Female Photojournalists Under the Spotlight

The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division preserves millions of images that were created for publication in magazines and newspapers. Both physically, and online, one can delve into a vast visual resource: ranging from the Bain Collection (The George Grantham Bain Collection represents the photographic files of one of America’s earliest news picture agencies) to 7,000 different glass negatives and related prints made during the American Civil War.

It’s difficult to know where to start; but if one wanted to examine the role of women pioneers within the photographic medium, first stop would be the Women Photojournalists section of the Prints and Photographs Reading Room. With profiles, biographical information, and photo examples of 28 women photojournalists who have worked between the late 1800 to the present, the collection shines a light on the often-unheralded work of women in the profession. Whilst it features famous icons such as Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange, less prominent but equally important women who have (perhaps) disappeared somewhat into the mists of time come into sharper focus. As a whole, the resource provides a series of fascinating insights into the independent spirit and gumption of women photojournalists.

For instance, Beverly Branna, Curator of Photographs, produced the book Women Come to the Front from the archive, after she realized that “Women had played a more prominent communications role during the Second World War than seemed to be appreciated by those studying the era.”

Here are just three examples of women photojournalists profiled in Women Photojournalists:

Therese Bonney (1894-1978) worked comprehensively and courageously throughout World War Two, focusing on (and driven by) War’s mindless uprooting of innocent civilians dispossessed in Europe. The outbreak of World War II appalled Bonney, who believed the conflict threatened European civilization itself. Of her “truth raids” into the countryside to document the horror of war, Bonney said: “I go forth alone, try to get the truth and then bring it back and try to make others face it and do something about it.” Her portraits show the stark realities of the refugee; a subject matter with increasing renewed resonance in contemporary times.

At one point, Bonny was so well known that a comic book – Photofighter – was created about her front line exploits. Bonny ventured, production-wise, beyond her mass-circulation newspaper and magazine clients, as she delved into photo-essay books War Comes to the People (1940) and Europe’s Children (1943). She also mounted one-woman shows at the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and dozens of museums overseas. In perhaps her most publically known work, Bonney’s concept for a film about children displaced by war became the Academy Award- winning movie, The Search (1948).

Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934) was, at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the (unfortunately) rarest of women: one already with a high profile art career, at the time that the Suffragette movement was still trying to claim hard-fought territory for emancipation. In 1899, one of her pictures sold for $100; the highest price, at the time, yet paid for a photograph.

From 1898-1912, Käsebier belonged to the Pictorialist school (referring to a style in which the photographer’s painterly, or otherwise, manipulations are evident), and her photographs of women and children hung in major exhibitions. However, this was a career aesthetic that she veered away from, in a series of more socially engaged, and actively subversive, themes and subject matter.

In December 1899, when Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker bought the periodical Everybody’s Magazine, he wanted new material, and turned to Käsebier. Reaching over 150,000 homes, at the time, the periodical would produce an invaluable forum for Käsebier’s preoccupation with the Indian children that she had played with, as a child, in Colorado Territory. She began to document, in portraits, the lives of the popular Native Americans who were a part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

The most famous portrait from these sessions is The Red Man: a stunning picture of an Indian male partially obscured by his blanket; a work that mixes her earlier aesthetic abilities with an unflinching social gaze returned by the subject (the Library has the original negative) to produce something riveting.

Brenda Ann Kenneally (1959-present) ‘escaped’ her hometown of Troy, NY, for her studies; but found part of her photojournalistic inspiration, in later years, from repeated trips back to a town decimated by the passing of the Industrial Revolution.

In 2003, Kenneally accepted the invitation of a fourteen-year old Troy native Kayla to photograph the birth of her baby. It was the start to a much longer-term project: Upstate Girls that she returned to for more than ten years to her hometown. The circle of life expanded from Kayla and her baby to others; and Kenneally depicts both the grittiness and vulnerability of subjects in intimate domestic settings.

The pictures were used not just as portraiture, but also, to a certain extent, as advocacy: highlighting issues such as poor nutrition, and the paucity of state-run health programs. The fact that many images reference the presence of Uncle Sam (which originated in Troy) is both an element of humor but also dark pathos. In 2006, Kenneally’s multimedia coverage of the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina for The New York Times received a Pulitzer Prize.

One could spend days lost in the work of these three professionals, alone; but there are many other women spotlighted on this site. Do yourself and favor and scroll through their achievements.

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