Art

The Women Photojournalists Who Blazed Trails in the 1940s and ’50s

An exhibition at the New-York Historical Society presents the work of six female photographers who worked for LIFE magazine during its golden age.

Marie Hansen, photograph from “The WAACs,” LIFE, September 7, 1942  (© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation)

Few publications did more to cement photojournalism in the American imagination than LIFE. As a general-interest publication, the magazine was broad in scope by design, but an exciting exhibition at the New-York Historical Society takes a new perspective on the iconic relic of print media. LIFE: Six Women Photographers offers a small but memorable selection of black-and-white prints and contact sheets from Margaret Bourke-White, Hansel Mieth, Marie Hansen, Martha Holmes, Nina Leen, and Lisa Larsen — women who worked for the magazine during its prime. Unsurprisingly, given the rigidity of midcentury gender roles, few women were staff photographers, and these six are presented as trailblazers.

These photographers have fascinatingly diverse backgrounds. Their places of origin include Russia, Germany, Kentucky, and the Bronx. One of them, Hansel Mieth, née Johanna, took on a masculine first name so she could pass as a boy when she was a runaway teen looking for work. Their spectrum of experiences is vast, and each woman was tasked with photographing not just stereotypically feminine subject matter, but any number of happenings that might’ve fit LIFE’s broad purview.

Nina Leen, unpublished photograph from “American Woman’s Dilemma,” LIFE, June 16, 1947 (© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation)

The exhibit occupies a single gallery, and each photographer is represented with a complete set from one of her LIFE assignments, along with contextual information. There’s also some ephemera, including issues with their photographs in context (in some cases next to vividly colored cosmetics ads) and memos pertaining to their work. One revealing memo provides LIFE’s staff with an overview of these “lady photographers,” detailing their professional concerns and wardrobes. The presentation of women at work as a novelty is a sign of the times, but one quote jumps out. “Everything must have pockets,” said Lisa Larsen when asked what she wore on the job. Decades later, women are still expected to carry purses, and finding a cute garment with pockets can be a source of great satisfaction. Larsen needed practicality in her fashion, and all of these women were clearly hardworking — their photos, while artful, were still labor at the end of the day.

Marie Hansen, photograph from “The WAACs,” LIFE, September 7, 1942  (© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation)

Walking through the exhibit, one imagines that each woman could easily have her own dedicated room. With the work of six photographers in a small space, it’s difficult to feel too familiar with any one of them. The show could benefit from more breathing room. That said, the selection gives a decent introduction to each woman’s work, as well as a primer on some of the social and political issues of the day. With an exhibition where the curation is motivated by gender, an obvious question arises: Is the work inherently feminist? Or, if not exactly feminist, does it fit that recent buzzy phrase “the female gaze?” The answers aren’t so simple. While some of the work, most notably a shoot titled “American Woman’s Dilemma” and a series of photos of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, focuses on women’s issues, this isn’t the case for all of it. It’s difficult to tell what these women’s individual artistic interest might’ve been, as all the photographs here were shot on assignment.

Nina Leen, photograph from “American Woman’s Dilemma,” LIFE, June 16, 1947 (© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation)

“American Woman’s Dilemma,” shot by Nina Leen in 1947, stands out for its bold rendering of women’s work. One picture shows a woman dwarfed by tableware, hanging clothes, beds — all the hallmarks of domestic life. A nightmarish shot from Marie Hansen captures rows of women soldiers in gas masks that effectively obscure their gender. These images are matter-of-fact, and to a modern viewer they may feel like totems of the 1940s. Photojournalism can act as a time machine. A 1950 Martha Holmes photo shows white fans embracing Billy Eckstine, a black singer. The image is joyous and candid, a perfect document of 1950 hairstyles and the power of musical fandom. Look at it for even a moment and a story emerges. Who were these women? Did they know this shot would lead to racist letters to the editor? How much progress have we made? The images these women photographers documented expertly place us in the middle of many such scenes. LIFE may be gone, but its legacy, and the women who helped create it, endure.

Martha Holmes, photograph from “Mr. B.,” LIFE, April 24, 1950 (© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation)

LIFE: Six Women Photographers is on view at the New-York Historical Society through October 6.

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