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Women in Photo

The world of photography has long been dominated by men throughout history, leaving women’s roles to mostly lie in being the pretty subject. But some inspiring women were holding their own, producing photographs for Hollywood, fashion and art in a time when most women were producing dinner for their men. Some things just need a woman’s touch, right?

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Wealthy British housewife Julia Margaret Cameron began photographing after her daughter gave her a camera for her 48th birthday in 1864. Her allegorical and soft focused portraits of Victorian “celebrities” (mostly friends) were criticized for not having an innovative style. But her classic portraits remain a top seller at auction houses today, mostly thanks to her shrewd business practices, which included registering each photograph with the copyright office. Imogen Cunningham sites Cameron as a big influence, with her beautiful, honest portraiture.

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Spitfire Editta Sherman lived in the artist lofts at Carnegie Hall from the 1940s until they kicked everyone out in 2010. She spent years documenting New York’s Bohemian elite- celebrities, writers, poets, models and politicians in gorgeous 8 x 10 negative detail. She mingled with Warhol in the 1970s, appearing in a film with Paul Morrissey, and stole the show with her appearance in 2010’s documentary, Bill Cunningham’s New York, which focused on her photographer friend and Carnegie Hall neighbor. Her portraits were shown only once in 1967 at Grand Central Station, and are worthy of a reconnaissance while we still have her with us.

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Margaret Bourke-White set the bar for documentary and war photography. Sure, she was the first female photojournalist for Life Magazine in 1936, but previous to this she was the first Western photographer-male or female- granted access to document Soviet Industry in 1930. She traveled the U.S. documenting the Great Depression, and then to Europe to document life under the Nazis and Russian Communism. In World War II she photographed combat zones- the first female to do so. She even photographed and interviewed Gandhi hours before his assassination- a whole lot of important firsts for a name that isn’t taught in schools.

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The mysterious Marion Carpenter defied gender roles by becoming the first woman national press photographer in the 1940s. As the first female White House photographer, she traveled with President Harry Truman on a regular basis, yet was not allowed to attend the annual White House dinner with the president. Despite her bold character, she was largely forgotten when she left the White House for her second husband- abandoning photography all together.

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Irving Penn and Richard Avedon may be thought to have revolutionized fashion photography, but both gentlemen have cited Louise Dahl-Wolfe as a major inspiration to their work. Her classic and beautiful photographs graced the cover and pages of Harper’s Bazaar since the mid 1930s, often incorporating her signature style of “environmental” fashion photography. She became a master of natural lighting, and often played on light and darkness in her images. Her photograph for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in March of 1943 featured a teenage Lauren Bacall, whom Dahl-Wolfe is credited for discovering.

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I love pouring through old timey New York pics from the 1930s, before the boring glass towers took over Manhattan. Without any outside financial support, Bernice Abbott moved from Paris and began documenting the changing gritty city- Depression-era poor, Deco era architecture, and rapidly changing business. Lugging around an 8 x 10 camera, she captured the daily lives of New Yorkers in the 30s.

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How awesome are you if Norman Mailer says “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child,” about you? She was sorta played by Nicole Kidman in the highly fictionalized movie Fur, and she captured my heart by documenting the types of people I love- the fringes of society in the 1940s,50s and 60s. Before offing herself in 1971, she documented dwarves, giants, trannies, nudists, rockers and virtually all of the interesting underlings of society.

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The first Sally Mann photograph I’d ever seen was of her daughter peeing. Much of her work is of her children nude at their remote cabin, which naturally raised child porn allegations. But there is something pure about her work. The images are read from the eye of a mother, with innocence and mortality that a man could simply not portray no matter how hard he tried.

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Having multiple personalities is what made Cindy Sherman famous. Since her first show at The Kitchen in 1980, she’s been assuming the role of photographer, model, makeup artist and stylist, transforming herself into roles from vintage pin up girls to pasty Baroque dames to ultra modern tanned heiresses. At 57, she’s still hot, still ruling the New York art scene, and dipping her pen in fashion, music and film.

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Nikki S Lee takes influence from Cindy Sherman to the next level. Lee has spent years photographing herself as different characters, but rather than doing a quick costume change, she actually LIVES in her characters’ worlds for several months, crossing ethnic, racial, cultural and sexual boundaries. She’s lived as a drag queen, a crust punk, a skate chick, a Korean school girl, a lesbian, a young professional, a senior citizen, and even taken melanin for her Latino and hip-hop projects. She enters each sub culture’s world, assimilates, and takes snapshots as anyone would. Aside from being totally amazingly encompassing, her work makes us think about the role of identity.

 

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