International Women’s Day is the perfect time to look back on the incredible achievements of female photographers. It’s also important to acknowledge that there’s plenty left to do before we close the gender gap and ensure equal representation for women of colour. Here are five women who have helped push the art form forward.
Words by Hudson Brown
Women have been at the heart of photography since the very beginning as both artists and subjects. English botanist Anna Atkins is credited as the first person to publish photographs inside a book, as she captured her collection of preserved plants in stunning detail in 1843.
In the early 20th-century, Florestine Perrault Collins overcame race and gender hurdles to establish a successful commercial career in New Orleans. Shooting portraits, weddings, parties and public events, Collins produced work that showcased the African-American community’s pride and sophistication.
Despite these early successes, photography remains a male-dominated space. It’s estimated that while 80 percent of global photography graduates are women, only 15 percent of the industry is made up of female photographers. Facing sexism, industry stereotypes and a lack of opportunities, women, and especially women of colour, are still clearly underrepresented in the industry although reports suggest attitudes are gradually improving.
However, there’s still plenty to do before we close the lens-based equality gap. This IWD, take some time to consider the remarkable work produced by some of our favourite female photographers and appreciate how they brought a vital perspective to the art form we all love.
Following a troubled upbringing, Nan Goldin’s camera helped her make sense of the world. In particular, she focused on marginalised groups that often became her adoptive family. With many of the people appearing in her images close friends, Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a cornerstone project for shooting intimate, challenging topics.
Across heavy drug use, domestic violence, sex and the AIDS epidemic, Nan Goldin’s work is almost always highly personal. Serving as a document to real life, rather than the docile TV shows she grew up watching, her photography takes a head-on look at difficult memories, grief and lives lost.
Read more about Nan Goldin’s story.
Vivian Maier’s photographic legacy totals more than 150,000 images, but it was almost never discovered. Shortly before she died in 2009, her private collection was sold at auction before soaring to worldwide fame that she never got a chance to experience.
Having worked for decades as a nanny for Chicago’s affluent, Maier spent her days with children in one hand and a camera in the other. As she wandered the streets for hours, she captured a palpable sense of ironic humour on virtually every street corner.
Read more about Vivian Maier’s work.
Carrie Mae Weems
As a teenage modern dance phenomenon, Carrie Mae Weems learned that abstract ideas had the power to bridge cultural borders. Tutored by experimental dance pioneer Anna Halpin, these concepts translated into Weems’ later career when she picked up the camera for the first time in her early 20s. Now, with a lens to reflect her life experiences, she has established a long-running career exploring African-American identity, sexism, family and political structures.
In particular, The Kitchen Table Series is held up as an example of Weems’ ability to combine incredible images with provocative socio-political themes. Across 20 images featuring Weems playing various characters, this series considers race, gender, love and identity.
Starting her career as a unit photographer on Hollywood films, Mark Ellen Mark went on to produce an almost unmatched collection of social documentary projects. Across war protests, the women’s rights movement, female mental health patients and Indian sex workers, she often formed close relationships with her subjects across these multi-year projects.
Perhaps best known for her work on Seattle’s homeless children, which brought the topic to national attention, Mark produced 18 photobooks and scores of high-profile commissions for leading publications, including The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.
Read more about Mary Ellen Mark.
As an essential predecessor to Mary Ellen Mark – and countless other like-minded photographers – Diane Arbus is a photographic pioneer that stands above most. Having pushed the boundaries of documentary photography as a concept, Arbus’ work highlighted the LGBTQ+ community, circus performers, people living with disabilities, nudists and more.
With a legacy that impacted not only Mark, but other prominent female photographers such as Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman, Arbus is now recognised as one of the most influential artists of the past century. Using a medium-format Rolleiflex camera, her up-close, direct and personal perspective altered the art form’s direction forever.
Of course, these famous female photographers are just a small selection of those we admire at Urth. Some of the other talented women we’ve featured in the magazine include Carla Step, Denisse Ariana Pérez, Mandy Sham, Sarah Pannell, Mona Kuhn and Pixy Liao alongside many more.