Women in Photography: a Story Still Being Written

International Women’s Day is a reminder to stop and consider the roles women occupy in our lives, to celebrate the advances and mark afresh the needs for continued change. As a woman and Tuts+ Photo & Video instructor, I want to stop and consider the role women occupy in photography. How have women made a life in photography, and how are they continuing to make it happen in photography?

History

Women have been an active part of photography since its inception. While not credited with the invention of photography, women have played significant roles working alongside the pioneers, often printing for their husbands, and taking photographs themselves. Joseph Niépce, the inventor of photography, talked through his experiments in letters to his sister-in-law. Constance Talbot (1811-1880), the wife of photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, and Anna Atkins (1799-1871), an English botanist and friend of the Talbots, were the first female photographers. They were taking photographs alongside Talbot and his peers as they developed and advanced the earliest photographic methods.

Constance Talbot circa 1842

 

 

Queen Victoria was a champion of the photographic arts. In addition to granting her patronage to what became The Royal Photographic Society, Queen Victoria started the practice of putting visiting cards in albums. As the practice caught on among aristocratic women, photograph albums became a show of status, spreading the demand for and appreciation of photographic culture. By the 1880s, Kodak had recognized the increasing participation of women in photography and launched a marketing campaign with the Kodak Girl. About the same time, women photographers and journalists began actively advancing photography as a suitable profession for women. In 1897, the Ladies’ Home Journal published an article “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera.”

Anna Atkins 1861

 

British and American censuses show that by 1900, there were more than 7000 professional women photographers. Women made up almost 20 percent of the profession at a time when it was unusual for women to even have a profession. In fact, photography studios increased their business by offering “lady operators” to photograph women and families. Because there was the potential for physical contact when posing subjects, studios could attract more women and families for sittings if the photographs would be taken by a woman.

Women are shaping photography to suit their needs rather than trying to shoehorn themselves into a restrictive profession.
Photography as art, rather than just science, evolved partly as a result of gentlewomen pursuing photography as an artistic medium. Unconstrained by a need to earn an income, women such as Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) and Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) could experiment and push photography into new realms both in the style of photographs taken and the nature of photographed subjects. Indeed, even the idea of image compositing was alive and thriving in the middle 1800s with women combining their drawing and cutting skills with photography to create photo collages.

But if women were so active in the early days of photography, what happened to tip photography into a decidedly male dominated profession?

Photojournalism

It didn’t take long before photography became a primary means of recording conflict and current events. And as the science of photography advanced, equipment became lighter and processing became simpler, making it easier for photographers to be mobile. Photographers could be in the midst of events at home and on the battlefields. But conflicts of war, economy, and politics were still not places for women.

The Kodak Girl 1909

Some women fought tradition and were among the pioneer photojournalists. Gerda Taro (1910-1937), for example, worked alongside Robert Capa, photographing the Spanish Civil War. Taro was known for her intimate style of war photography, capturing the emotional context of situations. Her photographs revealed the personal and physical stress soldiers experienced. She was killed in action, photographing the front lines, in Spain in 1937.

Christina Broom (1862-1939) was another pioneering woman photojournalist. Broom was an adaptable press photographer, covering events in city and on battlefield, ranging from suffragette marches, coronations and funerals, to World War I. Like Taro, Broom was known for capturing the personalities in events. She has been especially noted for her candid and evocative photographs of World War I soldiers preparing to enter battle.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) is well-known for her photographs of migrants during the Great Depression. Lange exposed a number of social problems over her career, but it was her emotive photographs taken in the 1930s that helped to change the public perception of poverty in the United States.

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) was the first woman photojournalist widely known for her conflict photography. Much of Gerda Taro’s work was overshadowed by public favour for the man in the partnership. Bourke-White, however, worked alone, and with advances in women’s rights, even if few, to propel her. Bourke-White was allowed to travel with and photograph American troops during World War II. Later, she continued her conflict coverage by photographing the Korean war and India’s civil rights struggles under Ghandi.

These women made important contributions to the public’s perception of current events. They were exceptions in a field dominated by men.

Photojournalism is still a field dominated by men, but the numbers are changing. As more women become conflict photographers, our exposure to conflict stories broadens. Lynsey Addario (1973- ) and her female peers–Kate Brooks, Stacy Pearsall, Alixandra Fazzina, Amira Al-Sharif, and Rebecca Collard, just to name a few– cover conflict around the world, keeping pace with their male colleagues and often gaining access to stories unavailable to men. Women photojournalists have revealed the domestic struggles war inflicts on residents in the Middle East, exposed the capture and rape of women in Darfur and Congo, profiled the plight of HIV-positive women in Somalia, revealed the tragedy of child Afghan refugees fleeing the country for safety, laid bare the brutality of domestic violence in North America, and so much more.

The percentage of women photojournalists remains woefully and understandably low; about 20 percent of all photojournalists are women. Photojournalism, especially conflict photography, is a tough, physically and emotionally demanding job. But the women who are photographing current events are bringing us stories that we would not–and in many cases, could not–see but for the fact that the photographers are women.

Photography is Women’s Work

If you look at the numbers of women in photography without considering the context, the statistics are depressing. In 1983, about 20% of photographers were women. Today, about 20% of photojournalists are women and the gender balance across photographic professions in general is pretty well even. However, a 2012 report from the American Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that the 50/50 split does not extend to pay. The National Endowment for the Arts estimates that the median income for women photographers in the United States is about half of that for men.

The picture looks a little different, though, if you begin to look at the stories around the statistics. Women are active in photography, are passionate about their activities, and, it seems, are enjoying the freedoms that accompany freelance photography. Women are shaping photography to suit their needs rather than trying to shoehorn themselves into a restrictive profession.

