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An introduction to three ‘New Women’ photographers

Andrea Nelson is curator of the exhibition 'The New Woman Behind the Camera', and associate curator in the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington DC. Our Restoration Conversation, broadcast on November 16, 2021, featured many notable pictures from the exhibition, but here is a glimpse of three representative images, in Dr. Nelson's own words.

The curator's take on three pictures:

From technical trade to creative endeavour

"The studio was an important pathway for women to enter the field of photography. The idea that they were well-suited for this type of photography is something that stretches back to the field’s very beginnings. Women were, of course, involved in studio photography from its earliest days – 1839 onward, but they were often behind the scenes. They were the ones hand-colouring prints. They were mounting prints and retouching negatives. A lot of times, we don't know much about them, and their names were not recorded in history. For the show, I was focusing on the modern period, the 1920s and 1930s when we start seeing more women starting to run their own studio businesses and taking their place behind the camera. We begin to know their names and they started signing their work. There was a great history of women's studio photographers in cities like London, Vienna and Berlin and, in part, it was because they had the opportunity to attend schools. For example, in Germany, women were not allowed into the fine art academies until 1917-1919, but they were able to apply and enter a photography school. Photography was more accessible than some of the other fine arts. Initially, women were learning it as a more technical trade. It was a way to earn a livelihood.

One studio photographer, Florestine Perot Collins, was working in New Orleans where she ran a very successful studio from 1920 to 1949. We see a portrait of her, as she models herself, as an independent ‘new woman’. She's wearing fashionable clothes; she's got a bejewelled clip in her hair; she's sporting a short bobbed cut: it's telling potential clients that she's really modern… that she's forward thinking and independent." [Shown here: Photographer unknown, Portrait of Florestine Perrault Collins, 1920s]

In the frame

"We can see Homai Vyarawalla's wonderful modernist expression in the way she has composed this photograph. How she is framing the picture is very avant-garde. In the very back of the picture space is the Victoria Terminus, a famous train station in the colonial British architectural style that pulls from Indian tradition. It's usually shown as a grand spectacle of a building but Vyarawalla pushes it to the back and is much more interested in the space in front of the train station. What's framing our vision is a carriage – most likely a horse-drawn carriage (which are also called 'victorias') and then we see, in the middle-ground, a man pushing a cart. A tourist bus is off in the distance and there are people in the plaza maybe going to the train station. This play and practice of camera vision is wonderful. Vyarawalla said that she didn't think she was doing anything special by being a woman photographer. It only occurred to her 50 years later, when 'everyone started making a big deal about it'."

Homai Vyarawalla, The Victoria Terminus, Bombay, early ‑ 1940s

Pushing the limits of an assignment

"Dorothea Lange was hired in 1942 to work for what was called the War Relocation Authority. Her assignment was to document some of the 125,000 people of Japanese ancestry in the US who were forced to leave their homes and businesses and to relocate to camps, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941. Lane was uneasy about the assignment from the get-go and was looking for ways to tell the whole story. She wanted to show the Japanese people in their settings, in their homes, to focus on what their livelihoods were and what they were being forced to give up. In the show, we have her photograph of a Japanese-American-owned grocery store in Oakland, California, whose owner, Mr. Matsuda, placed a large sign on the façade: ‘I am an American’. He put it up on December 8, 1941, so the day after Pearl Harbour. Lange was very consciously pushing the limits of the assignment. She also worked for Life magazine, to photograph at the Heart Mountain [internment camp], but her photographs were considered 'too sympathetic' and were not published."

Dorothea Lange, Japanese-American owned grocery store, Oakland, California, March 1942

And three more with an 'Italian connection'...

The exhibition displayed a sampling of photographers from Europe, Asia and the Americas – here are three ‘word-snapshots’ of talents from the show with ties to Italy.

Wanda Wulz - One of the exhibition’s most iconic self-portraits can be found in Florence. Io + Gatto, from 1932, is Wanda Wulz’s answer to photo-dynamism, a movement of Futurist extraction. She plays with the age-old dilemma of self-representation, making Pippo, the family pet, into her alter-ego by placing two negatives on a single piece of gelatin silver paper. By combining the two images, Wulz suggests, that photography – still an emergent art in her period – was not to be seen as an imitation of painting, but a unique media with its own set of possibilities. Wulz ran a studio in Trieste, together with her sister Marion, and their entire collection – over 7,000 photo-types – is now in Florence at the Alinari Foundation for Photography.

Tina Modotti, born in Udine, immigrated to the US at an early age, becoming first seamstress, and then, film-star. Her short-lived stint in Hollywood would end when she travelled to Mexico, with her then-lover, photographer Edward Weston, befriending the likes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. During her brief but significant photography career, she captured Mexico’s post-revolutionary period, known as the Mexican Renaissance, turning her lens on workers issues. Modotti produced politically charged photographs intended to instigate social change, with Communism, in her view, as the ultimate solution to society’s turmoil. Many of her pictures were the photographic response to Mexico’s contemporary mural art, produced by ‘los Tres Grandes’ painters. In fact, she is featured in two of Rivera’s murals. “Her work flowers perfectly in Mexico and harmonizes with our passion,” Rivera wrote. Her Workers Parade (1926) and its sea of campesinos, is a case in point. She would be deported from Mexico in 1930, and to avoid arrest in fascist Italy, she made her way to Russia, for whom she became a political spy.

A fashion photographer with Vogue magazine, Toni Frissell was best known among the jet set for having immortalized the Kennedy wedding in 1953. In the 1930s, she had revolutionized fashion photography by doing something completely new, which has since become the norm for marketers of every nation – female models could be ‘freed’ from the photo studio and photographed outdoors, for heightened ‘drama’. Frissell plays a dual role in the Washington show. She exemplifies a change in the expectations of advertising and also figures as a major exponent of a genre, that women had rare access to prior to her period – that of photojournalism. During World War II, she would receive an assignment in Ramitelli, Italy, where she captured iconic images of the African American 332nd Fighter Group, the only professional photos ever taken of the Tuskegee Airmen in Europe. [Shown here: Toni Frissell

Untitled (William A. Campbell and Thurston L. Gaines, Jr., 1945].

The final part of this article is an excerpt from 'The New Women Behind the Camera' by L. Falcone, published in The Florentine, November 10, 2021


This article was originally published in Inside AWA magazine, Summer edition, 2021.


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