“The Invisible Image: Reconciling the Early History of Women Photographers"

 

                                                                 INTRODUCTION

            The subject of Women’s history has in the past few decades been enjoying closer scrutiny and evaluation. Yet unearthing this history still requires a good deal of patient and persistent digging on the part of the researcher.   The very term, “women’s history” itself, begs the question as to why women need an exclusive, separate study.  This is primarily because women have suffered a sort of “invisibility” in the historical record and, until recently, investigations into the lives of women have not been as thorough as that of their male historical counterparts.   This general situation of invisibility became even more apparent upon beginning an inquiry into a particular topic of women’s history; women photographers. 

            My initial inquiry sought to start and stop with an investigation into the life and work of a local professional photographer, Jane Reece, who operated a studio out of Dayton , Ohio in the early 20th century.  Though perhaps occupying a more obscure place in the history of photography than some of her contemporaries, her career was neither without acclaim nor success, as she achieved international fame during her career’s high point .  Though source material is available through local archives and local publications, (a monograph devoted to Reece was published by the Dayton Art Institute in 1997,) her work and career is largely omitted from History of Photography surveys in general.  With the exception of Naomi Rosenblum’s extensive history of women photographers, and a few other publications, (most devoted exclusively to the subject of women in photography,) female photographers are disproportionately under-represented.[1] 

The following essay will take a look at the early years of women in photography, when women were taking up “camera work” as both amateurs and professionals.  Also,  the life and work of the acclaimed though little known work of Ohio artist Jane Reece will be examined.   Her career, its context and association with the Pictorialist style, and her work in relation to the “prominent” figures of photography will be discussed.  This essay will also address the problematic nature of interpreting the histories of women photographers by pointing to some of the shortcomings, pitfalls, and “oversights” of existing scholarship. 

 

                                     JANE REECE (1868-1961)

 

 

Jane Reece was born near West Jefferson, Ohio in 1968. She was amongst the earliest professional female photographers in the United States . Despite her brother Lawson’s photography practice, it was not until the first decade of the twentieth century that she took up the craft herself, like many other Pictorialist photographers Reece started her artistic career as a painter.  Reece credited her newfound profession not with her brother, but with a serious illness that caused her to abandon painting due to the turpentine fumes (it is thought that Reece suffered from tuberculosis.) It is at this stage, around 1903, that Reece took up photography at the insistence of the nurse who tended her during her illness.

In 1903, Reece moved from Zanesville , Ohio to Dayton . It is here she opened her own photographic studio in the downtown area, naming her studio “The Rembrandt.” Reece supported herself with studio portraiture while at the same time producing artistic photography in the manner of the predominant Pictorialist style. Not long after her arrival in Dayton she produced her signature self portrait, The Poinsettia Girl.[2]

                           

"Poinsettia Girl" 1907                              "Untitled" 1922-1923

In order to help locate Reece within the historical context it is perhaps useful to discuss her more famous contemporaries also working in the Pictorialist style, namely Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Gertrude Kasebier.  The practitioners of the Pictorialist style of photography were concerned with creating an artistic and painterly effect with the photographic image.  It was Stieglitz, who was married to the notable painter Georgia O’Keefe, who founded the New York based Photo Succession movement, with whom the other two photographers mentioned were founding members.[3]  Stieglitz was supportive of women photographers and included them amongst the group members of the Photo Successionists.  Though Reece did travel to New York in 1909 and met with Gertrude Kasebier, it is unknown if she met Stieglitz. 

The 1920’s and 1930’s were a busy time met with success for Jane, she traveled in Europe and North Africa during 1922-1923.   Jane photographed many notable individuals during this time as well: Dayton ’s socialites, Matilda Dunbar, mother of Dayton poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Robert Frost, and other celebrities.  It is during this time that Reece developed a close friendship with Josephine and Hermene Schwarz, founders of the Schwarz School of Dance, later to become the Dayton Ballet.  Throughout her career Jane participated in more than one hundred national and international photography exhibitions, receiving many awards, prizes, and honors.  Though an acclaimed photographer in her time, she is today, hardly known outside of the Dayton region.

