English readers looking to expand their knowledge of photo history are in for a treat. A World History of Women Photographers, freshly translated from French by Ruth Taylor and Bethany Wright and published by Thames & Hudson, is a new encyclopedia of the overlooked. The volume, which chronologically traces the work of 300 female photographers from the medium’s inception to the present day, attempts a global perspective of photography’s history. Editors Luce Lebart and Marie Robert employed 164 women writers from international backgrounds to assist in creating the book, expanding the work’s scope far beyond the biggest names of photography — and, perhaps most significantly, giving each artist equal real estate in terms of image quantity and word count.
Sponsored by the Rencontres d’Arles and Kering as part of their broader Women in Motion project, the volume both amplifies these forgotten visions and paints a decisive picture of the “historiographical vacuum” that allowed women’s work to be omitted and misattributed over the course of history. As the book’s breadth and depth demonstrates, “these women were everywhere and recorded everything,” pioneering some of photography’s most central movements. Why, then, are so few women mentioned in encyclopedic works like Raymond Lécuyer’s 400-page “definitive” Histoire de la photographie (1945), and not a single woman in Michel Frizot’s “comprehensive” Nouvelle histoire de la photographie (1994)? While the answers that Lebart and Robert provide will come as no surprise to any student of art history, their systematic approach serves as a necessary foundation for their efforts to “write another history, and to write it differently.”
In its early stages, the larger, formidable project of writing this history will inevitably raise more questions than it answers. For example, the volume — perhaps owing to constraints in both size and scope — contains major omissions when it comes to contemporary photographers. To name just a few, where is Deana Lawson? Catherine Opie? An-My Lê? But if A World History’s primary aim lies in correcting the past, such gaps can be forgiven; “history,” in this sense, is still being constructed.
In working from a more global perspective, the volume’s scholarship also seems to suggest that in the 1800s, the first women who had access to making photographs in non-Western countries were White European colonizers of those lands. Elizabeth Pulman (1836–1900), possibly New Zealand’s first female photographer, took notable portraits of indigenous Māori leaders; Marie-Lydie Bonfils (1837–1918) co-founded one of the largest commercial photography studios in West Asia, marketing images that projected a sense of exoticism; Geraldine Moodie (1854–1945) photographed First Nations people while traveling alongside her husband, an officer in Canada’s Mounted Police. In order to “ensure that the history of photography also becomes the history of everyone,” as the book champions, it is crucially important that we examine the ways in which members of underrepresented groups can (even unwittingly) participate in and benefit from other oppressive systems like colonialism. That is not to say that these women should be lifted from obscurity only to be cancelled — on the contrary, their work warrants further study precisely because of the complex interplay of power and colonial hierarchy that such images demonstrate.
Indeed, the book succeeds in unearthing a canon’s worth of unseen images from the past two centuries, providing us with everything from lush Pictorialism to crisp abstraction. The work of Palestinian photographer Karimeh Abbud (1893–1940) remained almost entirely unknown until a large portfolio of her work was rediscovered in the early 2000s, and yet it is a striking departure from the style of the period; instead of employing European-inspired backdrops in her portraiture, Abbud photographed her subjects in their own homes or painted elements directly onto her prints and negatives. In her haunting “Portrait of a Woman” (undated), she paints the very tree that seems to steady her subject, complicating questions of “reality” and inviting symbolic interpretation. The German-Algerian photographer Zaida Ben-Yusuf’s (1869–1933) photograph “Untitled (Invitation to a private view of photographs)” (1899) strikes a similar tone. A fixture of New York City’s social scene at the time, Ben-Yusuf wrote the text of her invitation alongside the figure of a mysterious, solitary young woman who averts her gaze from us; the woman stands to the right of the text as if to give it room, while both are framed by an ornately patterned curtain. In both works, the artist’s intervention is indistinguishable from “real life,” as the elements produced by the camera interact with the hand-drawn ones, as if they inhabit the same universe.
And while the photographer Laure Albin Guillot (1879–1962) received recognition during her lifetime, “paradoxically, very little research has been carried out” on her career and work in recent years. Guillot’s work shows remarkable range, as she simultaneously embraced a Pictorialist classicism while pioneering a form of macro photography that she coined “micrographie.” Micrographie décorative, plate IX (1931) marries Man Ray’s cameraless “rayographs” with the Surrealist scientific documentation of the filmmaker Jean Painlevé, demonstrating Guillot’s rightful position alongside French photography’s most distinguished figures. Stories like these abound in A World History of Women Photographers, and a review of this length can only touch the tip of the iceberg; hopefully this volume will invite further waves of scholarship to carry these women’s work on into the future.
A World History of Women Photographers by Luce Lebart and Marie Robert is published by Thames & Hudson and is available in bookstores and online.