In 1989, when the Royal Academy in London celebrated the 150th anniversary of the invention of photography with an exhibition entitled “The Art of Photography 1839–1989”, out of a total of 97 photographers just four were women. And when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., launched an even bigger show in the same year, “On The Art of Fixing a Shadow”, women made up only ten per cent of the photographers featured.
Yet women have always been pioneers and pivotal figures in the field of photography. The botanist Anna Atkins (1799–1871) self-published her scientific study of algæ illustrated with photographs, British Algae, Cyanotype Impressions, in 1843, a year before William Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature appeared. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1879) took up photography at the age of 47, and more or less single-handedly invented the photographic portrait.
It would be hard to discuss pictoralism without mentioning Gertrude Käsebier (1852–1934), or photographic modernism without thinking of Imogen Cunningham (1883–1976). And women were also highly influential in the development of documentary photography — think of Dorothea Lange (1895–1965)’s images of the Great Depression — and in the advancement of photographic technology: it was Lee Miller (1907–1977) who discovered solarization by accident, although the technique was more famously utilised by her lover, Man Ray.
And could we talk about modern photography, or indeed, modern art, without mentioning Diane Arbus (1923–1971) and Cindy Sherman (b.1954)? Despite all of this, the imagery of male photographers continues to dominate our idea of what photography was, is, and should be.
The current show at the Centre Culturel Calouste Gulbenkian in Paris, Au Féminin, is “a contribution towards redressing the balance … entirely devoted to femininity, in both object and subject.” These are pictures of women, by women, and this is the first major exhibition to explore the subject in exactly this way. The show brings together the work of more than 100 women photographers from five continents (including Dora Maar, Leni Riefenstahl, Sarah Moon, Anne Brigman and Tina Modotti, along with those mentioned above) and embraces the history of photography in all its genres, from 1850 to the present day. The exhibition explores themes such as portraiture, maternity, work, city life, free time, fashion, the nude, constructions and metaphors.
Au Féminin is intended as an exhibition of wonderful photography, and not as political essay. Nevertheless, it cannot help but contribute to our understanding and appreciation of these extraordinary women, and their vision. All this – and curated by a Portugese man, Jorge Calado. Recommended.
Au Féminin: Women Photographing Women is at the Centre Culturel Calouste Gulbenkian, 51 Avenue d’Iéna, 75116 Paris from June 24 to September 29