Clickin Moms is an online community of women photographers. Started in 2008 as an informal social opportunity for a small group of friends to talk photography, Clickin Moms has since become a community of over 16,000 “professional photographers, aspiring professionals, and women who are simply passionate about capturing the lives of their children.” Don’t be misled, though, into thinking this might be a coffee klatch. These women are committed to artistic growth and technical knowledge, but choose to pursue them as part of an online network of like-minded women.

“We are shifting expectations about what is required to be a photographer and showing that your value as a photographer is not about your status as a professional.”
Sarah Wilkerson, CEO, acknowledges that there are many places to learn and discuss photography, but women photographers typically find those forums to be male dominated, competitive, and threatening. The process is linear: gear first, then mastering the gear, going into business, and, finally, increasing prices. Typically, emphasis is placed on restricting the pool of those at the finish line. In Sarah’s experience, women photographers are looking for communities of photographers who support each other in doing it their own way. For some women photographers, this means going professional; for others, it means being able to beautifully photograph family events. For almost all women photographers, it means some combination of options, varied as circumstances and needs change.

When reading the online discussions, the common thread of flexibility quickly becomes evident: photography offers women an opportunity to pursue a profession they love while working from home and being near their children. While that is not the goal of every woman photographer, certainly photography offers that option to women seeking a balance between personal and professional lives. And thousands are pursuing it, judging by the success of Clickin Moms. No longer just an online forum, Clickin Moms offers seminars, workshops, and peer mentoring; a program targeted to establishing standards for photo professionals, a bimonthly print magazine, an annual photography conference for women, and an online retail store.

“The whole idea of dismissing women photographers because they’re ‘moms with cameras’ is offensive,” Sarah said. “We are not about great equipment and going into business; we foster a high skill level and permission to enjoy it.” As technology and access to the photography market has transformed over the last few decades, the opportunity for women to take on and shape the industry has grown. As Sarah says, “We are raising the bar and informing the public about what they should be paying for. We are shifting expectations about what is required to be a photographer and showing that your value as a photographer is not about your status as a professional.”

Retail

The retail sector is also showing signs of shifting expectations, responding to the increasing number of women in photography. Camera bags that once were limited to black, boxy, over-the-shoulder models–completely unsuited to the way women carry their equipment–are now available in colours and models specifically designed with a woman in mind. Bags are attractive, comfortable to carry, and adaptable to women’s evolving roles.

Camera straps are also now available in designs that are clearly made for women. Made from silk scarves, leather-backed embroidery, and decorated fabrics, women’s camera straps are both comfortable and beautiful. And it’s not just custom options made in fancy fabrics and brightly coloured leathers. BlackRapid, the manufacturer of the well-known fast access strap, redesigned their strap into a model specifically made for women.

Tripods have been getting lighter for some time, but not that long ago, manufacturers began releasing tripods accented with attractive colours. It might just be a general interest in improving the look of products, but I’m inclined to
think that the increasing number of women purchasing photography equipment is
influencing manufacturing design overall. Male photographers are taking note of this evolution with envy, prompting those manufacturing bags and straps for women to add attractive and comfortable designs for men to their retail lines.

The shift toward embracing women photographers is, unfortunately, not as evident in medium to small photography stores. Most retail staff in photography stores–all retail staff in many instances–are men. In my failed efforts to interview a retail buyer or manager for this article, I encountered a mix of disinterest and divisiveness. Tone-deaf responses, such as “Well, in my years in photography, I’ve not seen anything change. Equipment is equipment. It’s universal.” typified the perspective of the salesmen I talked to.

Talking to my peers, a number of women photographers quickly shared with me anecdotes of being passed over as customers in photography. Education and influence will eventually change this experience. Key companies are beginning to recognize the increasing number, and seriousness, of women in photography. For example, Canon is the exclusive sponsor of Clickin Moms’ blog. The trend is clear.

Women’s Places

If more women are purchasing photography equipment and if women photographers are successfully shaping the profession to suit their needs, where are they working?

Women photographers may not be well represented among photojournalists or high-end commercial photography, but they have cornered the market in maternity and newborn photography, a relatively new field that exists largely because of women photographers. Men have been painting pregnant women for centuries, but the paintings were religious (the pregnant Virgin), meant for gallery art (Vermeer’s “Woman Holding a Balance” or Picasso’s “Pregnant Woman”), or were painted as a testament to a family’s wealth and fertility (Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait”). But when Annie Leibovitz’s (1949- ) photograph of nude and pregnant Demi Moore appeared in 1991 on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, a new genre of photography was born. Pregnant women now have themselves photographed for themselves, and who better to photograph them than another woman?

Annie Leibovitz 2008

Other photoraphies in this history

Julia Margaret Cameron 1870

Julia Margaret Cameron, by Henry Herschel Hay Cameron, 1870 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Frances Benjamin Johnston 1896

Frances Benjamin Johnston, by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1896 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gerda Taro 1937

Gerda Taro, by Anonymous (icp.org), 1937 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Christina Broom 1910

Christina Broom, by Winifred Broom, taken prior to the funeral of King Edward VII, London, 1910, via Museum of London

 

Dorothea Lange 1936

Dorothea Lange, by Rondal Partridge Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information / Office of Emergency Management / Resettlement Administration, 1936 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Margaret Bourke-White 1946

Margaret Bourke-White, by Margaret Bourke-White, 1946 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Two couple dancing

Tansbar. Yva (Else Simon), circa 1930.