“I want to see what life is doing to other people … and to prove that I have seen it in my pictures,” wrote photographer Margaret Bisland in 1890. “It is not just that I am anxious to make these photographs for the sake of people, I am thirsty to do it for my own sake.”
This clear-eyed testimony is one of the many examples of women championing their own vision in Qui a Peur des Femmes Photographes? (Who’s Afraid of Female Photographers?); a two-part exhibition on view in Paris through January 24, 2016. Split chronologically at the Musée de l’Orangerie (1839-1919) and the Musée d’Orsay (1918-1945), the sprawling survey draws out a trans-national timeline of amateurs, artists, and professionals.
The first exhibition starts at the genesis of the medium in 1839, with images by Constance Talbot — wife of the inventor of photography, Englishman Henry Fox Talbot. Photography, like everything else about the female experience, was then conscribed to the domestic sphere. Although it provided a constructive means of expressing personal creativity, the firm gender binary in place meant that the subjects addressed by female photographers remained narrow: primarily botany (flowers and leaves) and portraiture (family and friends). Some women were lightly tongue-in-cheek within these categories. Georgiana Louisa Berkeley’s family album collages display an especially playful approach, such as one ensemble of images slotted into a lady’s fan or umbrella formation.
This branch also highlights the incongruous regard for women throughout Europe and the United States — subjected to religious and cultural realities— which trickled into the field of photography. There was a wider margin for expression and autonomy amongst the English than the French, partially influenced by Queen Victoria’s interest in photography, which “authorized” upper-class women to practice it. The intercontinental inconsistencies remain flagrant even today. Marie Robert, curator of the exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, acknowledges: “In France, we have an immense lag — with this exhibition, we are asking questions that have been raised 20-30 years ago elsewhere, in places like Germany and the US. The exhibition is not necessarily novel, but it is creating key visibility.”
While most early female photographers adhered to the norms of their day, regardless of nationality, one particular figure at the end of the 19th century stands out wildly: Frances Benjamin Johnston. She did self-portraits upending gender norms, dress codes, and behavioral codes with her “Self portrait as a male cyclist” (1890-1900). She foreshadowed the “nouvelle femme” trope that would come into vogue in the 1920s, displaying such riotous behavior as smoking, drinking, and riding a bicycle. The daughter of a journalist, Johnston became one herself in 1889, doing a photo-reportage on the American mint, images of which are also shown in Paris. She was a true radical, and a precursor to the activists that would gather around the female cause.
The popularization of photography as leisure practice gained ground at the end of the 19th century, as the device was developed for everyday use. The figure of the “Kodak Girl” in 1893 became a rather patronizing icon for the apparatus: a camera advertised as “simplified” for the technically-impaired sensibilities of delicate ladies. In a postcard from 1906, a monocled man slithers his hand around the waist of a woman in a darkroom and leers at her: “how nicely you are developing.”
Come World War I, the devastations of warfare also devastated the fixity of gender roles. The archetypal divisions — male soldiers in the battlefield, women nurturing them back to health — didn’t completely hold. Women in wartime worked as mechanics, drivers, and even handled shrapnel. These unorthodox delegations created an intrinsic shift. The last rooms of the first exhibition display news clippings of women seeking civil rights: engagé through protests, parades, and politics. In one striking image by Christina Bloom, from 1916, Commander Mary Sophia Allen and four members of London’s police force are depicted. Their stern gazes (and excellent posture) match their sharp uniforms: clear authoritarian figures one would not wish to get on the wrong side of.
With the exception of Julia Margaret Cameron — who was Virginia Woolf’s great aunt, and featured in her own right in solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan and the V&A for her gorgeous tousled portraits and religious allegories — the early practitioners of photography are mostly unknown and unstudied. And yet: “the number of women who contributed to history of photography is very sizable,” emphasizes Robert. “Qualitatively and quantitatively.” She continues: “The 19th century fed the modern era, notably the avant-garde sector in the period between the World Wars — it was important for us to show that continuity of development, and the surge of female photographers.”
The Orsay exhibition spotlights this rising tide of female subjects and artists. Going behind the lens, in addition to being the focus of its gaze, newly affirmed a female vision, within very stylistically diverse parameters. Grit Kallen-Fischer’s “Self-portrait with cigarette” (1928) shows her on her back, gaze skywards, arms pretzeled, smoking: it’s the image of someone in her own world, comfortable enough to forgo formalism. Dora Maar’s “Assia” (1934) depicts a naked woman standing unabashedly in a frontal posture, silhouette in shadow. Marta Astfalck-Vietz’s “Nude with triangle” (1927) features a woman, head titled back, wearing a draped top and nothing below the waist, hands cupping her privates. This output is incredibly liberated and freeform relative to the prim and decorous posing only a few decades prior.
As professionals, women helmed exhibitions and founded their own photography schools. Florence Henri pursued an advertising career, creating clever mirrored ads for Lanvin. Claude Cahun and Lisette Model snapped subjects who undercut heteronormative style. Lee Miller’s harrowing photojournalist reportage about the liberation of the Dachau camps in Germany was published in 1945. Other photographers trained their lenses on automobiles, machinery, and various kinds of industry. “It was the conquest of territory and genres monopolized by men,” Robert states — a visual and political coup. The Orsay exhibition ends at the close of World War II, the last room a loop of vintage film reportage clips. The role of women in photography quieted after the war, and would not have the same teeming resurgence again until the 1970s.
Margaret Bisland’s citation — “I want to see what life is doing to other people” — is as fitting a mantra of photography today as it was 125 years ago. It’s clear that by seeing what life did for other people, women were motivated to push boundaries and a great debt is owed to this pantheon of women.