Women in Photography

Pilgrims inside a hospital during Hajj. © Newsha Tavakolian

The story of Merci Lack and The Dig (blog 17th February 2021) is a reminder of how until comparatively recently women as photographers have been forgotten, ignored or written out of the history of the medium:  they make only brief appearances as practitioners in two concise histories of photography on my bookshelf (Gernsheim, 1965 and Jeffrey, 1981). (Women as the subjects for photography are quite another matter, of course.).  What is unforgivable about The Dig in replacing two women by a man is that it comes at a time when the balance is being redressed, in both historical perspectives and current practice.

Women Photographers by Boris Friedwald (2018) and Women Photographers by Clara Bouveresse (2020) are two examples of the shift in recognition and understanding.   A charity, Hundred Heroines, established following an initiative by the Royal Photographic Society, says, ‘We have a vision: the universal acknowledgement of photographic heroines past, present and future. Our mission is to achieve this’ (hundredheroines.org).

Jonty Pentelow, Vicrage Garden Guyhirn,1929, Margaret-George

The latter has been a stimulus to do something we’ve been thinking about for some time: running a course for U3A Cambridge on women in photography.  In the course Photography – The Telling Image (see post 16th February 2021 and previous dates) we wanted a more balanced perspective, but of the credited photographers whose work was show men still outnumbered women three to one.  This arose in part from the way the course included the historical background to the way photography has developed and been used. So, a course focusing on women behind the camera seems a logical next step.

Photo 51, x-ray diffraction image, Rosalind Franklin, 1952

How should we structure this?  It must be to tell the untold story:  there is more to women in photography than Julia Margaret Cameron, Dorothea Lange, Lee Miller and Annie Leibowitz.   And what are the individual stories?  How did Doreen Spooner get to be the first woman to work as a staff photographer on a Fleet Street newspaper?  Should Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, scientists using photography, be included?  Are there enthusiastic amateurs whose work now forms the basis of important historical records? (Yes, Merci Lack!)  What’s the role of women in high street studios?  And for a Cambridge audience, who are the local ‘heroines’?

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