The Forgotten Muse: Female Portraitists 1858 - 1940

Since the invention of the daguerrotype in 1839, women have played important but often forgotten roles in the evolution of photography. As one of the few socially acceptable outlets for nineteenth century women, photography offered middle and upper class women the chance to pursue photography as a career or leisure activity.(1) Due to popular social attitudes women were encouraged to take up portraiture because it was believed that as portraitists women, "could unveil a sitter's inner character while using aesthetically inclined compositional tactics."(2) However, in response to social and cultural upheaval during the first half of the twentieth century we see female photographers shifting from working as potraitists to documenting events and people.The following exhibition will examine 10 female photographers from 1858 - 1940 whose work contributed to the development of portraiture and the creation of documentary photography. The photographs selected to accompany their respective photographers were chosen based on their technological, artistic, and documentary merit.

Bertha Wehnert-Beckmann (1815-1901) is considered to be Germany's first professional female photographer. Portrait of a Woman with Her Four Children, illustrates Beckmann's ability to combine artistic talent and technological advances to create intimate familial settings. Over the course of her career, Wehnert produced over 3,000 portraits.(3)
Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865) is considered to be one of the most prolific amateur photographers of the mid-19th century.(4) Focusing her work on her daughters Hawarden revolutionized how the portrait was constructed. As illustrated by this photograph entitled Clementina and Florence Elizabeth Maude, instead of focusing on the sitter, Hawarden incorporated props, costumes, and gesture into her photographs.(5)
Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) received her first camera at the age of forty-eight.(6) Over the next eleven years Cameron enlisted family, friends, and household staff to create over 900 photographs based primarily on biblical and literary themes. Cameron was criticized by her contemporaries for what was described as poor craftsmanship. However, as illustrated by this photograph entitled The Rosebud Garden of Girls, Cameron's use of over exposure and soft focus was done deliberately to catch the sitters movement, and in turn instill a sense of life in her portraits.(7)
Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) is often referred to as the 'court photographer' of America and is most notable for her portraiture of America's social elite as well as her documentary photography.(8) This photograph entitled Mrs. Grover Cleveland and the Wives of the Members..., is one of many photographs Johnston took as part of her assignments at the White House and illustrates her documentary style in which the sitter shows minimal emotions. (9)
Zaida Ben-Yusuf (1869-1933) was a prominent professional portraitist at the turn of the twentieth century. Ben-Yusuf is credited with contributing to two emerging aspects of photography during this time period or that of celebrity portraiture and the creation of the middle way. This photo was chosen because it represents both celebrity portraiture (Miss Elsie de Wolfe was a famous actress and interior decorator) and the middle way, which is the middle ground between photographic art and commercialized portraiture.(10)
Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934) originally studied as a portrait painter in Europe; however, she returned to the United States where she began her career in photography. (11) As illustrated by this photograph, Kasebier is most notable for her Native American Portraiture at the turn of the twentieth century. While Kasebier was not the first to create photographic records of Native Americans, her portraiture is the most artistically inspired.(12)
Doris Ulmann (1882-1934) is significant for her photographic documentation of cultures that existed outside of industrialized American cities during the early twentieth century. As illustrated by this photograph her photography primarily captures Appalachian, Native American, and African American culture. Most notably, Ulmann contributed in the shift from photography as a fine art to that of documentary photography at the turn of the twentieth century through her ability to humanize the poor and oppressed.(13)
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) is often referred to as 'America's Greatest Documentary Photographer,' is recognizable from her portraits of those displaced by the Great Depression.(14) This portrait known as the "Migrant Mother" is one of the most famous photographs taken during the Great Depression and is part of a series of five photographs that Lange took of Florence Owens Thompson in 1936 in Nipomo, California.(15)
Tina Modotti (1896-1942) began her career as a portraitist after she moved to Mexico in the early 1920's. However, she became heavily influenced by communist ideology and Mexican politics. By the mid 1920's we see her collaborating with and documenting Mexican workers (as illustrated by this photograph) to create an artistic style based on revolutionary ideology and the romanticization of Mexican culture.(16)
Helen Levitt's (1913-2009) primarily documented the lower-class neighbourhoods of New York over a period of seven decades. Unlike her contemporaries Levitt's photographs were not designed to document social upheaval or showcase political opinions, rather they were snapshots of everyday life (as illustrated by this photograph), and represent the epitome of documentary photography. (17)
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