The traditions of portraiture and landscape photography came about around the 1850s, when the complicated chemical processes of the burgeoning industry were fine-tuned to allow those with the means to procure the hardware (the camera) and the software (the chemicals and plates) and follow instructions well enough to concoct the images they so desired. That most of these gentlepeople were men is to be expected; the world’s first female photographer is most likely lost to history, but Anna Atkins, an English botanist, often is credited with this honor. (No photographs of hers remain, sadly, although several stunning cyanotype photograms—similar to sunprints—are available for all to see on Wikipedia.)
Within a generation, however, swashbuckling women were telling men and children to turn this way and that, becoming the art directors of their own imaginations. Oddly enough, they seemed not to suffer the bad reputations of the female artists before them, which likely had something to do with the barrier to entry of photography. Many of these women were educated and/or from a slice of society would be aghast at the dancehall milieu of the “cheaper” arts. The first women on this list came of age when photography was a bright and shiny new thing, and women couldn’t even vote. They tackled a technical art form that is required knowledge of math and chemistry. Their visions came to fruition, whatever the hurdles were they had to overcome.
All of these women made their way in a male-dominated profession. Some started as hobbyists (Cameron, Arbus), some were photojournalists (Bourke-White and Miller), some had a commercial background (Leibovitz), and some were esteemed artists from the get-go (Sherman). They all created unique bodies of art that have and will stand the test of time. Together they represent the cream of the 20th century crop. Being female doesn’t necessarily add anything to these women’s work. One can make the case for the male gaze v. female gaze, etc., but ultimately, good photography is good photography. It is no longer worth dividing photographers up into male and female (and admittedly, Cindy Sherman and Annie Leibovitz are a stretch here, since their careers took place mainly in a post-feminist landscape). However, studying women photographers crystallizes an unwieldy topic, presenting an accessible point of entrance for those needing a fathomable starting point.
Here we go:
1. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–1897): The Lens Was the Window to Her Soul
(Okay–I’m cheating; she’s 19th century, but I couldn’t leave her out.) Cameron had the good fortune to be born into English society’s upper crust, so her cozy tea party snapshots included the likes of Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Virginia Woolf’s mom. When she took up photography in 1863 at the age of 48, it was a new art form understood by few. Cameron’s hauntingly intimate portraits were unusual and not especially appreciated at the time. Rather than stiff, formal, full body portraits, she preferred a softer focus and chiaroscuro lighting that felt moody and artistic rather than simply representational. The laborious wet plate technique that was the only technique at the time required exemplary knowledge of lighting and chemicals to bring out an individual’s natural beauty. Indeed, many of her portraits reveal the subject’s personality and look contemporary even today.
Cameron was a dedicated hobbyist and a member of the Photographic Society of London and the Photographic Society of Scotland. In addition to her portraits, she was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, many of whom she knew well. Following their lead on subject matter, she photographed posed tableaus featuring children and pretty girls dressed in vaguely classical garments, loosely draped and reminiscent of Greek and Roman goddesses. During the 11 years she practiced photography, she created a body of work of surprising depth and breadth for the time.
2. Imogen Cunningham (1883–1976): Beauty and Brains
Cunningham was from Portlandia, back when it was plain, old Portland, Oregon. She got her first camera at the age of 18, but it failed to make an impression on her. A couple years later while studying botany at the University of Washington in Seattle, she began earning money by photographing plants for the botany department. Only when she learned of the chemistry behind the photographic process did the art form catch on with her, and after graduation she became an assistant to a Seattle portrait photographer to learn the business end of things. Two years later, she received a scholarship to study in Dresden, Germany, and where she wrote a dissertation titled “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones,” proving that she was a pioneer when it came to the technical end of the trade. Great cocktail party chat.
After Germany, she returned to Seattle and opened her own studio. While her commercial work was sought after, it also crossed the boundary into art and was shown in exhibitions and printed in photography magazines. When portraiture proved not enough to sooth her creative soul, Cunningham expanded her repertoire to botany and industry—the yin and yang of life, so to speak. She was an expert on flowers and also of the industrial cityscape of Los Angeles and Oakland, California. By the 1930s, her interests shifted again and she became enamored with taking photographs of artists and musicians and was hired by Vanity Fair and stayed with the magazine until it folded in 1936.
Ever changing, by 1940 Cunningham switched to street photography, documenting real life as it happens in the city. In 1945 Ansel Adams invited her to teach art photography at the California School of Fine Arts, alongside fellow pioneer Dorothea Lange. Throughout her long career, which didn’t end until her death at age 93 in 1976, she knew all the luminaries of the day and took their portraits, including Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston. Her photographs of the human body and those of plants and flowers are equally renowned.
