The Female Lens: How 11 Trailblazing Women Changed Photography

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Since photography’s earliest inception, women have been at the forefront of the medium’s formation and development. The novel process of capturing images of the world found experimental practitioners in women scientists, artists and amateurs in the 19th century, such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Anna Atkins, Constance Fox Talbot and many more. Across the decades, the visions of women artists expanded to meet photography’s myriad possibilities – encompassing the realms of politics, fashion, war, modernist-image making and self-representation. To honor Women’s History Month and the expansive contribution by women to the history of photography, we’ve highlighted a selection of women photographers who will be included in Sotheby's upcoming Photographs auction (5 April, New York). Click ahead to discover more about these 11 pioneering women with cameras.

The Female Lens: How 11 Trailblazing Women Changed Photography

  • Julia Margaret Cameron
    A important 19th-century photographer, British artist Julia Margaret Cameron had a distinct and imaginative approach to image-making, considerably influenced by the themes and aesthetics of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. Her intimate portraits and scenes of Arthurian legends are distinguished by their soft-lighting and romantic qualities.

    Julia Margaret Cameron,'Sappho' (Mary Hillier), 1865.
  • Imogen Cunningham
    Imogen Cunningham is regarded as one of the leading pioneers of Modernist photography. In the 1920s, with three young children at home, Cunningham found inspiration in the plants and objects in her immediate surroundings. Her famous flower studies of this period concentrated on details of plant anatomy. Highly focused and precise, these accomplished botanical studies were Cunningham’s entry into Modernism and garnered international praise. Dramatically lit and monumentally composed, the plants in these photographs have a vitality that transcends the still frame.

    Imogen Cunningham, Orchid Cactus (Cactus Blossom), circa 1926.
  • Margaret Bourke-White
    Margaret Bourke-White was the first female American war photographer and photojournalist and her work also graced the cover of the first issue of Life magazine. She was commissioned by the Chrysler Corporation to photograph their new, 77-story, 1,046-foot skyscraper in 1930, while it was still under construction. Fearless, Bourke-White often delighted in climbing out onto the gargoyles themselves, 800 feet above the street, to photograph the city. This was not the first skyscraper that the daring Bourke-White had photographed. Fascinated and exhilarated by tall structures and heights, she had previously made a variety of images of and from Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, and she would go on to document other large structures and to photograph from airplanes and helicopters.

    Margaret Bourke-White, Gargoyle, Chrysler Building, NYC, circa 1930.
  • Helen Levitt
    During the middle decades of the 20th century, Helen Levitt captured the mysterious and special world of children in New York City. The children in her images burst with attitude, energy and, occasionally, hints of violence, bestowing a glimpse into the complex worlds of fantasy and imagination. Levitt imbues this spirit into her formal compositions, eschewing more straightforward portraiture; it has been written of her work, “Levitt's compositions are mostly centrifugal – significant details often occur at their edges. Even when there is a central figure, what is going on around it - what the subjects project - is what matters.”


    Helen Levitt, Three Young Women Against Wall With Chalk Drawing, circa 1938.
  • Diane Arbus
    During the mid-1950s, Arbus began to photograph strangers on the street and throughout New York City, experimenting with lighting, film type and strategic techniques for capturing her subjects in vulnerable, often unsettling portraits. Her photographs often focused on the marginalized members of the society and are characterized by a direct photographic authority that presented subjects at once objectively and empathetically. Her contributions to photography expanded photojournalism and documentary photography and film by challenging conventional understandings of subject, composition, portraiture and authorship, and by granting visual space to overlooked members of society.

    Diane Arbus, Untitled (4), 1970-71.
  • Francesca Woodman
    The meaning of Francesca Woodman’s work has always been subject of debate. Some argue her main theme was feminism, exploring the way women were forced to conceal and disguise their true selves through her self-portraiture. Others classify her as a Surrealist photographer, drawing similarities with artists such as Man Ray or Hans Bellmer. However, what can clearly be understood through her work is her deep understanding of the medium as a tool for self exploration. In spite of her short career due to her untimely death in 1981 at the age of 22, she produced over 800 untitled prints. Woodman's photographs are full of ambiguities and a feeling of disconnection from her time. The spaces she chose to shoot in and the props in her work refer back to an earlier era, almost portraying herself as an outsider from the world she was living in.


    Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island (Nude Self-Portrait Pinching Waist), 1976–77.
  • Ana Mendieta
    During the 1970s, Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta became a significant and influential figure in the art world, known for her powerful performance pieces and intimate and evocative earth works. Her photographs captured vivid and specific fleeting moments and structures. Perhaps her most-famous series, Siluetas (silhouettes) used the natural environment as a means through which to express the body’s place within the world and its relationship to earth, nature and spirituality — and conjured funeral mounds and burial sights, as well as, more forbiddingly, scenes of violence against the female body.

    Ana Mendieta, Earth Mound, Gun Powder (From Silueta Series, Iowa), 1979, printed in the early 1980s.
  • Sandy Skoglund
    American artist Sandy Skoglund is a photographer and installation artist, known for her elaborate and often surrealist tableaux, from which she makes her often vividly hued images. Born in Massachusetts in 1942, Skoglund studied art and art history at Smith College, before moving to New York in 1972, where she began her career as a conceptual artist. Her images are idiosyncratic and often evoke childhood memories.

    Sandy Skoglund, Revenge Of The Goldfish, 1981.
  • Annie Leibovitz
    One of the most successful living photographers, American artist Annie Leibovitz is best known for her strikingly intimate portraits of celebrities and cultural icons. Born in Connecticut in 1942, she studied art at San Francisco Art Institute, where she developed an interest in photography. Leibovitz rose to prominence at Rolling Stone magazine, where she was named Chief Photographer in 1973. Her photograph of a nude John Lennon entwined with Yoko Ono, made just hours before Lennon's murder, is among the most recognizable images of the 20th century.

    Annie Leibovitz, Whoopi Goldberg, Berkeley, California, 1984, printed in 2010.
  • Shirin Neshat
    Shirin Neshat’s diverse body of work is remarkable for its complex and atmospheric treatment of feminism and Islamic culture through film, photography and performance. Born and raised in Qazvin, Iran, Neshat was sent to complete her education in the United States in 1974. In 1979 the Islamic Revolution prevented her from returning home. Neshat has since become renowned for her evocative, poetic and cinematographic films and photographs depicting Muslim men and women, actively questioning the complexity and duality of Islamic culture, expressing an individual freedom while fighting for a collective cultural identity.

    Shirin Neshat, Untitled (From Passage), 2001.
  • Sam Taylor-Johnson
    Sam Taylor-Johnson was a member of the YBAs, or Young British Artists, a group of innovative artists who began exhibiting at the end of the 1980s, and rose to international prominence in the 1990s. Her portraits and images challenge established gender roles.

    Sam Taylor-Johnson, Self Pietà, 2001.
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