How the ‘New Woman’ blazed a trail of empowerment

(Image credit: Isle Bing Estate)

The pioneering female photographers who emerged in the early 20th Century were celebrated in their time, then largely erased. Now a new exhibition brings them back into the spotlight, writes Cath Pound.

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The “New Woman” was first referred to in the literature and journalism of the late 19th Century. Free spirited and well-educated, she challenged patriarchal conventions of womanhood and sought to make her own way in the world. The global spread of this feminist ideal in the early decades of the 20th Century coincided with a dramatic expansion in the medium of photography, and many women found the camera to be a means of independence as they sought to radically redefine their position in society. Lightweight, easy to use cameras made them accessible to the masses while improved technology allowed for high-quality reproduction in the burgeoning print media. The tumultuous period from the 1920s to the 1950s – which saw war, economic depression and the rise of Fascism – proved to be rife with opportunity for women to bring their own perspectives to fashion and commercial work, studio portraiture, artistic experimentation and photojournalism, with many women smashing not only gender but racial and class barriers in the process.

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Isle Bing was one of the greatest talents of the era. “She really did exemplify the New Woman photographer in terms of her life and career,” explains Mia Fineman, co-curator of The New Woman Behind the Camera which has just opened at the Met in New York. Brought up in an affluent Jewish family in Frankfurt, Bing abandoned a promising academic career to take up photography. Moving to Paris where she mingled with other artists, “she became known as the Queen of the Leica because she was so talented at street photography,” Fineman tells BBC Culture. Her work spanned Surrealist experimentation to fashion photography, and both her pride in her career and compositional talent is evident in Self Portrait With Leica, in which her face, largely obscured by the camera, is revealed in profile in a mirror to her side.

In the iconic 1921 portrait of Mariette Pachefor, the photographer Mme d'Ora has used her signature dramatic lighting (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

In the iconic 1921 portrait of Mariette Pachefor, the photographer Mme d’Ora has used her signature dramatic lighting (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Germany and Austria offered access to photographic training denied women in most other European countries, and young middle-class women – many of them from liberal Jewish families like Bing’s  – were attracted to the potential for economic freedom and creative challenge. Interwar Berlin with its thriving fashion industry and the largest, most modern print media in Europe proved particularly fertile ground for female photographers  to flourish. “The rise of fashion magazines in the 1920s provided an unprecedented opportunity for women to embrace photography as a career,” says Fineman. Images within these magazines and portraiture in general were also “tremendously important in creating and popularising the idea of the New Woman,” she says.

Madame d’Ora’s portrait of the painter and illustrator Mariette Pachhofer has become a particularly iconic image of the androgynous and sexually liberated New Woman. Dressed in masculine trench coat, breeches and tightly laced knee-high boots, the subject gazes insouciantly up at the lens from underneath a Fedora. The Viennese-born d’Ora had been a pioneer in the field even before World War One, and her unique approach to fashion photography – which focused on dramatic lighting, minimal settings and heavy retouching – saw her gain an international reputation that few could rival.  

The Nazi rise to power forced many Jewish photographers to flee, curtailing promising careers. After a period in a concentration camp, Bing manged to escape to New York but struggled to get a foothold there and abandoned her career. D’Ora was more fortunate. Having survived the war in hiding in the South of France, she was able to remain a major presence in the fashion press until the 1950s.

Isle Bing, shown here in a 1931 self-portrait, was known as the 'Queen of the Leica' (Credit: Ilse Bing Estate)

Isle Bing, shown here in a 1931 self-portrait, was known as the ‘Queen of the Leica’ (Credit: Ilse Bing Estate)

In London one of the most striking talents to emerge was Madame Yevonde. Engrossed in female emancipation from a young age, she was determined to rebel against the societal expectation that she marry and not pursue a career. Having apprenticed herself to Lallie Charles, the foremost society portrait photographer in London, to learn her trade she went on to develop her own unique speciality – colour. Experimenting with the new Vivex process, she produced rich vibrant colours which she used to dramatic effect in her frequently theatrical compositions. Mythologies, in which she transformed her upper-class clientele into mythological characters, is one of her most celebrated series. “There’s a challenge to that normative portrait sitting where you look like a socialite with the trappings and symbols around you, and she herself didn’t want to be trapped in this type of tradition… that attitude is part of how she approached her portraiture,” says co-curator Andrea Nelson from the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Against the odds

Living in the relatively liberal West undoubtedly made it easier to embark on a career in photography, but some women were able to succeed in more patriarchal societies by using the constraints within their countries to their advantage. “There was a demand for women photographers in cultures that restricted women’s interaction outside the family and in the 1930s and 40s there were a number of women-only portrait studios in India, Iraq, Jordan, Korea and Japan,” explains Fineman.” In Palestine, Karimeh Abbud advertised herself as a ‘Lady Photographer’, and that was a selling point because she would travel to houses and set up a makeshift studio inside their homes so that they could pose privately,” says Fineman. This privacy allowed both sitter and photographer to challenge the preconceived ideas of Middle Eastern women perpetuated by male photographers. Her charming photo of three young women in modern dress gives them an agency the outside world was often unwilling to acknowledge.  

