Half the sky: Women photographers, Part 1

This month, we celebrate some of the women who have made their own deep impression on the history of photography. Illuminating the wide range of the medium, women have brought their own unique view of the world, challenging expectations and broadening the spectrum of composition, technique and subject.

Automat in Manhattan (1936) by Berenice Abbott
Automat in Manhattan (1936) by Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott
Born in Ohio in 1898, Berenice Abbott originally studied journalism but then became interested in painting and sculpture, moving to Paris in 1921 to study with sculptor Emile Bourdelle. However, after making the acquaintance of surrealist photographer Man Ray, and working with Ray as a darkroom assistant, Abbott found herself wanting to perfect her own photographic techniques. She eventually opened her own studio in Paris and had her first exhibition in 1926. Returning to the United States in 1929, Abbott decided to start a project to photograph New York. She managed to obtain funding for this project in 1935 from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Art Project and after almost ten years of documenting the city, the images were published in a book titled Changing New York.  Abbott went on to other projects, including inventing and patenting photographic related equipment, and also worked with Science Illustrated as a photography editor.   To learn more about Berenice Abbott, we suggest: Berenice Abbott by Berenice Abbott and Berenice Abbott: Changing New York by Bonnie Yochelson

Margaret Bourke-White
A noted photo journalist, Margaret Bourke-White was a forerunner in the field of photojournalism and the first woman to be hired as such. The first photographer for Fortune magazine in 1929, she was also the first Western photographer allowed into the Soviet Union (and that was in 1930). She was hired as the first female photojournalist for Life magazine, soon after the magazine’s creation in 1935 and she was the first female war correspondent and the first to be allowed to work in combat zones during World War II. And these are just a few of her accomplishments!  Her photographs are some of the most powerful and recognized images of the twentieth century.  To learn more about Margaret Bourke-White, we suggest: Moments of History by Margaret Bourke-White and Margaret Bourke-White: Her Pictures Were Her Life by Susan Goldman Rubin

"Kentucky Flood", February 1937 by Margaret Bourke-White

Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange was one of the best American photographers who used their art to document and call attention to the suffering of people during the Great Depression. When she became a professional photographer around 1917, she worked in several photographers' studios and then opened her own successful portrait studio in San Francisco in 1919.  However, when the Depression hit, she turned her lens to document the everyday suffering of people struck by economic hardship. One of her better-known photographs, “White Angel Breadline,” was made outside her own studio. As a result of the growing recognition of her work in 1935, Lange was invited to join the photography unit of the Farm Security Administration (first known as the  Resettlement Administration) by Roy Stryker. Some of Lange’s finest work, including “Migrant Mother” was produced for the FSA, although her work was not without controversy. During World War II, she was hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the internment of Japanese-Americans, although these photos were then impounded for nearly 50 years. In 2008, Lange was posthumously awarded for this work and others when she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.  To learn more about Dorothea Lange, we suggest: Dorothea Lange: Photographs of a Lifetime by Dorothea Lange and Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning: Her Lifetime in Photography by Elizabeth Partridge

"Broke, baby sick, and car trouble!" (1937) by Dorothea Lange

Michelle Agins
Growing up in Chicago in the mid-1960s, Michelle Agins wanted to be the “black Lois Lane.” While her family discouraged this ambition, when Agins met Chicago Daily News photographer John Tweedle, he encouraged her to pursue her dream, mentoring her until his death in 1981. Continuing towards her goals in photojournalism, Agins landed a job with Encore magazine in New York and also freelanced for The New York Times, Newsweek and other journals. However, homesick for Chicago, she returned in 1974 and in 1983 became the official photographer for newly elected Chicago mayor Harold Washington. As Washington was Chicago’s first black mayor, and Agins was the first black woman photographer for the City of Chicago, this was history-making. Agins continued to make history, joining The New York Times as a photographer in 1989, receiving two Pulitzer Prize nominations for her work covering the Bensonhurst protests and for “Another America: Life on 129th Street.” Agins, along with her colleagues, won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2001 for “How Race is Lived in America.”  To learn more about Michelle Agins, we suggest: Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and her page at The New York Times

Michelle Agins, James Baldwin in Chicago, 1983.
Michelle Agins, James Baldwin in Chicago, 1983.




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