Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers ?

When photography was a male-dominated art form, were women photographers not these men’s artistic equals, indeed their superiors? Those we know as the Kodak Girls?

These are the women whose work is now on display at the Musée de l’Orangerie (1839-1919) and then at the Musée d’Orsay (1918-1945). Women like my grandmother—an avid photographer with her own laboratory. In the early 1900s, she passionately pursued new techniques while photographing her sisters and nieces. I think in particular of a portrait of her sister posing with her daughter, their pose calling to mind one of Vigée Lebrun’s maternité paintings. My grandmother immersed herself in current events (notably the first world war), travel, and science—she was a member of an astronomical society!

Honoring works that date as early as the invention of the first daguerreotypes, the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay cast new light on the presence of these women photographers in the world of photography. The exhibition explores far more than just family photo albums. It delves deeper, transcending simple anecdote as it leads us through the fascinating artistry of these women’s interior lives.
Expressed through some of the first ever family photo albums, the artistic vision of these women photographers speaks an entirely different language than that of their male contemporaries. They find support and inspiration in the social circles of their aristocratic families, creating bodies of work that far surpass what was expected of women in the 19th and 20th centuries. While certain among them might have wanted to become painters, they found more freedom in photography—there, anything was possible.

This phenomenon of women’s artistic liberation through photography is largely unique to Great Britian—Queen Victoria is an avid photographer! Just as the art form is becoming a popular pastime for fashionable women, she creates a laboratory for herself in Windsor.

In France, Empress Eugénnie doesn’t find much interest in photography, and Napoleon sees it only as a means of political propaganda. I can’t help but to think of the satirical stereoscopic slides “les Diableries.”

For this exhibition only, the Musée de l’Orangerie presents an album from Queen Elisabeth II ‘s collection detailing princess Alexandra’s life in the royal family. Before becoming the “Photographer Queen,” Alexendra’s passion for the art form begins with photo collages

Without any particular objective, photo collage uses either commercial photos or those taken by oneself. Pioneered by women, it’s a feminine phenomenon.

Imagine these elegant women gathering in salons, turning the pages of albums, recounting amusing anecdotes, lending each other advice, exchanging a rare image of an unknown origin, or simply admiring the beautiful portrait of a close friend. Photography was a pastime, a world, that they could call their own. It was a game of who-knows-who, of codes and pulp romances. Lady Filmer captures flirtatious encounters with the future kind Edouard VII in her famous photo and watercolor scrapbooks.

Indeed, who better than these women photographers to capture such intimate scenes, lovingly photographing their children one moment and daring to seduce a grand sculptur the next? Some like Cameron and Käsebier become very famous.

Lady Clementina Hawardan, one of the richest women in England, goes so far as to photograph her daughters in poses reminiscent of prostitutes. Such subversive work took advantage of the private, non exhibition-oriented nature of these women’s photography and allowed them to push the boundaries of their freedom of expression. Hawardan’s photos are the most subversive of the exhibition. They would have been absolutely scandalous in the 1860s—it was unthinkable that girls of such social standing present themselves in such a way!

A mother of 12 children, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) is at once very eccentric and very conventional. With striking honesty, portraits of her niece, the mother of Virgina Woolf, play with the sensualization of children. Her photo of two children kissing evokes nothing more than the beautiful harmony of the “the biblical kiss.”

Cameron is friends with the entire artistic and intellectual elite of Victorian England. She pursues famous, powerful men, shooting portraits of them with a particularartistry that no male photographer could ever replicate. Don’t forget that Cameron thinks very highly of her own talent. When she photographs Herschel she doesn’t hesitate to tousle his hair, giving him the look of a universal genius.

Speaking of Herschel, Cameron said, “I felt it was my duty to give the Nation your portrait”

Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934) is the only woman to shoot a portrait of Rodin. In her correspondence with him, she signs “from the heart of one artist to another.” Having always wanted to become a painter, Käsebier retouches her photos by brushing her negatives with pigments. Her 1889 photograph Blessed Art Thou Among Women is beautiful, the dress draping in delicate transparence, the pale woman seemingly unreal, like an angel, in contrast beside her daughter dressed all in black. I think of Odilon Redon, the late 19th century symbolist painter.

“It’s Rodin in the presence of a woman,” says Käsebier of the sculptor’s portrait.

Käsebier built her career on maternité portraits; her piece “la crèche” was the most expensive photograph ever sold in 1899.

French professional photographers shot scenes of urban life, as opposed to the English, who couldn’t pose their tripods on London’s roads. In the same way, woman painters couldn’t go to the cafés frequented by the likes of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec.

The photographer Disderi couple are a unique case in the world of photography. The husband holds a patent for the business card and lives a life of incredible wealth only to die completely broke. His wife leads a life as an independent photographer, working first in Brest and later on Rue du Bac in Paris.

Photographic societies that accepted women such as The Royal Photographic Society of London were primarily a British phenomenon. At the time, you could count with one hand the number of women admitted to such organizations in France.

These women photographers knew how to evoke a particular, powerful intimacy in their work that no man could approach. They bore witness to their times through a unique lens of feminine and maternal beauty, surprising us with their audacity and artistic sensibility.

The exhibition concludes with a glimpse of the suffragettes, including an incredible portrait of Susan B. Anthony, author of l’Histoire du suffrage féminin. To continue your discovery of the hitherto untold story of these incredible women, head to Musée Orsay, whose collection follows the momentous epoch of the 1920s and World War II.

By Florence Briat Soulie.

Translated by Chris Gortmaker,  Wesleyan University, Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris Fall 2015.

Exhibition from 14 october 2015 to 24 january 2016

Musée de l’Orangerie

Musée d’Orsay

General curator

Ulrich Pohlmann, chief curator of the Photographic Collection, Stadtmuseum, Munich

Scientific curator – Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839 to 1919, Musée de l’Orangerie

Thomas Galifot, curator, Musée d’Orsay

Scientific curatorWho’s Afraid of Women Photographers? 1918 à 1945, Musée d’Orsay

Marie Robert, curator, Musée d’Orsay


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