When women dared taking photographs: a retrospective on women photographers in Paris

A seven-year-old girl in a sensual posture. A barefoot teenager in a white transparent dress staring at the viewer, reminding us of the iconography used to portray prostitutes. In the intimacy of a small separate room, dedicated to Julia Margaret Cameron’s children portraits, the photographs are filled with a moving and mysterious sensuality that would not have been accepted in the 1860s (or even today?) if the pictures had been shot by a man. This is one of the great strengths of the exhibition, “Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839-1919” currently running in Paris: it shows us the photographs that men could not take.

Now, the exhibition also does an excellent job of avoiding the polemical—this is not about women equalling men, either technically or artistically. Instead, the show focuses on how female photographers deserve more of our interest because they played such an important role in pushing the boundaries of what could be photographed. What is emphasized, then, is the specificity of photographs as they were beginning to be made by women for the first time.

These women were neither wives nor daughters nor mothers—they were photographers. Despite the fact that professional female photographers of that time were confined to the domestic sphere, they were serious, dedicated practitioners nonetheless. Yes, the amateurs were forced to stick to photogenic drawings of leaves and flowers, but the truly ground-breaking artists are pictured using the most cutting-edge scientific tools of the day and conducting true experiments with light.

Even when these photographers portray other women or children, they surprise the viewer, who might be (or have been) expecting a wise, maternal, tender look. For example, Julia Margaret Cameron’s photograph entitled, “The Angel at the Tomb” depicts Mary Magdalene, but the famous hair that dried Jesus’s feet is pervaded with affecting sensualism. Femininity is also revealed in the photographers’ gaze on men. Gertrude Käsebier’s photograph of the famous sculptor Rodin is one of the most striking works of the exhibition: it is not about Rodin, it is about Rodin in the presence of a woman.

Indeed, these photographs are not mere replicas of manly works. And their authors do not try to resemble men. The motif of a woman pretending to be a man is used as a comical device as much as a means to evoke the gender gap in a light tone. A series of photographs by Alice Austen in the 1890s stage women who enjoy transgressing the gender boundaries of the time: young women smoking in their bathrobes, having drinks on a horse-drawn carriage or even dressing up as men. In her 1896 autoportrait, Frances Benjamin Johnston poses with a cigarette and a cup of coffee, in front of a chimney decorated with portraits of men. On a different note, some nude photographs by Imogen Cunningham switch aesthetical roles, by presenting the unclothed body of her husband Roi Partridge.

The viewer is also invited to reconsider commercial stereotypes that seem both shockingly quaint and sadly relevant today. But the exhibition avoids sermonizing—as ever, clever advertisements have the power to affirm while also pushing into risky new ground. In the room dedicated to the Kodak products marketed at women in the 1890s, we find the ”Kodak girl” publicity shots. These were part of a marketing strategy to imply that everybody could take pictures. The series carries with it an evident mark of condescension but at the same time suggests that women played a major role in the democratization of photography.

By privileging the unsettling of viewer’s expectations and the distortion of one’s stereotypes, the exhibition accomplishes much more than merely comparing women with men. The last rooms of the exhibition, “Taking the route of manly territories,” do not do justice to the rest of the show. These photographs fail to be as joyful, as unique and as daring as the ones conveying equivocal and unpredictable ways of looking at the world and at others.

At least the last rooms of the show have the effect of making us realize the strength of what came before. Simply put, that the women’s photographs were not meant to prove anything, just to be. As the photographer Gertrude Käsebier wrote in 1907: “It is not just that I am anxious to make these photographs for the sake of people, I am thirsty to do it for my own sake.”

In the same vein, the exhibition proves that we should not be interested in these photographs because they were shot by women in the 19th century, when photography was still largely preserve of men. Instead, the viewer should look at them today because they distinguish themselves, even a century later, to the astute eye as powerful examples of image-making.

—Laure Andrillon

Editors’ Note: “Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers” was a two-part exhibition that showed in Paris. The first part—1839-1919—showed at the L’Orangerie Museum. The second—1839-1945—at the Musee D’Orsay. Both shows ran at the end of 2015 to the start of 2016. The catalogue can be found here.