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The Women of Photography

Wrapping up Women's History Month, we would like to share with you some of the history of women in photography and how these women have impacted us.

Photo of Constance taken by her husband.

Women Impacting History

In the early days of photography not many women were credited in the development of photography. For many photography pioneers, their wives would help with the printing and photographing.

  • Constance Fox Talbot (1811-1880), wife of photographer Henry Fox Talbot, is considered the first woman to take a photograph.

Photo of Julia taken by her husband.

As portrait photography became a profession, women in the 1800’s made up 20% of professionals and even had roles at studios including “lady operators,” as women and children found it more comfortable to have women assist in posing as it involved physical contact.

  • Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) quickly became a professional by selling her prints to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Migrant Mother, taken by Dorothea Lange

While the portrait field of photography found room for lady operators, photojournalism was primarily a male-dominated field, as women were not allowed to follow into the battlefield. During the first world war, 1914-1918, women began capturing what was going on at home, then, against tradition, began stepping onto the battlefield.

  • Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) took the famous Migrant Mother photo during the Great Depression, which helped her win the Guggenheim fellowship in 1941, becoming the first woman to do so. She went on to photograph during WWII, more specifically Japanese Internment, which she was highly opposed to.

Ansel and Virginia on their wedding day.

Virginia Best Adams

"Ansel Adams' wife, Virginia Best Adams was definitely the woman who kept the legend alive. A bit camera shy and according to an article in the LA Times, 'not generally at ease with reporters,' she once summed up her contribution by saying simply, 'I guess I’m the one who just tried to keep things going.'

In the process of running the family business, Virginia helped give her husband the wherewithal for him to do his photographic work. Virginia and Ansel wanted to sell high quality merchandise rather than stocking cheap curios as Yosemite souvenirs. It was through this new business model that the gallery began selling a series of Ansel Adams photographs called “special edition prints.” Sales of these prints, as well as profits from Southwestern jewelry, handcrafts, rugs and ceramics, provided a steady income so that Ansel might travel to pursue his photography. Virginia accompanied Ansel on a good deal of his travels, especially traveling to the Southwest to establish lasting partnerships with Indian traders and artisans whose work she represented and sold."

Self portrait of Vivian.

Vivian Dorothy Maier

Many women photographers have highlighted the 20th century, but we would like to focus on an unknown street photographer, Vivian Dorothy Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) who became famous only after her death in 2009. She photographed 5 decades of photos on the streets of New York and Chicago producing over 100,000 negatives. She had an eye for capturing life and people as they were. She worked as a nanny for families in NYC and Chicago, processing her film and prints in a bathroom. Many negatives were left undeveloped and were found after her death. Although she was not famous during her life she created images to help us remind us of what life was like on the streets of Chicago and New York.

In the 1980’s, still only 20% of photographers were women, but as of December of 2021, 58.9% of all photographers are women. What happened to create this change? We can only share our own experience.

Mary Braunsdorf

Mary grew up with a passion for photography. As a young girl, Mary used her Dad's Yashica rangefinder camera. In high school, Mary was involved in photo club and learned to photograph, process and print black and white film. At this time, she thought of photography as a career but when she brought it up to her male teacher, he discouraged her saying, “You have to be really good in your field to excel at photography.”

This didn't stop Mary, when she turned 18 she bought her first 35mm Nikon FM. In the 1980’s, Mary attended Milwaukee Center for Photography where she developed a love for portrait photography. Her fellow students were primarily men. On a field trip, one male student who owned a state of the art camera with all the bells and whistles, wanted to follow Mary around and see what she saw. “I have a great camera,” he said, “but you have a great eye for photography.”

Weddings were Mary’s first adventure into professional photography, and although people think weddings are easy and fun, weddings bring many challenges. Ever changing lighting conditions and time restrictions are just a few of those challenges. There is a science to photography and a good wedding photographer needs to know these skills inside and out. In the days before digital, photographers had to rely on their light meter and camera settings to create the correct exposures. Mary remembers going into a camera store and the men who worked there would explain things like this to her like she didn’t know what she was doing.

It may have taken society a few decades to realize the skill and artistic qualities of women in photography, but we’re glad they finally did.


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