Book Review:A History of Women Photographers by Naomi Rosenblum

Frequently women themselves, reflecting the attitudes of their own eras, did not regard their images as important enough to inventory and save.
— A History of Women Photographers by Naomi Rosenblum pg 10

My last library haul was very different from any previous. There wasn’t a single fantasy or story book included in the pickup. Instead there were books like this one.

A History of Women Photographers by Naomi Rosenblum

As an amateur photographer who loves to take self portraits and be creative, I found myself intrigued by the title of this book. I couldn’t think of a single woman whose work stands out in my small knowledge of photography and wanted to change that. The quote above details a good reason why I can’t think of any. Society says we aren’t good enough and we accept that, reducing our hard work and passions to nothingness. I have done this many times in life and still struggle with acknowledging this space as work. Interestingly the book’s first pages covers this and mentions phases in history quoting women fighting for other women to stand up and be proud of their work. As the book says, you can’t tell the sex of the photographer by the photograph.

Chapter 1 is called “at the beginning” and covers years 1839 to 1990. Part of me is frustrated with how there is no description of the equipment or set up, its assumped that you know the things it’s taking about, such as; calotypes, cyanotypes, and daguerreotypes. It does cover women well and the advancements of women in the field, from setting up their own studios to the more likely situation, of working with their husbands to create photos. Cameras at that time seemed to take a massive amount of effort from hauling the huge equipment, to set up, posing, taking, and producing the actual document. My favorite couple mentioned is from Canada, Richard and Hannah Maynard. She learned while he was gold panning and then taught him when he got back. My type of lady. I would love to see the metal photographs mentioned in real life. An image on metal has never been a well done thing in my mind and I would be curious of what the past created. A strange part mentioned is the different roles in which women later became allowed. One such skill the “lowest” for the time was taught in schools (though she doesn’t go into what kind of schools), maid-of-all-work. Basically the retouchers of the photographs as they were being produced. A skill that is now almost more important than the taking of the actual image. For the most part though, only white middle to upper class women have been covered. I won’t have expected low or poverty groups due to the expense of the equipment for the time, however one does have to acknowledge that white women are not the only experience one should cover.

To be fully honest after reading Chapters 1 and 2, I got bored and just started flipping, reading words as they caught my eye or looking at photos I found interesting. The overall feel of the book, is that it became acceptable for women to photograph household things and do portraits, otherwise they were always behind a man and his name. This slowly expanded as the decades went by. I found the author’s definition of street photography rather odd and most of the images accompanying were indoors and not something I could have counted as street photos, however that could just be subjective.

Chapter 8 is on the Feminist Vision and here we get a small section mentioning women of color. It starts off with the lines “feminism has sometimes been regarded as a white middle-class phenomenon.” which isn’t all that far off from a lot of today’s feminism. However it’s a very small part of the book and goes right back to covering the middle class white women as before. I can not imagine the amount of research goes into building a book like this. There is so much to cover and I can understand it can be hard to wrap up into a few hundred pages. The last chapters felt very short and had a lot of stuff shoved into it, one review said that reading it made you feel like the author just stopped caring and wanted to be done and I can understand that perspective.

My goal for reading this book was to hear the stories of women photographers and be inspired by their beautiful work, but I never felt that way. I definitely found a few photos that we interesting but overall names didn’t really stick out to me. Which is sad. I hope that as time goes on women will came to stand up for the amazing things that they create and be remembered for it.

Borrowed from the library. Rating: ★★★

Favorite Photos found within the pages of this book include;

Pg 20 - Joyce Tenneson, Suzanne in Contortion 1990. Pg 38 - Lady Clementina Hawarden, Untitled 1863-64. Pg 54 - Francis Benjamin Johnston, Self Portrait 1896. Pg 86 - Elizabeth Buehrmann, Portrait of Julie Hudak. Pg 114 Wanda Wulz, Cat and I.

Who are some of your favorite women artists?

Other books read this week:

  1. Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram (library) ★★★★★ - I feel as if this book should have come with a box of special tea and instructions on how to make it. This was a very good book on depression and families. I highly recommend it.