3. Dorothea Lange (1895–1965): The Voice of the Dispossessed
Best known for her Dust Bowl photographs taken while she was employed by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, Lange was the child of German immigrants in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her photography career began at Columbia University, where she studied and was apprenticed to several of New York’s most notable photography studios. After graduation she moved to San Francisco and opened her own studio. When the 1930s rolled around, she was already taking pictures of people on the street, which brought her to the attention of the government, which hired her to document the dispossessed for the Farm Security Administration. Sharecroppers, homeless people, migrant workers, these became her stock in trade. Her second husband, Paul Schuster Taylor, was an economics professor who gathered statistics the people Lange photographed. “Migrant Mother” is her most enduring image, a portrait of a 32-year-old weathered and worn mother of seven, wife of an itinerant laborer whose car had just broken down outside of the farming community of Nipomo, California.
In 1941 Lange gave up a Guggenheim Fellowship in order to document the forced relocation of Japanese Americans after the United States entered World War II. Although she did this on assignment for the War Relocation Authority, her photos, which conveyed sympathy for the plight of Americans who were charged with and guilty of no crimes, were impounded by the U.S. Army. After the war, she joined the arts faculty at the California School of Fine Arts at the behest of Ansel Adams. With Adams and the other staff members, she co-founded the influential magazine Aperture.
4. Tina Modotti (1896–1942): Viva la Revolucion!
Modotti was born in Italy and immigrated to the United States at the age of 16 to live with her father in San Francisco. She was first a silent film actress and artist’s model. With her artist/poet boyfriend in tow they settled in Los Angeles, where they fell in with a group of bohemians—what we would call today hipsters. One of them was already notable photographer Edward Weston. Modotti began modeling for him, then sleeping with him; somewhere along the way she learned to take pictures. The artist/poet boyfriend went off to Mexico to head up his own studio, but he died of smallpox before Modotti could join him. Nevertheless, she and Weston traveled to Mexico together to stage a posthumous exhibition of his (and Weston’s) work, and after a bit of back and forth between Mexico and California, Modotti settled with Weston and his son in Mexico and learned the photography biz. Her portraits of women (including her self portraits) capture all forms of physical beauty, and her shots of street life trumpet the power of the proletariat and worker. The rough hands of workers were a frequent subject, along with women balancing large loads of produce and household goods on their heads. She also took many geometric nature shots of flowers and landscapes that feature both natural and man-made forms.
Political upheaval was the game of the day in Mexico in the 1920s, and much of it spilled over into the art world. Modotti fell in with the social activist muralists Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, and by default their leftist politics. She became a revolutionary and joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927, after splitting from Weston. (She also had an affair with Rivera and is depicted in several of his murals from the era.) She herself was pursued by the police of both Mexico and Italy and got herself kicked out of the country in 1930. As she was being extradited to Italy, she escaped via Germany and Switzerland to Moscow. She never photographed again, although she remained committed to politics and traveled to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and made her way back to Mexico under a pseudonym, where she died in 1942.
5. Berenice Abbott (1898–1991): New York to Paris and Back Again
Abbott was a small town girl from Ohio who got bored at college, moved to New York, and found herself sharing a Greenwich Village apartment with lesbian, a philosopher, and a literary critic (i.e., Djuna Barnes, Kenneth Burke, and Malcolm Cowley). Frequent guests included Eugene O’Neill and Man Ray. Party in the hizzouse! Abbott vacillated between studying journalism and sculpture—her world seemed a bohemia split evenly between writers and artists.
From journalism to sculpture to poetry to photography: In 1923 Man Ray hired Abbott as a darkroom assistant for his Paris studio based on the fact that she knew nothing about photography. Man Ray wanted an automaton, not an auteur, because he didn’t want anyone messing with his creative juju. However, when he witnessed Abbott’s talent behind the camera and in the darkroom (she was a natural), he relented and took her under his wing. She began using Man Ray’s studio to take her own photographs and even had her first solo exhibition there. In 1926 she ventured off to start her own studio in a neighboring arrondissement, concentrating on portraiture.
During this period, her famous portraits included Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim, Claude McKay, James Joyce, and other denizens of the Parisian TMZ. She also championed the work of French street photographer Eugene Atget and compiled his work into several highly regarded books after his death.
