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Emily Garthwaite spent an hour at the Kolkata bus terminal, waiting. It was evening rush hour and commuters crisscrossed the station, but she wasn’t going anywhere or meeting anyone. The photojournalist was awaiting the arrival of an image — the right character illuminated by just the right lighting. “This ended up being the shot,” writes Garthwaite, whose snapshot of a gridded bus window frames a portrait in every pane. Two men stare piercingly at her and a woman peers out with obscured eyes, as another floodlit woman sits in classic profile view on a blue-yellow seat that evokes Vermeer’s pensive milkmaid.
Garthwaite’s photograph and 99 others are included in Women Street Photographers (Prestel, 2021) — a newly released book compiling unstaged public photographs by 100 artists of all ages, hailing from 31 countries spanning Ghana to Iran. The book grew out of an Instagram account that photographer Gulnara Samoilova started in 2017, called @WomenStreetPhotographers.
Samoilova developed the account and its complementary website in order to amplify the work of women using DSLR cameras or their smartphones to freeze the exquisitely mundane. “Street photography is perhaps the most accessible form of photography that exists,” Samoilova shared by email, although her focus on women means there’s a caveat. The street is a different place for women than men.
There’s a reason why still life paintings were long considered the most suitable subject for Western women artists. Working on quaint paintings of cherries and flowers kept women at home and away from strangers; street photography does the polar opposite.
An introductory essay written by photographer Melissa Breyer addresses the history of female street photographers, citing examples like Alice Austen who biked around with 50 pounds of equipment to document lower Manhattan’s immigrants. Breyer also notes other early 20th-century artists like Berenice Abbott, Ilse Bing (aka “Queen of the Leica”), Dalda 13, and Lola Alvarez Bravo.
Women Street Photographers joins a wave of recent projects focused on female photographers of the past and present. In 2019 the New York Historical Society hosted a show highlighting the work of six female LIFE magazine photographers. Iconic Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2020, the same year that Thames & Hudson released a book trilogy called Women Photographers with volumes dedicated to pioneers, revolutionaries, and contemporaries. And later this year an exhibition featuring 120 women photographers from over 20 countries, The New Woman Behind the Camera, will open at Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art.
These projects all bolster an understanding that women have always taken photographs, since the earliest days of the medium. With her platform and her book, Samoilova argues that there are even advantages to being a female street photographer. “It may be that the public doesn’t think of women as professional photographers, and is more open to allowing photographs to be made,” she shared with Hyperallergic, adding that it’s easier for women to get permission to photograph children than men. “Perhaps in underestimating these women they have more opportunities, for most people don’t feel threatened or exposed when a woman points a camera at them.”