Street Photography: Women Photographers ~~ A View of One’s Own

January 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Viginia Woolf’s 1929 landmark essay, A Room of One’s Own (Shakespeare’s sister), she questions what would have happened to Shakespeare’s equally talented sister if she had wanted to act or write in the 1600’s.  It would have been impossible!

Woolf discusses how from time immemorial women simply were not on the map of literature (at least not until the 1800’s).  It wasn’t that women didn’t have the intelligence or ability but that they were politically, economically and socially shackled.  She underscores the need for money plus the physical and mental space to create.  Therefore, she terms it  “a room of one’s own”.

Women’s role in street photography has much the same history as women’s literature.  In the beginning of photography in the mid-1800’s,  it would have been impossible for a “respectable” woman to be on the streets wandering about taking photographs.   Also, most women did not have the money for equipment or a place to train.  However, for women of the upper and bourgeois class, cameras were available.   For them it was a permissible pastime to indulge in family and friends’ portrait photography, along with needlepoint, drawing and music.

Unique in that period of time is Jane Martha St. John (England, 1801-1882).  She was born into a privileged family, which had connections to the pioneers of photography. Late in life, in her forties she married and took up photography.  When she and her husband traveled she captured images of the places they visited.  Outstanding and still in existence are 100 photographs she took in the spring of 1856 while traveling in Italy.  They were street scenes that included hotels, monuments and the waterfront.  The work was well composed and atmospheric.  Even more importantly, it is documented as being done by a woman.

As the 19th century drew to a close the role of women changed as more women started working in professional capacities, particularly in the United States.  At the same time, photographic technology had advanced allowing for much lighter weight cameras, easier exposure/focus and the ability to send film to labs for developing.  Women opened portrait studios, photographed architecture and rural life, and became photojournalists.

Jessie Tarbox Beals (born Canada 1870, moved to United States, died New York 1942) She was pioneer, known as the first woman press photographer and first “known” woman to photograph at night.

In 1902 she was hired as a staff photographer for the Buffalo Inquirer and Buffalo Courier.  Thereafter, her work was seen in diverse newspapers and magazines including Outing, The Craftsman, American Homes and Gardens, Bit and Spur, Town and Country, Harper’s Bazaar, The Christian Science Monitor, McClure’s Magazine and The New York Times.   She did a series of photographs of Bohemian Greenwich Village and of New York City slums.

Ms. Beals was adventurous and innovative, even teaching herself how use flash powder to in order make photos at night.  And she was an inspiration to the women who followed her.  Much of her work has disappeared and her later years were a time of poverty.

Alice Austen (United States, 1866-1952) was one of the first women photographers to take seriously the life of the streets, spending several years making portraits of various people at work.   That portfolio, Street Types of New York, was published in 1896.  She photographed whatever her curiosity drew her to ~~ parades, special events and the newly arrived immigrants who lived in the lower part of Manhattan.

It is interesting to note that when she was about 10 years old her uncle gave her a camera.  Early on she learned how to process film and make prints.  Her work has been conserved and the place she grew up in is a museum now  ~~ The Alice Austen House (aliceausten.org/).  Unfortunately, her later years were also filled with poverty.

Mention of must be made of two French women who documented everyday life as well:  Amélie Galup (France, 1856-1943) and Jenny de Vasson (France, 1872-1920).

The 20th Century brought further technological changes in photography.  New lighter weight cameras allowed for easier capture of city scenes.  Not just men but more women began using cameras to document life on the street.  And street photography became a legitimate genre.  At the same time social and economic changes for women were tremendous.  Their photographic work was earning them respect and money in advertising, photojournalism and art.

Dora Maar (France, 1907–1997) was both a commercial and a street photographer in the 1920s and 30s.  She photographed street scenes in Paris, London, and Barcelona.  Deeply involved in the Surrealist movement, that influence is evident in her photography.  Also, obvious is her respect for the people of the street who she photographed.

Berenice Abbott (United States, 1898-1991), an American icon, famous for her black-and-white photography of New York’s architecture in the 1930s.  She was a darkroom assistant to Man Ray in Paris from 1923-1925.  She was instrumental in saving and preserving Eugene Atget’s work.  Her work is known worldwide and included in many museum collections.

Emmy Andriesse (The Netherlands, 1914-1953), best known for her work with the Underground Camera group (De Ondergedoken Camera) during World War II.  Andriesse photographed daily life in Amsterdam during its “winter of hunger” in 1944-45.  As a Jew in hiding she risked her life to capture these street images.

Lisette Model (Austria 1901-1983), famous for her series of rich people lounging on the Promenade des Anglaise in Nice, France on the eve of the Second World War.  Her work is uncompromising, exposing both decadence and vulgarity.  Model’s photography is included in museums and private collections.

Rebecca Lepkoff (United States, born 1916), is well known for her street scenes and images of Jewish immigrants on the lower Eastside of Manhattan in the 1940s.  Then she photographed Hispanic life in the 1950s in the same area and every group of people who have arrived ever since.

* * *

In all the photography courses I took there were only a few women ever mentioned.  I went forward anyway.  But it was a thrill each time I discovered the history of another woman street photographer.  These photographers with “a view of their own” inspire with their courage, creativity and fortitude.

To be continued . . .

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