By Jessica Couloute
Illustration by Magdalena Xochitl Burtnik Urueta | Photo by Ewa Drewa
The first known photograph was taken in France between 1826 and 1827 by Nicéphore Niépce. According to the University of Texas, developing this photo took eight hours under sunlight and in asphalt, resulting in the fuzzy image of the “View from the Window at Le Gras.” When looking at the first photograph, calling to mind the evolution of photography over the last two centuries is remarkable. However, given the impressive advancement of technology, the evolution of society has some catching up to do. This final piece of the Root Female of Erasure series will address the lack gender parity and its origins within photography.
When walking through the history of photography, credit is given to a collection of men, such as the previously noted Niépce, Giambattista Della Porta, the Italian scholar in optics; Johann Heinrich Schulze who proved that the darkening of silver salts was caused by light and not heat; and Johann Zahn, the inventor of the camera — to name a few. While their contributions to photography are foundational and should not be discredited, we must also recognise the efforts of women throughout the field’s development. We are what feels to be light years ahead since the founding moment of photography as an art, medium and profession; and not solely through the contributions of men but also through the groundbreaking achievements of women.
Up until the 19th century, throughout the United States and Europe, where photography took root, women’s rights were grossly limited. Bound to the duties of the household and discouraged to explore avenues outside of domestic affairs such as education, it was challenging for women to be innovators outside of the home. Despite these limitations, we see women overcome these hurdles throughout history, and photography is no exception.
Around the mid 19th century, we begin to see the formalisation of the women’s rights movement in the United States, marked by a turning point: the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Over 300 women and men attended to call for progressive change in women’s role in society. We can see this play out through the field of photography. According to an article in Oxford Art, around the same time, working-class women begin to work in studios while wealthy women in the upper and middle class begin to explore photography as a form of self-expression. In the decades following, photographic technology improves and becomes more accessible and mainstream with innovations such as the Kodak Camera in 1888, and more women begin to emerge as professional operators, hobbyists and enthusiasts.
The first known photographic image produced by a woman is up for debate. Anna Atkins is widely considered to be the first, producing her photographs around 1843. However, many believe Constance Fox Talbot, the wife of inventor Henry Fox Talbot, to be the female pioneer in photography as she experimented with photos alongside her husband as early as 1839. Regardless of who was first, these women made their mark on photography.
According to the Guardian, archives show that in 1839, Talbot took a photograph that depicted several blurry lines from a family friend and Irish poet, Thomas Moore. In 1843, using Herschel’s cyanotype method, Atkins photographed over 300 algae images by hand in response to the lack of images included in the 1841 guide to British algae. Because of her efforts, Anna introduced a merging of art and science, which would set the precedent for images in science books.
It is not until the latter end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century where we begin to see photography start to take on new forms, specifically in photojournalism. According to Britannica, due to the surge in magazine publications around the world and the advancements in photo technology (lighter camera equipment), the demand for war coverage and photography increased, resulting in what we now understand to be photojournalism.
The first photojournalist is widely-considered to be Henri Cartier-Bresson (also known as the ‘father of photojournalism), a French photographer who began his career in 1929. He was known for his travels and photo documentation of major historical events, such as the Spanish Civil War and the aftermath of World War II. If one were to ask when women entered the photojournalism stage, the answer could arguably be that they were always there.
Trailblazers of Light, a project dedicated to highlighting female accomplishments in photography, features a historical timeline of female photojournalism beginning in the 1880s with Frances Benjamin Johnston. Johnston was well-known as a professional photographer who shot portraits for presidents, diplomats and other government officials. In the late 1890s, she is considered one of the first photojournalists, supplying images to the Bain News Service among other media outlets. She is known for her self-portrait where she is depicted in nonchalant posture, with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, illustrating a “New Woman’” and embodying a bold display of feminism.
The Trailblazers of Light timeline features Marry Morris Lawrence, who was one of the first female photojournalists at the Associated Press joining the publication in 1936. In that same year, Greta Taro would enter the photography field to become the first female photojournalist to die on the front lines. Taro, alongside her partner Robert Capa, travelled to Spain to document a group of militia women, who were members of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia training on a nearby beach. Throughout her short career, Taro would capture the atrocities and nuances of the war; and in 1937 while covering The Battle of Brunete in the second year of the Spanish Civil War, she would die after being severely injured in a tank accident.
Despite all of the valuable contributions women have made to the world of photography, it remains a male-dominated field. Women are still grossly under-represented in the space. In the United States, the Census Bureau reports that about 57% percent of photographers are men, while the remaining 43% are women.According to 2020 data gathered by Women Photograph, lead photo bylines for the most renowned publications were primarily shot by men. These statistics are only furthermore jarring when we consider that only 18% of accredited members of the Association of Photographers are female. For women who are taking up space within the field, it is not without its challenges. The 2018 World Press Photo survey reports, 69% of women photographers said that they faced discrimination in the workplace, noting in the forms of sexism (54%), industry stereotypes or practices (53%), and lack of opportunities for women (49%).
When we look at the lack of representation through the lens of race, the disparity is very clear. In the World Press Photo survey that featured over 1,000 participants from all over the world, more than half of the participants identified as Caucasian/White (51.3%), with the next largest populations as Asian (19%) and then Latin American (10%) and remaining categories did not exceed 4%, noting that only 14 respondents were Black, representing only 1.4% of total participants.
The survey also notes that participants primarily reigned from the following countries: the United States (94 participants), Italy (93), China (56), Spain (52), India (50), United Kingdom (39), Poland (38), France (38), Germany (35) and the Netherlands (29). And finally, when discussing parity, we cannot fail to also examine wages. According to a 2019 HoneyBook study that surveyed freelance creatives across the US and Canada, the report found that photographers who identified as female earn 65 cents to the male dollar, reiterating that not only do we need to make photography more inclusive, but we also must make sure the playing field is levelled.
Photographs allow us to capture history. It serves as evidence that informs us of the past while shaping our visions for the future, and without diverse perspectives, we are failing to see the world for what it truly is and what it has the potential to be.
Women view the world at a different vantage point, just as they navigate through it differently. This is not to say that the male perspective isn’t valuable; it is to present the notion that the female perspective is valuable too – and equal in nature. The female perspective is only enriched further when we push the boundaries of geographical borders and race. Without these perspectives, we are robbing ourselves of the rich visual story that is the human experience in its totality, and if not captured, we risk its erasure and in its place leave a false perception that these views and these stories never existed at all.
In recognising this, femLENS and many organisations alike are providing platforms where the female perspective is not only valued but raised in acknowledgment and praise. At femLENS, the goal is to close this gender gap through accessible workshops that educate and empower women across the globe to own the value of their stories and share them.
In telling these narratives, we are continuing to forge the path toward gender parity in the photography and photo documentary space. Through the work of femLENS, its participants, women and similar organisations, we hope to continue to doing this work in solidarity and achieve a gender balance which includes women from diverse races, nationalities and backgrounds.
The existence of the gender gap can be attributed to the industry origins invented by men in a time when women lacked autonomy in various aspects of their lives and were often denied credit and praise for their courage, innovation and contributions. However, it remains promising to see women break barriers despite societal limitations placed upon them.
These women who broke barriers set the tone for those after them; they encouraged future leagues of women to take up space not only in the realms of photography but in society as a whole. They inspired the generations after them to persist in doing so until parity is realised. May we learn their names, learn their stories and continue to embody their audacity as we continue the work — and in doing so, remember that the history of photography does not have to paint a picture of disparity, but a picture we develop into parity.
This concludes the Root of Female Erasure series.