“Photography chose me one day. Before that day I never gave it a thought, ever! It has become the essence of who I am and is the elemental birth place of how I express myself by turning the perceived mundane into the magical imaginative. It is how I wear my soul on the outside.” Lezzet Abbott
Women have been there from the start…
The request to write about women in the photography industry, or at least my perception thereof, based on my own experience as a woman creating my art and making a living from practicing this craft, filled me with such a sense of dread and excitement, as no prospective shoot has ever done. Why is it that I fear to actually put in writing what I hear being said almost every day? Am I actually believing that what I am about to say is to be received as controversial or with contempt, at the very least? Is it worth being said, in the first place, or worse…does it matter?
A quick Google search of the masters of photography produced many references to the masters we all know from Ansel Adams to Yousuf Karsh and Henry Cartier-Bresson to Henry Fox Talbot, as well as references to their quotes, publications, and work. A similar search of women in photography produced a list of women who had made their mark, but the disparity is quite apparent, in the absence of quotes, publications, or in the size of volumes of work. It is, however, clear that women photographers have been there since the beginning of this beautiful craft.
Women made their mark…
Could the reasons for the disparity be lying in the very beginnings of photography itself and not so much as to who was doing it or why. When Joseph Niépce captured that first well-known image it was merely a science experiment, and not meant to be art at all. The two women, often referred to as the pioneers, were Constance Fox Talbot (the wife of Henry Fox Talbot) and Anna Atkins (a botanist). Their approach to photography was more scientific (developing photography) or a means to record science. From there on photography became a means to record history, telling stories of the then current struggles, from the great depression to the World Wars, for the future generations to remember and….(queue: enter THE WOMEN!) By 1840 women were working as photographers in Europe and soon started developing artistic portraiture. I was surprised to read that Queen Victoria was a champion of the photographic arts. She granted her patronage to what became The Royal Photographic Society, but Queen Victoria also started the practice of putting visiting cards in albums. The making of photo albums became trendy. By the 1900’s, in an era when women did not generally have professions, photography was regarded as a suitable profession for women in the UK and Europe. (One source mentioned that the 1900 UK census recorded 7000 professional women photographers!) Tradition, and the expectation for women to have gentler, cleaner jobs, had woman photographing portraits but a small group of women pushed those boundaries and became conflict photographers or photojournalists. The nature of the work understandably made this a male dominated domain, but women like Gerda Taro (who was killed in action photographing the Spanish Civil war) and Dorothea Lange set the trend.
So what is the issue then?
Where am I going with all of this? Well, why is there still a perception that women are being marginalized and who’s perception is that? Or are female photographers, in fact farting against thunder to make it in an industry full of testosterone driven prejudice and stereotypes? Especially as photojournalists, fashion or commercial photographers? Are women photographers merely struggling to get by and keep up in a field, which is all about technology and equipment (the proverbial “man’s world”)? Are woman photographers only “supposed” to make a mark in the “softer” genres, such as portraits of families, children and babies and brides? I do understand that I am at the risk of making huge generalizations, but in all honesty, are we or should we feel marginalized?
Women of strength…
I hope to make a case that we, as women, have nothing to fear but possibly our own insecurities…. (Let’s ignore the debate on where those insecurities come from, for now). Yes, we might all have been confronted by patriarchal norms, and yes, it is a tough industry, but we have what it takes and much more to make it in any genre; to succeed, to set the trends, to fill the exhibition halls and to tell the stories.
Passion – Creativity – Emotion – It is all connected!
I believe it is in our perceived shortcomings where our real strengths come to the fore.
Women were created as creative beings, as creators in fact. We carry babies and we create homes for our families, we play the major role in shaping the caliber of the future generations. Every woman I have met has a desire or need to create something – from art to making the family dinner.
We are sensory beings and in such are able to recognize true beauty; we see it in creation and people. We see, we smell, we hear, we taste and most of all, we feel. This gives us a keen sense of observation. We truly see!
My dear friend and fellow photographer, Lezzet Abbott summarised it so beautifully: “Women connect on an emotional level to their environment, they are heightened by all their senses and because they are the nurturers by default of their nature, it is a relaxed interaction with their surroundings that flows naturally without any forced or willed gestures. The photograph is merely the end product and an encapsulation of her relationship with her passion.”
We are born storytellers – we love to share our daily mundane experiences with our people and hear them tell us about theirs, we even gossip. It is a fact that women use social media more than men and worldwide trends, according to Pam Grossman, the director of visual trends at Getty, are contributing to a shift away from the stereotyping of women.
But, there is more…the female soul is a passionate one. We yearn to love and be loved. We care, we nurture and we ooze empathy. Sonia Small of Kaleidoscope Studios said it like this: “As a wedding and glamour portrait photographer, I feel that photography is not only capturing an image, but rather a soul’s connection with my subject. Personally, I feel this connection is easier for women and it comes more naturally”.
Annie Leibovitz said: “A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.”
The female soul has a taste for adventure and yet more patience than our male counterparts. It is in my opinion, this very sense of adventure that sends us out there to push those boundaries and tackles our male counterparts on their own turf as fashion, commercial and industrial photographers.
Acclaimed fashion photographer Shirley Pienaar says “ I must say the top photographers in the industry, or at least the ones I recognize as such, do tend to be male. To be honest I don’t care what men think of my work, too busy trying to better myself and stay anything but mainstream. I think it’s important for any photographer, male or female, to stop comparing yourself and your work to others. By giving head space to being marginalised, you will be marginalised. In the end, when you see an incredible image, the first thing you ask is whose work is it, not what gender the artist is.”
There are many talented, hardworking contemporary women photographers, right here amongst us in South Africa, and ladies, I take inspiration from you all on a daily basis. For me, photography has always and will always be a soul journey and as such, it is in many ways an emotional journey. A journey I have fought for passionately and at a price. I didn’t set out with the vision to become a professional photographer and even less with the vision of becoming a commercial photographer. I merely trusted the journey and followed it to where I am now, but I suspect, as life comes with many surprises, that it might lead me elsewhere in the future. The odd “prejudice” I encounter, means nothing to me, really… I do what I do and I endeavour to do it well, never losing sight of my feminine talents, using them creatively, rather than allowing them to be an excuse. My skills as photographer are proven in my portfolio, not in my gender!
Some Advice, Ladies…
- Trust the journey.
- Women are communal creatures; support one another, ask and take advice.
- Nurture your creativity – make time to still make soul images, despite your workload for clients.
- Retain the ability and will to feel, to care about your subjects, whether people, animals, nature or anything else for that matter.
- Tell the stories with compassion and respect and write some of your own.
- Stand back for no one! Learn, become better at what you do and learn something new…take the risk!
- Embrace competition – take inspiration from it and grow.
- Most of all…trust your feminine instincts!