RENO, Nevada — In Linda Nochlin’s famous 1971 piece “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists,” she observes how there are “no historical representations of artists drawing from the nude model which include women in any role but that of the nude model.” Whereas it was acceptable for a man to study a nude woman as an object, a woman was forbidden to carry out such studies of either sex. In this regard alone, Anne Brigman’s photographs are remarkable. In the early 1900s, she produced self-portraits of her nude body, significantly scarred from an accident, often lodging herself within a gnarled juniper tree deep in the Sierra mountains. The major retrospective Anne Brigman: A Visionary in Modern Photography at the Nevada Museum of Art argues that at a time when Photo-Secession members dominated the conversation, Brigman illustrated the possibilities of a medium from a different perspective.
She was born Anne Wardrope Nott in 1869 to a family of American missionaries in Hawaii. Her grandfather was Reverend Andrews, renowned for establishing a Hawaiian dictionary in order to translate the Bible into the Hawaiian language, thus establishing a printing and engraving operation. These efforts eventually led to the first Hawaiian newspaper. At 16, Anne and her family moved to northern California in 1885. Almost a decade later, she married Martin Brigman, a boat captain and 20 years her senior. Although there were long periods apart, she occasionally joined him for extraordinary voyages across the Pacific. It was on this vessel that Brigman fell in a hole during a storm, nearly severing a breast and leaving her badly scarred. Although the couple would eventually separate, it is key to understand her experiences of adventure and exploration, which were likely not fully known by her peers. They provide insight, for example, into her etching technique choices, which would remove or add elements, often obscuring the missing breast. She once stated, “The etching tool is one of my closest allies. With it, all that is useless is etched away.”
Brigman’s oasis going forward would not be Hawaii or the open sea, but the Sierras. She would take a stage coach toward Echo Lake or Donnor Pass and hike into Desolation Wilderness. Armed with George Eastman’s new handheld Kodak camera that appealed to hobbyists with the slogan “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest,” Brigman would enlist her sisters as models or direct them when she was the actor. The bohemian atmosphere of the Bay Area, referred to as the “Athens of the West,” cultivated Brigman’s almost Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic which included props like bubbles, crowns, and capes — a dramatic departure from the mother with child images published by her predecessors such as Gertrude Käsebier.
By 1903 Alfred Stieglitz published Brigman’s work in the important periodical Camera Work and awarded her membership to the Photo-Secession. Stieglitz looms large in Brigman’s legacy and in the exhibition. The prestige of Camera Work cannot be ignored at the turn of the century and his voice is ever present in their frequent correspondence. But during the war years, Stieglitz’s and Brigman’s paths divert. Brigman began repeating earlier works, such as the restaging of “Invictus” (1925), and Stieglitz declared her moment in photography was over. According to art historian Kathleen Pyne in the exhibition catalogue, Stieglitz went searching for another woman artist as muse and partner, which he found in the young painter Georgia O’Keeffe. It is clear that Brigman’s images left an impression on Stieglitz, such as in his photos of O’Keeffe posed as a “human tree,” as he puts it in a letter to Brigman.
Brigman also wrote poetry, and the images of her landscapes — the lone lunging tree, the circling gull, and the unclaimed mountain peak — appear in her book of poetry Song of a Pagan to invoke both stillness and struggle. Her own words grant evidence that what was mystical about those spaces was a freedom from modern constraints.
I wish I were fine as a tree is fine
With its sturdy form and its beautiful line…
Living through storms with their stinging hail…
Quietly singing through summer days
And when autumn comes with its amethyst haze
And the low sun’s rays grow thin and pale…
To whisper in sighing antiphonals
With the sound of rivers in cañon walls…
Change of the time when the north wind blow
Folding the peaks in their driving snow
And ice stills the voices of waterfalls…
And threnodies drift through the somber pine…
I wish I were fine as a tree is fine.
The silence of the hills was Brigman’s sanctuary. In 1916, she said to journalist and art critic Frank Crowninshield, “where I go is wild — hard to reach, and I don’t go for Alfred Stieglitz or Frank Crowninshield or Camera Work or Vanity Fair, but because there are things in life to be expressed in these places.”
Due to the extensive loans in the exhibition, sourced from museums, universities, and photography collections, art historian Susan Ehrens noted at a symposium on Brigman at the Nevada Art Museum, “I do not expect this group of work will ever be assembled again.” But in a way, Anne Brigman is everywhere. One must only glance across the field to find her mark on artists such as Laura Aguilar, Judy Chicago, or Judy Dater. With each generation, Brigman’s contribution will come into focus.
Anne Brigman: A Visionary in Modern Photography continues at the Nevada Museum of Art (160 West Liberty Street, Reno, Nevada) through January 27. The exhibition is curated by Ann M. Wolfe, Andrea and John C. Deane Family Senior Curator and Deputy Director at the Nevada Museum of Art.