Gertrude Käsebier and Rinko Kawauchi have two things in common: they’re women and they’re photographers. Käsebier was an early American photographer who took portraits of Native American medicine men and worked with Alfred Steiglitz. Kawauchi is a contemporary Japanese artist who makes abstracted images inspired by Shintoism.
Nonetheless, they sit right next to each other in the aptly titled Women Photographers: From Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy Sherman, Boris Friedwald’s survey of female photographers published by Prestel this past spring. The book collects the work of 55 practitioners, from pioneers of the form to contemporary photojournalists. Friedwald also includes short bios of each artist as part of his goal to present “the variety and diversity of women who took—and take—photographs. Their life stories, their way of looking at things, and their pictures.”
Sounds admirable enough. Yet it’s impossible to imagine an equivalent book titled Men Photographers: From Eugène Atget to Jeff Wall. Male photographers, like male painters, male writers, and male politicians, are the default. The implication, intentional or not, is that no matter how talented, female photographers are women first and artists second.
Ideally, endeavors like Friedwald’s serve to illuminate lesser-known artists, who may have been discounted because of their gender (or race or sexual orientation or class). But more often such exercises become a form of de facto segregation, whether it’s a BuzzFeed quiz on how many of the “Greatest Books by Women” you’ve read or a Wikipedia editor isolating female novelists in their own category. These projects are often undertaken in a spirit of celebration, but their thoughtlessness generally renders them pointless at best and misogynistic at worst.
Unfortunately, Friedwald’s editorial choices only exacerbate the project’s questionable gender politics. As the unlikely pairing of Käsebier and Kawauchi suggests, the photographers are arranged in alphabetical order, which allows for little meaningful interplay between them. And without any general background to give them historical or artistic context, the artist bios feel equally unhelpful. By striving for breadth over depth, Friedwald has created one more collection unified only by the gender of its artists, thus suggesting that being a woman is the most important factor in these photographers’ work.
The issue with Women Photographers isn’t just that it bunches female photographers together; more importantly, it fails to justify how they’re important to each other. Context is vital to historical surveys, and Friedwald provides almost none. That’s too bad, because the overlooked role these women have played in the development of their medium is well worth exploring.
As a newer art form that requires relatively little training, photography was open to women from its inception in a way that painting and sculpture weren’t. But, as Naomi Rosenblum writes in the introduction to her 2010 book A History of Women Photographers, despite women’s comparative success in the medium, histories and critical surveys of it often ignore their contributions. As such, Rosenblum’s book aims not only to highlight the work of female photographers, but also to dig into what their gender means for their lives and careers. Rosenblum offers not just a who but a why.
Friedwald, on the other hand, fails to provide a compelling reason for grouping these women together or to illuminate any connective tissue between them — and in doing so ends up creating exactly the sort of gender ghetto he supposedly wants to avoid. He would’ve been better off listening to the artists he aims to champion, including Eve Arnold, whom he quotes: “I didn’t want to be a ‘woman photographer.’ That would limit me. I wanted to be a photographer who was a woman, with all the world open to my camera.”
Boris Friedwald’s Women Photographers: From Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy Sherman is published by Prestel.
Correction: This article originally misspelled Gertrude Käsebier’s last name. It has been corrected.