Uta Barth’s (1958 – ) work made me want to be a photographer when I was beginning college, and while she comes much later than Laura Gilpin in the history of photography, I think their work pairs well together. Her conceptual grappling with light, perception, and the optics of the camera remind me of Descartes’s La Dioptrique (1637)in which he describes the nature of light and seeing. These two together reinforce the eternal resonance of the mysteries of light and sight:
You have only to consider that the differences which a blind man notes among trees, rocks, water, and similar things through the medium of his stick do not seem less to him than those among red, yellow, green, and all the other colors seem to us; and that nevertheless these differences are nothing other, in all these bodies, than the diverse ways of moving, or of resisting the movements of, this stick.
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) was another early 20th century woman who photographed the landscape. Her gauzy pictorialist photographs emphasize an intimacy with the landscape that is neither masculine nor feminine, but as photo historian Martha Sandweiss writes, representative of ”a new humanistic strain in landscape photography that regards people and the physical landscape as an integral whole, an approach offering great possibilities to all artists, men and women alike.”
I’m leaving the South for the summer to work for Newspace Center for Photography in Portland. Likewise, my tumblr will be meandering around the country to look specifically at some women photographers whose work I admire. I hope you’ll stick with me.
First is Evelyn Cameron, a 19th-century British noblewoman who moved to Montana in the late 1890s and with the help on an Irish boarder taught herself photography. She photographed the region before dry-land farming irreparably altered the landscape and focused primarily on wildlife (particularly birds and wolves), landscapes, and women ranchers and homesteaders. Evelyn was not alone in her photographic ambitions—the late nineteenth century saw an incredible rise in women photographers. As early as 1886, women became a specific marketing audience for Kodak, and by 1900 the Kodak girl was a national phenomenon. Yet, Cameron’s camera was not the portable equipment that promised, “You press the button—we do the rest.” It was a nine-pound, cumbersome behemoth, which, aside from the camera itself needed heavy glass plate negatives, all of which had to be transported by the photographer herself.
Janet Williams, the proprietor of the Camerons’ estate moved to Montana in 1907 at the age of twenty-four to claim her piece of land promised by the 1862 Homestead Act for two dollars and fifty cents an acre. This was not unusual; in fact, as Sarah Carter explains in A Field of One’s Own: Montana Women Homesteaders, “seventeen percent of homesteads in Montana’s Valley County (more than nine hundred) were owned by single women.” This rare mobility and legal status as landowners, professionals, or farmers, made the West a fertile landscape for first-wave feminism. Cameron’s photographs of cowgirls and women’s labor bears witness to this history as well as to her participation in and appreciation of this shift in gender norms that was occurring at the end of the nineteenth century, as her photograph of Mabel, May, and Myrtle Buckley on horseback, taken around 1910 illustrates.
Jared Soares, Fireworks in Roanoke, Virginia
Debbie Fleming Caffery, Praying, 1976
Huge congrats to Morgan Ashcom for being awarded first place in this year’s Center Choice Awards for his project, What the Living Carry. This project is inspired by the pockets of inhabited woods around his family’s farm and a passage in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Suttree:
"How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it."
I had the great pleasure to see this photo in person today in Houston. It could be a still from Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it’s really a photograph of Island de Jean Charles in Louisiana by Stacy Kranitz.
"Although there is a long history of women artists who have, for better and worse, identified with or been identified with nature and land forms, very few female photographers are included in the rolls of old or ‘new topographers.’ Men have dominated the field of landscape photography just as men have dominated the land itself. Thus ‘shooting’ a ‘virgin’ landscape has been man’s work—hunting, not gardening. It is as though the outdoors especially in the western United States, were the only remaining male sanctuary among the domesticated interiors of home and workplace. While a large number of women photographers have gathered outdoor images, their failure to impress the art and journalism markets suggests that landscapes are still perceived as trophies form the battle of culture with nature."
Lucy Lippard, Undertones: Nine Cultural Landscapes, 1995