In 1929 Abbott moved back to New York and devoted herself to capturing a part of New York that would soon disappear—the day-to-day world of the working person. Abbott’s sociological eye was reinforced by her teaching position at the New School of Social Research. She acquired a large format camera and documented the city at street level during the Great Depression, first for herself, and then for the Federal Art Project’s “Changing New York” project. But her diversity was always apt to show through. Once again, she lived in Greenwich Village, and experimented with scientific photography, which got much of her work into physics textbooks. She also invented several devices for photographers related to darkroom techniques and studio lighting techniques. She is remembered for her exploration of how technology integrated (or didn’t) with society.
6. Lisette Model (1901–1983): People Are Strange, When You’re a Stranger
Model was a citizen of the world; she was born in Vienna to an Italian father and a half-Jewish, half-French and Roman Catholic mother. She wafted through rarified circles; her music tutor was composer Arnold Schoenberg. Paris came calling in 1924, where she moved to study singing and met her future husband, who was a painter. By 1933 she gave up singing and became a visual artist, studying both painting and photography. One of her photography teachers was her sister, Olga Seybert.
Lisette married Evsa Model in 1937 and the couple soon moved to New York. Her early portraits are known for their tight close-ups of people caught in unaware moments. These portraits highlight their quirks, and although respectful, they show the many variations of the human condition, particularly those we are not used to staring at: the obese and the elderly in repose. She became a member of the New York Photo League, and by 1941 she became a freelance photographer for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Look. Her later work is drawn to street life, especially in New York, capturing the frantic pace and the different realms the blend together: the car, the street, the pedestrian, and the shop window.
Later, she taught photography at the San Francisco Institute of Fine Arts and then at the New School for Social Research in New York, where her best known student was Diane Arbus. Model was one of the first to develop a sense of the grotesque in photography, just as Toulouse-Lautrec had for painting a generation earlier.
7. Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971): Rosie the Riveter Goes to War
Bourke-White was a giant among photographers of any age, male or female. She was afraid of nothing: heights, Soviets, or combat—it was all fair game for her lens. She was a photojournalist on the front lines during World War II, and her work for Life magazine was some of the best ever printed in that magazine known for great photography. She was born in the Bronx and grew up in Jersey. Family life was all about being the best one could be, exploring one’s environment, setting off on adventures, and thinking for oneself. She attended Columbia University in 1922 to study herpetology (that’s amphibians), but it didn’t stick. She was academically itchy—she transferred from Columbia to the University of Michigan, to Purdue to Case Western Reserve, and then to Cornell, where she settled on photography once and for all and graduated in 1927. From there she set up a studio in Cleveland, Ohio, because it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Cleveland proved to be a surprisingly good location to build a career. She overcame both professional and technical difficulties to take awesomely beautiful photographs of molten steel at the Otis Steel Company. In the early days of the Great Depression (1929–1935), Bourke-White worked for Fortune magazine, that bastion of fat ‘n happy, brandy-swilling, cigar-chomping industrialists. Twenty-five years before Joseph McCarthy got a bee in his bonnet over communists, she traveled to Soviet Russia to take photographs of their centralized industrial machinery—you know—just for comparison’s sake. In 1936 she began her tenure at Life, with the inaugural issue featuring her photo of the Fort Peck Dam spillway on the cover (the image later became a U.S. stamp). At every step of the way, Bourke-White was usually either the first Western photographer to do something, or at the very least the first female photographer to do something.
During the Great Depression, Bourke-White also took pictures to document the plight of the unemployed and destitute. She collaborated with novelist Erskine Caldwell on a book about the South and the Great Depression, You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), and a couple years later they were married for a brief time.
She traveled the world as well. As the Nazis gained power in Germany, Bourke-White was there. As Joseph Stalin sought to make the U.S.S.R. a world power, she was there (but apparently oblivious to the Holodomor, the great famine that was in the process of killing several million people throughout Ukraine). As the world went to war, she was there. In 1941 she was in Moscow when the Germans invaded; from her perch at the U.S. Embassy, she photographed the firestorm. Later in the war she was stationed in North Africa and Italy; she came under fire repeatedly but always escaped—with fabulous shots. For these exploits she was known as “Maggie the Indestructible.”
In spring of 1945 she arrived at Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany as it was liberated. Her haunting photographs capture the horror of those final days. And yet she didn’t stop. In 1946 she photographed Mahatma Gandhi sitting at his spinning wheel, capturing the essence of his commitment to peace and asceticism. In Richard Attenborough’s 1982 Academy Award-winning film Gandhi, Bourke-White is portrayed by Candace Bergen.
