 1956 by Hou Bo, is at once humorous, melancholy, and eerie.)

Some careers were curtailed by marriage and children, others by exile or war. In Lola Álvarez Bravo’s En su propia cárcel (In Her Own Prison) (1950), a woman leans out a window in post-revolutionary Mexico, caged—behind a grid of shadow and light—by domesticity, and perhaps more. As European and American women made pioneering ethnographic portraits of other cultures—notably in Africa—they were not exempt from photographic colonialism. A small number of women, like Lee Miller and Galina Sanko, took combat photographs during World War II, while others documented its ravaging effects. But the majority of women involved in photography were not famous photographers or luminaries. Following the explosion of mass media with rotogravure printing, women participated at every level in the development of photography and its dissemination; Nelson notes that women most often worked professionally as print finishers and retouchers.

Vera Gabrielová, Untitled (Spoons), 1935–36
Vera Gabrielová, Untitled (Spoons), 1935–36
Courtesy Ellen and Robert Grimes

Celebrating the men behind the magazines—Henry Luce of Life, Jean Prouvost of France-Soir and Paris Match—as single-handedly ushering in a new age of photography discredits “the elaborate teams of editors, art directors, researchers, reporters, and photographers—many of them women—who were the driving creative force behind this international phenomenon,” writes Kristen Gresh in the catalogue. Nadya Bair, in her recent book The Decisive Network: Magnum Photos and the Postwar Image Market (2020), similarly argues that integral to the agency’s lauded photographers and the postwar visual culture they created was the collaboration of sales agents, writers, editors, publishers, and spouses.

To take down the “great man” theory of photography, then, is not simply to celebrate great women, but to understand photography, and media more generally, as a collective and collaborative endeavor. The aim of The New Woman Behind the Camera, explain Nelson and Mia Fineman (who installed the show at the Met) in their preface, is not only “to insert neglected, forgotten, or marginal figures into existing art-historical narratives,” but “to complicate and enrich our understanding of modernity” itself.

Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, ca. 1927
Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, ca. 1927
Wilson Centre for Photography

Self-portraits, seen throughout the show, are collected at the back of the catalogue—doubly powerful in their use of reflection and multiple exposure, their visualization of the camera as both a tool for the New Woman’s self-determination and her self-expression. The shadow of Lotte Stam-Beese in profile with her camera appears against a sun-soaked door. Annemarie Heinrich and her sister Ursula are ecstatically captured hands outstretched and laughing in a reflective orb. In each of these images—even the more traditional Bourke-White echoing her tripod’s stance in slacks, gesturing toward her camera as if toward a loved one—we see the New Woman picturing herself as she wished to be seen, both behind and before the camera, powerfully training and framed by her own lens.

The New Woman Behind the Camera is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through October 3, 2021.

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