Mme Yevonde made a series of portraits of her upper-class clientele depicted as mythological creatures (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Mme Yevonde made a series of portraits of her upper-class clientele depicted as mythological creatures (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

The Armenian-born Istanbul-based Maryam Şahinyan is a particularly interesting example. Strained family finances caused her to drop out of school and help in her father’s studio which she took over in 1937, becoming the first female studio photographer in Turkey in the process. “As a minority Armenian Christian, her studio was definitely a safe place where other Armenians would come. She also had connections to Christian groups and spoke several languages so could work with foreigners and other minorities. You see in her work the diversity of the city – different social classes, different minorities and the changes in fashion that happened with the lifting of restrictions and modernisation under [Turkey’s first president Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk,” says Nelson.

In the United States, African-American women had to contend with prejudice against both their race and their sex, but against the odds a number did succeed. One such woman was Florestine Perrault Collins, a pioneering studio photographer from New Orleans. Having trained in local businesses where her pale skin often allowed her to pass as white, she then opened her own studio catering to a predominantly black and Creole clientele. Preserving milestones such as communion and graduation, and cultural traditions such as Mardi Gras, she gave her subjects a beauty and dignity that white prejudice all too often refused to acknowledge.

Florestine Perrault Collins was a pioneering studio photographer, and created portraits including this early 1920s image of Mae Fuller (Credit: Collection of Dr Arthe A Anthony)

Florestine Perrault Collins was a pioneering studio photographer, and created portraits including this early 1920s image of Mae Fuller (Credit: Collection of Dr Arthe A Anthony)

The importance of the work of women like Perrault Collins went beyond countering racial stereotypes, however. As Fineman points out, “a big part of African-American history is that so many family legacies were lost or have not been recorded. People don’t know who their ancestors were. Just making these photographs that could be passed down to generations was something that was helpful in terms of the self-determination of black people in America.”

The rise of the Picture Press led to increased opportunities for women outside the studio with war and economic depression all too often being the subject matter. Margaret Bourke-White was already renowned for her industrial photography when she became the first woman accredited by the US Military to photograph war zones in Europe during World War Two. She accompanied US troops during the liberation of concentration camps, and her photographs of the horrors they uncovered have become invaluable historical documents of man’s inhumanity to man.

Dorothea Lange’s work, including the iconic Migrant Mother, has come to define the experience of the Great Depression in the United States – but perhaps less well known is her work documenting the transfer of Japanese Americans to internment camps, much of which was censored for being too sympathetic. One particularly poignant image shows a young Japanese girl, hand on heart and eyes raised, pledging allegiance to the flag, an act Lange knew would have little impact on her fate.

Dorothea Lange's 1942 shot of a Japanese-American-owned grocery store in Oakland, California (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

Dorothea Lange’s 1942 shot of a Japanese-American-owned grocery store in Oakland, California (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

Although US female documentary photographers are frequently the most well-known, women were breaking boundaries across the globe, despite societal constraints. In India, Homai Vyarawalla’s Parsi background – a religious minority which tended to be more liberal – allowed her to pursue an unprecedented career in photography.

Her modern compositional devices brought a fresh eye to Bombay’s diverse communities and historic buildings, yet she was initially discouraged from travelling alone, and publications insisted that her work be published under her husband’s name, believing a female photographer to be somewhat scandalous. “She persisted and eventually she started publishing under her own name and became incredibly successful and was able to travel and be outside on her own,” says Fineman.

Family connections allowed Tsuneko Sasamoto to become Japan’s first female photojournalist, but she too was initially constrained by her employees whose insistence that she wear skirts and high heels hindered her ability by making it difficult to climb ladders to get high shots. Post-World War Two, she was able to forge a successful freelance career capturing the struggle and excitement of post-war society on the streets of Tokyo. However, marriage to an unsupportive husband put an end to her career. “It was hard to negotiate those very rigid gender divisions,” says Nelson.

Tsuneko Sasamoto's stunning images captured the post-war mood on the streets of Tokyo (Credit: Courtesy Tsuneko Sasamoto/ Japan Professional Photographers Society)

Tsuneko Sasamoto’s stunning images captured the post-war mood on the streets of Tokyo (Credit: Courtesy Tsuneko Sasamoto/ Japan Professional Photographers Society)

Despite differences in nationality, race and class, “the New Woman embodied fairly universal concepts of the desire for greater social and political rights, greater ability to make life choices and to think about working outside the home and whether or not to marry and have children,” says Nelson. Both the lives these photographers lived, or tried to live, and the body of work they left behind testify to this. With many of these issues as tragically pertinent today as they were in the early decades of the 20th Century, their work deserves to be celebrated once again.

The New Woman Behind the Camera is at the Met Fifth Avenue, New York until 3 October 2021.

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