8. Lee Miller (1907–1977): Model, Muse, and Maven
Lee Miller led many lives; one of them was as a photographer. Her first career was as a model, a line of work that began auspiciously when she was discovered on the streets of Manhattan by Conde Nast himself (when he was a mere mortal, not yet a media conglomerate). She worked in New York in the 1920s and then decamped for Paris, where she became the toast of the town’s avant garde artists. Only then did she pick up a camera, a move that led to her ground-breaking photojournalism for Vogue during World War II. She photographed the strange beauty of the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris and of the concentration camps Buchenwald and Dachau, and one famous photograph shows her cavorting in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub.
Miller had an usual childhood. She was raped at age 8 by a family friend, and her father, an amateur photographer, often photographed her in the nude when she was a teenager. Turn-of-the-century Poughkeepsie prefigured the anything-goes ethic of Haight-Ashbury by 50 years.
She was a sought-after model for Vogue and other fashion magazines, but that career came to a screeching halt when a picture of her taken by esteemed photographer Edward Steichen was used to advertise Kotex pads. So off to Paris Miller went, insisting on becoming Man Ray’s assistant (just as Berenice Abbott had before her). Miller was uncommonly beautiful, so naturally Man Ray was soon head over heels in love. She became his muse in addition to his assistant, and frequently oversaw his advertising work so he could paint.
Together they became the first powerhouse couple of the surrealist movement, and together they pioneered the solarisation technique whereby objects are placed directly on film and images are made by exposing the film to daylight. Miller famously starred as a statue come to life in Jean Cocteau’s film The Blood of a Poet (1930). One of the most famous images of Miller features her reclining naked on a sofa, her back to the camera, and the lines of her body mimicking Man Ray’s painting Observatory Time, the Lovers (1934), which is a giant portrait of Miller’s lips floating in the sky.
Miller moved from Paris to New York to Cairo, where she married an Egyptian businessman and took a few awesome pictures, and back to Paris. By 1937 she was involved with the painter Roland Penrose, and she was living with him in London when the bombs began raining from the sky at the outbreak of World War II. She signed a deal with Vogue to be their war correspondent (fashion magazines were a tad different back then). Her credentials allowed her to be stationed with the U.S. Army, where she traveled to France after D-Day, and made her way across the blackened landscape to Hitler’s bathtub in the company of Life magazine photographer David E. Scherman. The horrors Miller encountered during the war left her suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and she started drinking.
She divorced the Egyptian and married Penrose, in part because she was already pregnant with his child. The three decamped for a farm in Sussex that they turned into an artist’s colony, where her good friends Man Ray, Picasso, Max Ernst, and Jean Dubuffet visited. The war continued to haunt Miller, and though she photographed sporadically, her health faltered as did her family relationships. She played no role in maintaining or establishing her legacy, a job that her son, Antony Penrose, took upon himself, most notably with the well-received 1985 biography The Lives of Lee Miller.
9. Diane Arbus (1923–1971): “A Photograph Is a Secret about a Secret.”
The Diane Arbus story goes like this: Born Diane Nemerov to a wealthy Jewish family, she grew up in New York City and attended a fancy prep school. She married Allan Arbus when she was 18 and they had two children. He was an advertising photographer and did much of the work for the Nemerov’s 5th avenue department store, Russek’s, and work for many major fashion magazines. He later became an actor. In 1946 they set up shop; Allan took pictures and Diane served as art director. Her serious interest in photography came when she studied with Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model at the New School for Social Research. She first solo magazine assignments were for Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1963 she got a Guggenheim Fellowship to explore American rites, manners, and customs. She later taught at several renowned art schools, including Cooper Union and the Rhode Island School of Design. Her first exhibition was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967. She was a good friend, coincidently, of Richard Avedon, since they both were the children of 5th Avenue department store owners.
That’s the official story, but what it leaves out is what makes Arbus unique. She was drawn to the unusual and grotesque—people with physical or mental disabilities, twins, gawky children, and moments of psychological discomfort. Her images can make a viewer uncomfortable and contain an intense coiled energy that some find threatening. She admired those she called “freaks” and considered them the aristocracy of the world for having been born with their trauma, rather than accruing it throughout the heartbreaking process of life.
