10 Historic Women Photographers You Should Know
Let’s get our art history on.
Next month, Sotheby’s will bring a broad array of photography to the auction block, illuminating the impressive range of the medium through a survey of Modern and Post-War image makers. While audiences will get their fair share of the men who helped changed the history of photos — think Bill Brandt, Robert Frank, Weegee, Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams — some of the most impressive names in the bunch belong to the 20th and 21st century women who have brought the art of photography to new heights.
Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin and Annie Leibovitz are indelible icons in the photography canon, having created works that art history students will be studying for centuries to come. Below is a primer on 10 of the historic women included in the upcoming photography sale at Sotheby’s. Add these ladies to your list of art world saints, pronto.
Beyond the list below, works by photographers like Doris Ulmann, Imogen Cunningham, Alma Lavenson, Consuelo Kanaga, Dorothea Lange, Ruth Bernhard, Berenice Abbott, Lisette Model and Lynn Davis will also be up for sale at Sotheby’s next month. However, there are, of course, many more woman photographers you should know outside of this sale, particularly the work of Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Graciela Iturbide and, of course, Cindy Sherman.
While Sotheby’s survey stands to correct the long male-dominated realm of photography by including many of the women who helped shape the medium, there still remains a lack of American women of color in the sale. This is yet another reason why we need curators to readdress the annals of art history to rediscover the artists mainstream institutions have ignored. These 10 women deserve every bit of recognition next month, but there’s no harm in pushing auctioneers to bring a more diverse lot of artworks to the table.
In that spirit, let us know which photographers you’d add to the sale in the comments.
Sotheby’s “Photographs” sale will take place on Oct. 7 at 10 a.m. in New York City.
1. Ruth Orkin
Orkin worked steadily from the 1940s to the 1980s, shooting for publications like The New York Times and Life, co-directing an Oscar-nominated film, and showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before she died in New York City in 1985.
In August 1951 two American women, Ruth Orkin and Ninalee Craig met in Florence, Italy and the rest as they say is history! Sixty four years later here is the magnificent Ninalee Craig in a slightly different version once again…
Watch Rooney Mara, Todd Haynes and Cate Blanchett being interviewed about their new film CAROL at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and mention being influenced by Ruth Orkin’s photographs and Orkin/Engel’s films: “Little Fugitive;” “Lovers and Lollipops” and “Weddings and Babies.”
(starts at 11:00 mins into the 12:30 min interview)
Last month, writer Sarah Coleman published an article in Photography District News on archival best practices, which included quotes from Mary Engel on directing the Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel Film and Photo Archive. Coleman continued the conversation with Mary on her blog, The Literate Lens, discussing Morris’s and Orkin’s lives, work, and influences; how Mary came to run the archive; and the formation of APAG.
“Legacy Keeper: An Interview with Mary Engel” by Sarah Coleman.
Ruth Orkin, age 17 in 1939 on bicycle trip across the country.
Excerpt from article below:
Ruth Orkin left Los Angeles, alone, at the age of 17, to visit the World’s Fair in New York City in 1939. She traveled by car and train over the long stretches and stayed in youth hostels and people’s homes. Her experiences must have had a profound effect on her life and career as she went to Europe after the war and became famous for her fine photographs with the well-known “American Girl in Italy” taken in 1951. Not surprisingly, that photo was part of a series originally titled “Don’t be Afraid to Travel Alone.” Clearly, she wasn’t!
The bicycle craze of the 1890s went out of fashion quickly and Americans at the dawn of the 20th century were fascinated by all things motorized. Moving pictures, airplanes, motorcycles, and early automobile trips across the continent captured the public’s imagination. The hip factor was gone for cycling and it received scant attention in the press — except for cyclists injured by streetcars. Cyclists who undertook continental journeys were viewed as “eccentric
travelers,” essentially the same as those walking or pushing eelbarrows across the continent. John Burns rode from New York to the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 and along the way he visited the Reno Gazette office in Nevada where reporters were surprised he “wasn’t walking coast to coast for a $20,000 purse and wasn’t selling postcards.” Well, he was selling postcards (like the one in this month’s cover photo), as did many travelers to help cover their expenses. Photo postcards provide a wealth of information about many of the early transcontinental cyclists, as well as occasional short articles in local newspapers. Foreign around-the-world cyclists received more press attention, and the Boston Globe ran a long article with a photo of Quichi anaka on his arrival in that city in 1915. Other Japanese, Indian, and European cyclists also crossed America on their world journeys during this era.
