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Curious Frame - Issue #18 - Women in Photography

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #18 - Women in Photography
By Leanne Staples • Issue #18 • View online
I spend a large portion of my time reading and writing. Most everyday I’m researching and formulating ideas. This all stems from my curiosity and overactive mind. What’s it all mean?

So I recently started writing about women in photography for this issue after realizing how little has been written about women photographers in most books on photography. And I have quite a few!

Then, out of the blue, a man on Instagram sent me a message asking who is my favorite woman photographer? Talk about synchronicity!

My response was not exactly what he was hoping for. I don’t think that the question is relevant anymore. And if I was to choose one it would be a woman photographer that most people don’t know about. There are so many in this category that deserve to be better known.

So this issue is about women in photography and my thoughts on why I no longer feel that it’s necessary or appropriate to use it as a category. 

And I’ve added brief info about a few women photographers that I think are very interesting, mostly under appreciated and whose photos even look like they could’ve been taken by men if you hadn’t known otherwise.

If there is something that really separates the sexes in photography, I haven’t yet found it unless we get into the thorny topic of the male gaze, which I’m not discussing here.

Thank you for following me on this journey of discovering the meaning of photography and it’s influence on us both as viewers and shooters. I always look forward to your comments and dialogue.
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Readers comments:
Don’t hold those thoughts to yourself. Curious Frame is about dialogue and I’d love to hear your comments or even questions or inspirations. And it’s easy. Just hit reply in your email.

Your opinions are valued. No advanced degrees or education required. Comments below are from Issue 17 Photography & Poetry
One reader wrote:
Aloha, Leanne - Reading through your take #17 you wrote of Aaron Siskind - love his work.
Anyway, when I living in NYC one of his photographs came up for auction many frames ago.
It was an image of like branches. You know, images stuff like that. The image was not washed enough to remove the chemical fix. Turning acid colors. The photo sold at auction for $12,000 - to benefit his foundation - odd how it goes. Also like your ABC and the fat chef pic - fun! Thanks!
Another reader wrote:
I was very influenced by photographers that I thought were poets, the street photos of old days brought a lot of poetry, maybe the world was more poetic at that time, today people almost have no time to wander while walking through their cities, they are more concerned with time and money, wasting time is wasting money.
As I was saying, what most caught my attention and made me think, was the absence of a viewfinder on the camera, or a photograph without thinking, or rather without looking!
Women in Photography
Me in Blue (self-portrait), New York City, April 2015
Me in Blue (self-portrait), New York City, April 2015
The camera is my tool. Through it I give a reason to everything around me. André Kertész  

Of course it’s not possible to know of all the photographers ever. That’s not even the point. Rather, the point is that in the 20th century before digital cameras and the internet there were scores of women photographers who took very relevant work for publications big and small of famous people and events as well as social documentary projects and art and their names are largely unknown. 

So I no longer feel that it’s necessary to refer to photographers or artists by gender unless that is specifically the topic of their work. There should be no doubt or debate about the fact that women are equally as talented and capable as men. And we are living in what could be called a post-binary society. 

The only real question is why their work hasn’t been valued and represented as men’s work has. There’s no need to make comparisons between the work of men and women. There are great and not so great work produced by both. With very few exceptions, gender does not play a role.

My guess is that you could easily come up with a list of a handful of women photographers including; Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Helen Levitt, Mary Ellen Mark, Annie Liebowitz, Vivian Maier, Bernice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White and many others. They are all well known. 
Hansel Mieth, A man lies on the street; scene in front of Comfort Hotel on Mission Street, San Francisco, 1934.
Hansel Mieth, A man lies on the street; scene in front of Comfort Hotel on Mission Street, San Francisco, 1934.
You cannot photograph without a point of view. Hansel Mieth

Hansel Mieth (1908-1998) came to America from Germany with her husband in the 1930s at the height of the Depression. I only recently discovered her work. The above photo could’ve easily been taken by Weegee who was also taking photos at the same time about gritty New York City and crime on the streets.

However, in Weegee’s photos the subject is often looking at the camera as the flash goes off producing a stunned look on their faces. How Mieth was able to capture this image without any of the men seeing her is rather amazing.

It’s as if we are secretly witnessing this event and we are left to fill in the story. This is truly street photography, though she likely did not use or know the term.
Mieth was only the second woman photographer ever to be hired as a staff photographer at Life magazine. She photographed Albert Einstein and a number of other famous people and events and yet her name is somehow missing from mention in most photo books.

There isn’t anything about her work in which gender is apparent or important. If I hadn’t mentioned it, you might even had thought or assumed that it was taken by a man.
Letizia Battaglia, Watching the funeral procession of the Deputy of the Italian Parliament, Pio La Torre, killed by the Mafia, 1982.
Letizia Battaglia, Watching the funeral procession of the Deputy of the Italian Parliament, Pio La Torre, killed by the Mafia, 1982.
Letizia Battaglia (b. 1935) is another woman photographer who I only recently discovered. This photo could easily hang in a gallery next to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Her photos are stunning and filled with stories. The composition of this photo grabbed my attention immediately.