If fairy tale allegories don’t bother you, all of this is documented in Fur (2006), starring Nicole Kidman as Diane, Ty Burrell as Allan Arbus, and Robert Downey, Jr., as a very hairy but well-mannered man. It contains little factual information, but is rife with a ham-fisted David Lynchian feeling that might make you sympathize with the dear departed Arbus. By 1971, she had been suffering from severe depression for years. She overdosed on barbituates and slashed her wrists. Her daughter Doon has managed her mother’s estate since, with a tight fist, not allowing many major works to be seen, including her famous, elusive studies of transgender people. Her most enduring published work is Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, produced shortly after her death by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel.
10. Annie Leibovitz (1949– ): On the Road; On Celebrity
Annie Leibovitz was everything Diane Arbus wasn’t, photographically speaking. Where Diane loved the offbeat and offputting, Leibovitz loved the flash and sizzle of celebrity. She was from a Jewish family in Connecticut, but young Annie was basically an army brat, her father being a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. Early on, she developed a liking for the arts, including music, and studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. Photography was a hobby for years, and after a brief stint on a kibbutz in Israel, she launched her professional career as a photographer with the upstart Rolling Stone magazine in 1970. She became the magazine’s head photographer three years later and stayed with the publication until 1983.
During these years, Leibovitz honed her style, showing celebrities and musicians in intimate settings, simultaneously revealing their humanity and exalting their rock star status. Her portraits get to the heart of her subjects’ personalities much the way as those of Richard Avedon, one of her major influences (along with Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson). She toured with the Rolling Stones—the group, not the magazine—in 1975. In 1980 she took the iconic photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in which she is supine, fully clothed, and he is naked and wrapped around her body in a pose of vulnerability. Lennon was murdered just hours later.
Then Hollywood came calling. Leibovitz has photographed a multitude of celebrities for Vanity Fair magazine since 1980 and has overseen the star-studded annual Hollywood issue cover shoot. Many of her famous photos show celebrities—especially female ones—in advanced states of undress, such as the then-controversial shot of a heavily pregnant Demi Moore in 1991. Teen heartthrob David Cassidy was shown ostensibly naked on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1972, reclining seductively in a field of grass; Sting, naked and covered in mud; and a naked Lance Armstrong riding a bike in the rain. She has won a Clio for her American Express advertising campaign. She’s shot album covers for Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen and the cover photo for Bill Gates’ book The Road Ahead. However, Leibovitz is on the record as disliking the term celebrity; rather she prefers to believe that she photographs people who matter.
11. Cindy Sherman (1954– ): Who Are You?
Cindy Sherman occupies a unique spot in the pantheon of American photography. Rather than a hobbyist, journalist, street photographer, or advertiser, Sherman began her career as a serious artist whose medium happened to be photography and whose subject matter has always been exclusively herself. When she burst upon the scene in the late 1970s with her Untitled Film Still series, her work was something new altogether. In a series of 69 shots, Sherman dresses up in costume as a character and poses in mid-stride, even mid-sentence for self-portraits that appear as if they were lifted straight from the set of a black and white B movie or wanna-be film noir, with her character seemingly complete and her circumstances meticulously crafted. But the details are left to the viewer’s imagination; each image is identified only by a number.
Sherman was born in New Jersey and grew up on Long Island. Like many photographers before her, she was initially interested in painting , which she studied at Buffalo State College. However, the medium bored her with its lack of immediacy; she then discovered photography and promptly failed her first class. But she stuck with it, met soon-to-be-famous photographer Robert Longo, and became a key figure on the Buffalo art scene.
Her habit of working alone as set decorator, subject, photographer, and art director is legendary. None of her works can be considered a self-portrait; rather, she is portraying someone else, a fictitious character who represents something with which the viewer hopefully identifies. Though her early works were in black and white, she transitioned to color film by the 1980s. Her series Centerfolds/Horizontals from 1981 do not veer too far from the film stills. Instead of using film clichés, however, Sherman turns to magazine clichés, particularly those of the fashion and porn industries. Further exploration took place with her 1985 series Fairy Tales, where her costumes and prosthetics became fantastically outrageous. She also began photographing mannequins instead of herself in works that lost touch with reality altogether and explored a realm that was purely psychological.
Despite living and working in the post-feminist world, Sherman remains committed to exploring the representation of women in media and society. Her take on the topic has earned her a MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius award.” Sherman’s later work has become much more baroque. Eschewing her model-like beauty for a heavily made-up façade that often involves foam rubber prosthetics, her characters are objects in lush, immaculately rendered backgrounds that reveal a torture-like landscape. She has remained a vibrant part of the art scene, appearing in a cameo role in John Waters’ 1998 movie Peckerand becoming a film director herself with the 1997 movie Office Killer.