As a lover of the history of photography, I greatly appreciated Rachel LaCour Niesen’s post profiling Women Who Changed the Face of Professional Photography. As women and as photographers, we stand on the shoulders of these trailblazing photographers. Here are a few who most inspire me and my work.
Frances Benjamin Johnston
Frances Benjamin Johnston wrote the manual for women photographers, literally. In 1897, the Ladies Home Journal published her article “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera.” From art to business, so much of her advice is as relevant today as it was 115 years ago. On the art of photography, Johnston wrote:
To those ambitious to do studio portraiture I should say, study art first and photography afterward, if you aim at distinction and originality…Any person of average intelligence can produce photographs by the thousand, but to give art value to the fixed image of the camera-obscura requires imagination, discriminating taste, and, in fact, all that is implied by a true appreciation of the beautiful.
Johnston was born in 1864. She received her first camera from George Eastman in 1888 and studied photography at the Smithsonian Institution. In the 1890s she opened a professional studio in Washington, DC and she was the only woman photographer in DC at that time. She photographed presidents and dignitaries. She was one of the first photojournalists, working as a correspondent for Bain News Service in the 1890s through the early 1900s and she was the official White House photographer for the Harrison, McKinley, Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, and Taft administrations. From 1927-1944 she documented the architecture of the South, amassing over 7000 photographs of 1700 separate sites across nine southern states. In 1945, she moved to New Orleans, where she lived until her death in 1952. Johnston was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. She not only created a path for herself, but throughout her career, she sought to lift up and encourage other women photographers. In 1900 she organized a collection of art photos by women, which was exhibited in Paris at the Exhibition by the International Congress of Photography and in 1915 she lectured at New York University on women and the business of photography.
As a fashion model, Lee Miller was photographed by Edward Steichen. She studied photography under Man Ray, eventually opening her own photography studio in Paris and taking over Man Ray’s fashion photography assignments. She was active in the surrealist movement in Paris. During World War II, she switched careers and worked as photojournalist and war correspondent. She was accredited with the U.S. Army. She partnered with Time-Life photographer David E. Scherman, who famously photographed Miller in Hitler’s bathtub in Munich.
From concentration camps to the first use of napalm, Miller photographed much horror and tragedy during her years as a photojournalist. Mark Haworth- Booth, curator of “The Art of Lee Miller,” said of Miller’s war photography:
“Her photographs shocked people out of their comfort zone…She had a chip of ice in her heart. She got very close to things. Margaret Bourke-White was far away from the fighting, but Lee was close. That’s what makes the difference — Lee was prepared to shock.”
Miller photographed not just fighting, she also photographed civilians, women, and what the war was doing to society and she did so with a flourish of her surrealist style.
Her ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼son, Antony Penrose, said of Miller’s war correspondence work:
“The thing that became her distinctive, Surrealist style was what I call ‘the found image.’ She takes a photograph of, perhaps, an everyday occurrence, and she does it in such a way that it becomes an image that is containing ‘the marvelous.’ So, even when she’s a combat photographer in Alsace [France], amid the absolutely appalling conditions there, we find these absolutely quirky images as part of her work from that period.”
Lillian Bassman’s fashion photography alludes to her work as a painter and study of the masters. She experimented in the darkroom before she ever took photographs, using tissue and gauze to change focus and bleach to change tones.
Richard Avedon said of Bassman, “It’s magical what she does. No one else in the history of photography has made visible that heart-breaking invisible place between the appearance and disappearance of things.”
Bassman was co-art director of Junior Bazaar and in her capacity there, she promoted photographers Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, and Louis Faurer. She encouraged them to experiment and find their own style. It was Avedon’s encouragement and generosity that allowed Bassman to become a photographer; he loaned her his studio, equipment and his assistant while he was in Paris for five weeks in 1947. By the time Avedon returned, Bassman had an advertising account and by 1948, she had a new career, having given up art direction in favor of photography.
In the 1970s, she abandoned fashion photography for more personal projects and destroyed most of her commercial negatives. A small set of negatives were found in the 1990s by Martin Harrison, a photo historian who encouraged her to begin working again. She began shooting fashion assignments again and reinvented her earlier work using Photoshop. She worked until her death earlier this year – she was 94.
About Jessica Del Vecchio
Jessica is a portrait and wedding photographer based in Washington, DC where she started her business in 2003. When she’s not focused on commissioned work, she likes to play with old cameras, b&w film and alternative printing processes. Jessica also volunteers her time and photography skills to Bread for the City and Operation:LoveReunited. If you can’t find her on a non-working day, chances are she’s in one of DC’s many museums and galleries. Jessica is the Co-Leader of the Washington DC PUG.