No one told me my shots were good. Male photographers did not invite me to their gatherings and I did not care. Letizia Battaglia
Letizia Battaglia, Shooting the Mafia.
Letizia Battaglia, Shooting the Mafia.
She began photographing the Sicilian mafia in 1974 and has many photos of people just after they were killed by the mafia. She was the director of photography at a newspaper in Palermo and she or one of her staff were present at every major crime committed in Palermo for a number of years. She took more than 600,000 photos!

She also received a number of death threats. It’s one thing to create a nice portrait or capture a street photo. But being in the middle of danger is something I don’t imagine I could do as a photographer or at all for that matter. It took a lot of courage for her to take these photos.

She also received numerous awards for her work. But it took some digging for me to find her work. She certainly deserves to be better known. There is a documentary about her work titled Shooting the Mafia.
Lisa Larsen, Spanish Harlem, 1950
Lisa Larsen, Spanish Harlem, 1950
I feel it is very important to know your subjects as individuals. Ideally this takes time–and often you don’t have time. You work under pressure… . I dislike superficial and I especially dislike superficial relationships. Lisa Larsen

Lisa Larsen (1925-1959) photographed famous politicians, royalty, and even street photos in Spanish Harlem like the photo above. Her photos appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, Life and many other well known publications.

As a photojournalist her portfolio of work is outstanding. There are many iconic photos. She had the kind of access to shoot people and events that were normally reserved for male photographers.

Her work was included in many museums exhibits. Perhaps you have heard of her. But her name is new to me. How I have never heard of her after all these years is a mystery to me. There is always photography to discover and so much of it is from years past.
The Kodak Girl, 1909 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Kodak Girl, 1909 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By the time that I was in my teens I was looking for a way to fit into the world of photography. I tried a number of different genres and styles of photography. 

While I was far from being a great photographer and I didn’t have an idea of what kind of photography I wanted to do, I was also not able to find a place where I could be accepted into the world of photography. It was and still is in many ways a boys club. 

Even though I had difficulty finding my place in photography, I never stopped taking photos. I did it because I enjoyed it. It has been my passion and purpose in life. I wasn’t doing it for fortune and fame. 

Maybe that’s one of the key pieces of advice I can offer. Do it because you love it and do it with all you’ve got. Put your heart and soul into it. If nothing else, people will feel that. Not that I can tell you that I’ve arrived at some lofty status as a photographer.
Self-portrait circa 1980
Self-portrait circa 1980
I never thought of myself as a woman photographer and I’m not certain that it’s important or as a woman my photography is different than that of men. At best, my photography represents me and who I am.

So I’ve been ambiguous about gender in the arts. My main concern is why we don’t know about so many women photographers who in some cases worked side by side with men who became well known and also how many women felt the same kind of unwelcomeness in the world of photography, that I experienced.
Carrie Mae Weems, untitled photo from the Kitchen Table series, 1990.
Carrie Mae Weems, untitled photo from the Kitchen Table series, 1990.
To be clear, there are a few female photographers in which dealing with issues of identity is the raison d'être of their work. Carrie Mae Weems (above photo), Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, Nan Goldin can be seen as exceptions to the so-called rule as it were. 

To categorize and write about women’s photography as a coherent body is to assume that they all create a similar style of images that can be seen as being like all women. We don’t speak of men’s photography as if it is one style. 

Stereotyping is something that we should always avoid. Stereotyping is nothing more than a form of discrimination. Which brings me full circle about the idea of calling myself a woman street photographer.
Peace, New York City, 21 November 2020.
Peace, New York City, 21 November 2020.
I guess it started around the time when I first started posting on Instagram. I thought that using the hashtag woman street photographer was a good thing to do. I can say that I still don’t know how to do social media very well.

Then I changed my mind and decided that it isn’t really important. I’ve never thought of myself as a female photographer. The fact that I’m a woman is secondary to my work.

Well, I guess that I haven’t entirely resolved the issue here yet. Maybe I won’t ever find an answer to this big question. But I imagine that there will be a day when all people will be considered equal and I believe that once women are truly equal that it will follow that everyone else will also be.

I hope that you enjoyed the brief introductions to these photographers and that you are inspired to shoot, explore or ponder the meaning of it all. I do look forward to hearing your opinions and I hope that you are enjoying Curious.
Sharing is Cool! If you’ve been forwarded this email or are reading online, consider joining the dialogue by subscribing. If you are looking for past issues you can find them all in the archive at the link below.
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Curious Frame Newsletter | Exploring Photographic Possibilities
Further Viewing:
Sarah Meister | Seeing Through Photographs
Sarah Meister | Seeing Through Photographs
In this 3 minute video Curator Sarah Meister takes us through a range of documentary photographs from early in photography’s history to the present day. Although we often make a direct parallel between a photograph’s subject and its meaning, Meister explains that a picture is rarely a perfect reproduction of the real world.
You can also find me at:
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
Did you know?
I have a shop for my zines & prints on
Shop for Art, Zines & Publications - Leanne Staples
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Art, Etcetera | That Other Space Shop
Did you enjoy this issue?
Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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