Today, women are securing a more equal place on the contemporary art scene slowly but surely, and it goes without saying that women also helped shape art history and that their contribution to all spheres of creativity is priceless. While female photographers are definitely outnumbered by their male colleagues, it was extremely hard to narrow them down to only ten, because it seems unfair to leave out many great talents. They were present since the earliest day of the medium and it seems like each decade gave birth to another groundbreaking female image-taker along the way. These women photographers fought and continue to fight for women’s rights in their own distinguished ways, directly or indirectly, inspiring and paving the way for generations to come.
It was the year 1864. A woman named Julia Margaret Cameron got a present for her 48th birthday - a camera. Back in the days where photography was only just beginning to grow, it was impossible to imagine that this lady would become such a great influence on artists to follow. Despite her work often being ridiculed or the fact she was a woman, Julia Margaret Cameron developed a body of work that established her as a pioneer of portraiture. Not only are her close-ups of anyone she could photograph the first of its kind, but they also immortalized some of the great figures of the time, like Charles Darwin. Thanks to her smart move to keep a record of her every picture with a copyright office, Julia Margaret Cameron contributed to a priceless archive of the 19th century that otherwise wouldn’t exist. One of her most famous portraits is of her niece, Julia Stephen, the mother of author Virginia Woolf.
If Diego Rivera was the revolutionary muralist, then Tina Modotti was the revolutionary photographer, the only one and the only woman. Born in Italy, she moved to the US, and later, with photographer Edward Weston, to Mexico, where her political involvement reached its peak and influenced her art a great deal. From the reciprocal professional and romantic relationship she had with Edward Weston, came Tina Modotti’s aesthetic sense and her special approach to portraiture and still life. In them, she often used objects that represented symbols of Mexican Communism. Because of her impulsiveness and political dissidents, she had to move to other continents and countries many times, but it is certain that her contribution to the revolutionary movement is grand.
Other than being the author of one of the most famous photographs in history, Dorothea Lange is also known as being the only woman to work for Farm Security Administration. It was a program created during America’s Great Depression where photographers would report and document the plight of poor farmers. Before being in the company of Walker Evans and Gordon Park, Dorothea Lange worked as a photographer in New York and San Francisco, where she had a successful portrait studio. After her commitment at FSA, she continued doing documentary work. She had a position at the California School of Fine Arts and in 1952, she co-founded the photographic magazine Aperture. She is considered one of the greatest documentary photographers of all time.
Another female photographer who was a groundbreaking figure at her own genre is Diane Arbus. Her sensitivity and the impact of her photographs will hardly ever be repeated by anyone. She started off by doing fashion photography with her husband Allan, but her talent is best expressed through her most famous work - portraits of marginalized groups of people of unusual appearance. In her trademark square format images, Diane Arbus showed the lives and the emotions of transgender people, dwarfs, circus performers, nudists and people with intellectual disabilities. The strength of her work is due to her unique approach to her subjects as equals, free of prejudice and full of understanding and compassion.
Even though her work got internationally recognized only after her tragic suicide in 1981, Francesca Woodman remains one of the most relevant figures in the world of conceptual self-portraiture, especially women’s. In her images, the artist often places herself nude and immersed in the environment, as if becoming an element of it. Her photographs are often created using long exposure, blurred, with hers or the face of her models obscured. During her very turbulent and short life, Francesca Woodman formed a large body of work as a sort of a visual diary of self-exploration, and her inner troubles are often visible within the photographs. Her art references many art history movements, such as surrealism, and addresses gothic fiction, mythology and even theatrical performance.
Aside from the famous images of even more famous people Annie Leibovitz did for magazines such as Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone, the American photographer was also very interested in representing and endorsing women and women’s rights. Her 1999 book Women contained a series of portraits of women created especially for the occasion and an introduction by the well-known writer and her partner, Susan Sontag. Annie Leibovitz captured a very broad range of women of all backgrounds, age, race and profession, demonstrating their individuality, beauty and strength. While she will continue to be a celebrity photographer, the legacy of Annie Leibovitz will definitely ensure an important place for women.
For me, the best way to describe Nan Goldin is to say that she was the member-photographer of the community she captured. She started working in the late 1970s, engaging in New York’s post-punk new-wake music and underground scene, along with the gay and the hard-drug subcultures. Her controversial snapshot aesthetic images depict drug use, violent, aggressive couples and autobiographical moments, introducing us to the dark worlds of which she too is part. The artistic oeuvre of Nan Goldin also includes a video presentation titled Sisters, Saints & Sybils, which involves the suicide of her sister Barbara and how she coped through production of images and narratives. Nan Goldin now works in fashion and advertising.
When she’s not busy having her photographs sold for millions, Cindy Sherman works on her conceptual portraits. Through a number of different series of works, she has challenged the roles and questioned the representation of women in society and the media. Her famous film stills call attention to the stereotyping of women in films, television and magazines. Through time-consuming preparation of costumes, make-up, stage, hairstyling and directing, Cindy Sherman fights for women’s rights by becoming each and every one of them, and through her work encourages many other creators and fuels the feminist movement. She is also by far the only woman to have works featured in the list of most expensive photographs ever.
When it comes to feminism in art, I simply cannot go without mentioning Shirin Neshat, perhaps the most important Iranian contemporary artist. Through her work, she explores the notions of femininity within the predominantly male Islamic community and emphasizes key differences and difficulties women encounter on a daily basis. As a fierce fighter for women’s rights, Shirin Neshat started her Women of Allah series, portraits of women covered by Persian calligraphy. Her images address the social, political and psychological dimensions of women's experience and identity in contemporary Islamic societies and recognizes the religious elements that shaped lives of Muslim women all over the world. Her commitment to feminism remains her priority through different ways of activism.
Ellen von Unwerth is a German photographer working mainly in fashion and editorial. What makes her original is that she specialized in erotic femininity. In the sea of images of female body being misrepresented (mostly by men, too), it is really refreshing to see a woman’s say on the matter - the one where women aren’t objectified. The photographs of Ellen von Unwerth, even though they were done for a fashion magazine, fight for women’s rights by showing a sensual, provocative, erotic side of female population with taste - even when tackling topics like sadomasochism or fetishes in general. What Ellen von Unwerth chooses to show us is the intrigue, femininity, romance and sheer joie de vivre.