Review: Une histoire mondiale des femmes photographes
“For me, the vision of a male photographer will never be the only way to see the world.” This quote by Elisabeth Hase (1905–1991) frames the issues explored in the impressive compendium by Luce Lebart and Marie Robert. Une histoire mondiale des femmes photographes (A World History of Women Photographers) gives insight into the life and work of 300 women photographers. Instead of highlighting a specific female gaze or deconstructing existing reference works, the editors view their book as a necessary addition. It shows how women have contributed to the development of photography as a medium since it was invented in the mid-nineteenth century—on all five continents—through both their work and their dedicated activity as lecturers, collectors, curators, theorists, and publishers.
The two-year research project for this book began in 2018. That same year, the French daily newspaper Libération published an open letter to Sam Stourdzé, director of Rencontres de la photographie at the time, criticizing the giant disparity between women and men photographers in the festival’s exhibitions in Arles. Though in 2019 the share of women photographers had risen, the concomitant demand of opening up the field for non-Western photographers had hardly been addressed at all (see Camera Austria International No. 147). Then, in late 2020, this world history of women photographers was released with the support of the Arles festival; it was published by Les éditions textuel solely in French, and the first edition sold out immediately in early 2021 (a second edition was reprinted directly).
With their book, the editors position themselves in the tradition of reframing the history of photography, an endeavor that has been going on for forty years already and to which they provide a visual counterpart on the cover of their book taking the form of an embossed, rotated picture frame. What is more, the woman by Pushpamala N. found there takes aim at the viewer, paying tribute to the stark seriousness of the book project. With the aim of addressing the long history of discrediting female and non-Western photographic artists, Lebart and Robert invited 164 female authors from all over the world to pen contributions about well-known, unrecognized, and forgotten women photographers. At just 400 words each, the texts are relatively short, each illustrated by an image and sometimes augmented by a quote by the respective photographer. The presentation of the texts’ content and language is remarkable. Instead of stringing together facts in a lexical way, an essayistic approach is taken to describing the interests of these women photographers, their life circumstances, and the challenges associated with their work and its reception. In places, questions about the respective work remain open, such as in the case of Olga Spolarics (b. 1895–96, d. 1969): “Wasn't exageration a means of repressing the fears that female sexuality arouses (in each of us)?” At times it becomes poetic: the photographs by Sarah Moon (b. 1941), for example, are described with the words: “Her pictures are like pieces of music that caress us with their gentle touch.”
The contributions are arranged according to the birth year of the photographers and divided into five sections featuring collections of photographs, each covering around two to three decades. This chronology goes beyond simply detailing the development of the medium; it also shows how the artworks and the working conditions change based on shifting social conditions and how certain topics reemerge again and again. As a teaser for the contributions, all of which are worth reading, here are several details discovered while going through the book. It begins with Anna Atkins (1799–1871), who created the first photobook, published under the title Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions from 1843 to 1853. The oldest photograph in Lebart and Robert’s book was taken in 1843 by Constance Talbot (1811–1880), whose contribution to the development of photography, as so frequently the case for other women as well, disappeared behind the work of men. As an assistant to her husband William Henry Fox Talbot, the founder of the positive-negative process, she was presumably the first woman to ever produce a photograph. The Chinese Empress Cixi (1835–1908), the first non-Western woman photographer to appear in the book, was fully aware of the power of this new pictorial medium as a means of visual, cultural, and political emancipation. Although she didn’t snap the shutter-release button herself, she did in fact compose the images and assist in their development. The first known woman photographer in New Zealand was Elizabeth Pulman (1836–1900); in Argentina, it was Josefina Oliver (1875–1956), and in West Africa it was the Ghanaian Felicia Ansah Abban (b. 1935).
Mary Dillwyn (1816–1906) was interested in how lighting conditions changed seasonally, and she was presumably, in 1853, the first to photograph a snowman being built. Eliza Withington (1825–1877) already published her essay “How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs” in 1876. An early camera-toting globetrotter was Isabella Bird (1831–1904). Alice Schalek (1874–1956), in turn, was one of Austria’s first war correspondents, documenting the front during the First World War, while Maria Chroussachi (1899–1972) worked as a nurse during the Second World War and photographed activity behind the Greek front lines, and Tsuneko Sasamoto (b. 1914) was the first Japanese photojournalist to document wartime events in Japan. Naciye Suman (1881–1973), the first woman photographer in the Ottoman Empire, ran a photo studio for women in Constantinople as of 1919 and thus lucratively closed a gap, for Muslim women were not allowed to pose for men. Thérèse Bonney (1894–1978) was a mediator and disseminator between the United States and France, and in 1923–24 she had the idea to establish a photo agency for the American press. Lucia Moholy (1894–1989), for her part, recognized early on the potential of microfilm for the contexts of science and education. In 1946, after the founding of UNESCO, she was responsible for its cultural-historical archive and thus ended up being a pioneer of digitalization. In 1971, Artforum featured a picture of Diane Arbus (1923–1971) on its cover and also printed five of her photographs inside; it was the first contribution dedicated to photographic work in the history of the art magazine. For Letizia Battaglia (b. 1935), as for many women, the camera served to open doors; for over thirty years she documented the activities of the Sicilian mafia and in 2017 founded an international center for photography in Palermo. The American Joan Lyons (b. 1937) was one of the first to use photocopiers in the production of her artistic work, while the photographer Gauri Gill (b. 1970) of India newly defined the idea of collaboration through forms of working cooperatively with her models over many years, or through the co-creation of work with artists from rural areas. The youngest woman photographer in the book is Newsha Tavakolian (b. 1981), who actively turned to journalistic photography at the age of sixteen, when state reforms in Iran allowed the publication of modern magazines for a short time. The most recent photograph published in the book was created in 2019, taken by the South African artist Zanele Muholi (b. 1972), who calls herself a visual activist and, in her work, stands up for marginalized women and for the LGBTQI community in South Africa. Lebart and Robert chose the end of the twentieth century as the final point of their selection. In their eyes, a new landscape (nouveau paysage) commenced with the advent of digitalization and globalization—and covering this would be the task of a new research project.
Une histoire mondiale des femmes photographes explicitly focuses on the female protagonists. In addition to the single contributions, two essays written by the editors thoroughly describe the state of research on the featured photographers. A reference list and short biographies invite readers to follow up on the book’s protagonists: the woman photographers and authors. Different than other reference works, this book does without additional information, such as a glossary of terms or lists of exhibitions and publications, which is not necessarily detrimental. However, it’s a pity that no sources are provided for the quotes, nor is information given about the dimensions or technique of the photographs rendered. All in all, the book closes a giant gap in photographic historiography, while also being appealing in terms of content and design, thus providing much reading enjoyment. The book certainly deserves to be translated into other languages.