7 Early Women Photographers You Should Know

Seeing the history of photography through a new lens...

Photography captures a point of view, freezing one person's perspective in time forever. Male perspectives, however, have largely been the one’s in the foreground, leaving the work of their female peers in the dark(room).

Here we turn the spotlight on the lesser-known, but equally remarkable, work of early women photographers. As Berenice Abbott said, “photography helps people to see.” Let’s take a look at the unseen pioneering women behind the camera.

1. Julia Margaret Cameron (Jun 11, 1815 - Jan 26, 1879)

In 1863, when she was 48 years old, Julia Margaret Cameron was given a camera as a present by her daughter - beginning a short (she would die just 11 years later) but prolific photography career. In particular, Cameron was well-known for her portraits of the celebrities of her day and for her photographs with Arthurian and other legendary or heroic themes.

Cameron's work was frequently dismissed in her own time: her use of soft focus and the way she treated photography as an art as well as a science (by manipulating the wet collodion process) caused her works to be viewed as "slovenly", and full of "mistakes".

Despite this, her work has had a significant impact on modern photographers, ironically for the very soft-focus, closely cropped style that her contemporaries so derided.

The parting of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1874 | Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Ophelia Study No. 2, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867 | George Eastman Museum

2. Martha Holmes (Feb 7, 1923 - Sep 19, 2006)

Martha Holmes' career is deeply imbricated with the political events of the 20th century.

Holmes was studying art at the University of Louisville and at the Speed Art Museum when someone suggested working at the Louisville Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times newspapers. She was hired and began as assistant to a color photographer, but soon became a full-time black-and-white photographer when many of the paper's male photographers were called to service in World War II.

In September 1944, Holmes left for Life magazine. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1947, to be one of Life's three staff photographers there. She covered the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings during the height of the committee's investigations into the entertainment industry and alleged communist propaganda.

After two years in Washington, she returned to New York and lived there for the rest of her life. She continued working for Life, for which she photographed two covers, on a freelance basis and by 1950 was named one of the top 10 female photographers in the nation.

Duncan Richardson (Boy Swimmer), Martha Holmes, 1946 | LIFE Photo Collection
Salvador Dali, Martha Holmes, 1945 | LIFE Photo Collection

3. Frances Benjamin Johnston (Jan 15, 1864 - May 16, 1952)

Frances "Fannie" Benjamin Johnston was one of the earliest American female photographers and photojournalists.

Coming from a wealthy, well-connected family offered Johnston unprecedented access to the leading figures of the day, resulting in portraits of the President and his family and celebrities of the time, including Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington.

Johnston was a constant advocate for the role of women in the new art of photography, writing "What a Woman Can Do With a Camera" for the Ladies' Home Journal in 1897 and co-curating an exhibition of women photographers at the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

[Group of young women studying plants in normal school, Washington, D.C.], Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1899 | National Women’s History Museum
Andrew Carnegie and Booker T. Washington, Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1906 | Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

4. Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 - Oct 11, 1965)

Dorothea Lange was an influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration.

Her work (most famously 'Migrant Mother') brought the plight of poor and disadvantaged workers to public attention.

Speaking of 'Migrant Mother' in 1960, Lange said: "I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it."

Lange's photographs humanized the consequences of the Great Depression and had a monumental influence, not only on the federal government, who immediately rushed aid to the camps Lange photographed, but also on the development of documentary photography itself.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, Dorothea Lange, 1936 | The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

5. Margaret Bourke-White (Jun 14, 1904 - Aug 27, 1971)

Margaret Bourke-White was a photographer of 'firsts': she is best known as the first foreign photographer permitted to take pictures of Soviet industry, the first American female war photojournalist, and the first female photographer for Henry Luce's Life magazine, where her photograph appeared on the first cover.

"Saturate yourself with your subject and the camera will all but take you by the hand." - Margaret Bourke-White

Industrial Rayon Co.-Feb.1939, Large View Of Coning Room, Margaret Bourke-White, 1939 | LIFE Photo Collection
Gandhi Family, Margaret Bourke-White, 1946 | LIFE Photo Collection

6. Hansel Mieth (Apr 9, 1909 - Feb 14, 1998)

Hansel Mieth was born Johanna Mieth in Oppelsbohm, Germany, one of three daughters of a strict, religious family. She ran away from home at the age of 15 and did factory work before emigrating to the United States in 1930 to join her lover and fellow photographer Otto Hagel.

The couple found themselves in the midst of the Great Depression and worked as migrant farm labourers for several years. During that time they began to photograph the brutal working conditions and suffering they saw around them after acquiring a second-hand Leica camera. In San Francisco, Sacramento, and in the rural towns they worked in, they photographed the bitter labour strikes and the working homeless.

Hansel Mieth | LIFE Photo Collection
Heat In Washington, Hansel Mieth, 1945 | LIFE Photo Collection

7. Berenice Abbott (Jul 17, 1898 - Dec 9, 1991)

Berenice Abbott, née Bernice Abbott, was an American photographer best known for her black-and-white photography of New York City architecture and the urban environment.

Her photographs capture the contrasts of 1930s New York: showing extreme poverty and wealth, joy and sadness, monumental buildings and the individuals that inhabit them - all highlighted by her use of strong contrast in developing her images. The resulting photographs are love letters to both her adoptive city and the medium of photography itself.

"The world doesn't like independent women, why, I don't know, but I don't care" - Berenice Abbott

Zito's Bakery, 259 Bleecker Street, Berenice Abbott, 1937 | The Jewish Museum, New York
Words by Léonie Shinn-Morris
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