Most cyclists were content to pedal across the continent in obscurity, but a few devised clever methods to gain attention. Tony Pizzo rode from Los Angeles chained to his bike, and when he reached New York claimed he wouldn’t do it again for a million dollars. But the stunt was rather profitable, so he rode across twice more! Claude Murphey and Clarence Darling (featured in the May 2012 Adventure Cyclist article “1904: Around the United States by Bicycle”) rode a convoluted route through every continental state and territory in 1904-05 selling aluminum trays with photos of themselves along the way. Bicycling came back into favor briefly during the Depression for obvious economic reasons. During that decade, a number of cyclists pulled trailers across America and James Fagg was on the road for three years with a well-designed home on wheels. Jim and Elisabeth Young rode a bicycle built for two in 1938 and attracted attention riding a machine that was a visual throwback to the 1890s, although it was actually a modern three-speed English tandem. Because of gas rationing, the years during World War II saw an increase in general cycling, but there wasn’t much transcontinental travel. Margaret Stovall cycled across in 1944 and was likely the first woman to take on that challenge alone.
Ruth Orkin traveled across with a bike in 1937, but she mostly traveled by train and car. Annie Londonderry (featured in the June 2013 issue’s “The Machine that Set Women Free”) was famous for her around-the-world exploits in the 1890s, but also traveled by train and did not ride alone as she claimed. Norma Jean Belloff, whose ride is the best documented of that era in the book Once Upon a Chariot, left San Diego in 1947 for a leisurely trip across and set a record of 53 days on her return ride the following year. These women were pioneers, but other than a few stories in local papers never received the recognition they deserved because cycling was so out of favor. So bicycle use in America was essentially in hibernation for the first half of the 20th century. Most of the bikes manufactured were heavy, designed to look like motorcycles, and made for children. Without question free spirits were traveling by bicycle, but there was little evidence a revival of cycling in America was just over the horizon.
Little Fugitive and Morris Engel photos in new exhibit about Coney Island at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT
Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland 1861 – 2008
January 31, 2015 – May 31, 2015
The best show is the people themselves. –Reginald Marsh
Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland is the first major exhibition to use visual art as a lens to explore the lure that Coney Island exerted on American culture over a period of 150 years. An extraordinary array of artists viewed Coney Island as a microcosm of the American experience, from its beginnings as a watering hole for the wealthy, through its transformation into an entertainment mecca for the masses, to the closing of Astroland Amusement Park following decades of urban decline.
Production Stills from Little Fugitive, 1953
Photos by Morris Engel, Coney Island, New York, 1938
Called “America’s playground,” Coney Island is a world-famous resort and national cultural symbol that has inspired music, literature, and films. This groundbreaking book is the first to look at the site’s enduring status as inspiration for artists throughout the ages, from its inception as an elite seaside resort in the mid-19th century, to its evolution into an entertainment mecca for the masses, with the eventual closing of its iconic amusement park, Astroland, in 2008 after decades of urban decline. How artists chose to portray Coney Island between 1861 and 2008 – in tableaux of wonder and menace, hope and despair, dreams and nightmares – mirrored the aspirations and disappointments of the era.
This dazzling catalogue highlights more than 200 images from Coney Island’s history, including paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, posters, film stills, architectural artifacts, and carousel animals. An extraordinary array of artists is represented, from George Bellows, William Merritt Chase, Reginald Marsh, and Joseph Stella to Diane Arbus, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Frank, Red Grooms, Weegee, and Swoon. Essays by prominent scholars analyze Coney Island through its imagery and ephemera as both a place and an idea – one that reflected the collective soul of the nation.
Details: By Robin Jaffee Frank
published 2015, 304 pages, hardcover
American Girl in Italy is featured in an article about Ninalee Craig in the Guardian 1/31/15 titled “That’s me in the Picture.”
Tennessee Williams on the set of A Streetcar Named Desire, New York City, 1950
Vanity Fair featured a Ruth Orkin photograph of Comden and Green at the original rehearsals of On the Town
The November 2014 issue of Vanity Fair featured a Ruth Orkin photograph of Comden and Green at the original rehearsals in 1944 for ON THE TOWN.
Adolph Green, Oliver Smith (set designer), Paul Feigay (producer) and Betty Comden at ON THE TOWN rehearsal, New York, 1944.