                            

"Portrait of Matilda Dunbar" 1924                  "Dancers" 1920's

Perhaps this could be attributed to the diminished popularity of Pictorialism, as the Dayton Art Institutes monograph suggests.  To an extent this might be true, as certain artistic styles fell out of favor, it would seem to follow that some works would be lost which would of course limit the number of extant examples of an artists work.  Yet the explanation offered by Naomi Rosenblum in regards to the general lack of theory, criticism, scholarly work, and a more representative history seems to correlate more to the general lack of acquisitions and inequity in exhibitions in both museums and the commercial market.  A typical representation of museum collections will on average contain no more than 6-28 percent of photographs taken by women.[4] The commercial value of the work of female photographers might have something to do with this lack; Rosenblum points out that on average work produced by women is 50-60 percent less valuable than work produced by men

                            “BLESSED ART THOU AMONGST WOMEN:”

            THE PROBLEM OF INTERPRETATION

 

 

The above quote speaks to one of the pitfalls of producing scholarship devoted to women’s history: how to interpret the material.  The quote, “Blessed Art Thou Amongst Women” was included as the header to an essay devoted to Gertrude Kasebier, who was featured in the survey Icons of Photography: The 19th Century.  This was certainly included as a clever double entendre that refers to Kasebier’s oft repeated theme of motherhood as well as to the title of one of her photographs.  At the same time it reveals the assumption that the successful female artist was also the exception.   It reflects a sort of patronizing reading of the accomplishments of this artist that serve to demean her achievements and suggest that a woman must be truly “blessed” in order to posses sufficient talent in relation to her male colleagues.  The interpretations, or perhaps more appropriately, the misinterpretations of this particular topic run the gamut from over-celebratory, to skewed Feminist revision, to compensatory, to patronistic.  

                                        THEY WERE THERE

 Yet, far from being the exception, women photographers at the turn of the century were not uncommon.  In fact more and more women took up photography as both amateurs and professionals during this time due in large part to the development of the new Kodak camera in 1888.   This camera allowed for photographs to be taken at "the push of a button," to be sent in for processing and development by the Kodak company.  The new photographic processes were making it increasingly easier to take up photography.  It was no longer necessary to travel with a darkroom and chemicals in order to develop photographs on site.  

In addition, the developments in photographic processes were evolving as the women's rights movement gained more and more momentum.  Women began to move beyond the restrictions of domestic duty and increasingly developed interests, hobbies, and even professions of their own.  Naomi Rosenblum sites between 1880 and 1910 the number of professional women photographers rose from 271 to 4,900, and between 1910 and 1920 these numbers increased by forty percent.  In addition to studio portraiture demands for photographic images in magazines, advertising, and other publications were on the rise.  This need allowed for many amateur photographers, many of whom were women to enter the field as professionals.   It was out of this context, during the early twentieth century, that Frances Benjamin Johnston emerged as a professional photographer; she produced many commissions for magazines.   Her "objective" approach to documenting subject matter as varied as working conditions in coal mines, and factories, to individuals, foreshadowed the stylistic approaches of photojournalists and documentary photographers of the WPA. Amongst the WPA photographers we find the Iconic masters Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. 

                                            CONCLUSION

      Though not readily apparent from the history of photography surveys available, women did figure in the early professional development of photography, especially during the period around the turn of the twentieth century.  It seems we are more likely to hear about women in photography when they are associated with prominent photography movements (or individuals) such as the Pictorialists, Symbolists, or in later periods associated with the WPA or modern art movements.  The work of amateur photographers or independent professional photographers like Jane Reece will more than likely continue to be left out of the broader history of photography.  Examples of work by early women photographers, both amateur and professional, are not held by prominent  institutions if held in collections at all, and this contributes to their continued obscurity and "invisibility."   Hopefully the research and work of such scholars as Naomi Rosenblum and Judith Fryer Davidov will help get the work of early women photographers "back in the picture."

 

                                                    NOTES

      Though much of the printed academic scholarship on photography has little to say about women in photography, there are a number of websites devoted to the exploration of this topic.  Some especially informative sites can be found at the following links:

Women Photographers: California Museum of Photography

Women Come To The Front 

Women In Photography Archive

Distinguished Women Of Past and Present  

 

(All images used with permission of Wright State University Special Collections and Archives) To visit the Collections pertaining to Jane Reece click on the following link:

 WSU Special Collections and Archives: Arts Collections

 

 

                      

 

 

                                                 BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

 

 

1. American Memory Project

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/index.html

 

 

2. http://www.mtsu.edu/~kmiddlet/history/women/wh-photographers.html

 

3. http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues97/mar97/femphoto_th.html

 

4. http://www.daytonballet.org/HstReece.htm

 

5. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG97/fsa/lang.html

 

6. http://www.museumca.org/global/art/collections_dorothea_lange.html

 

7. http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/aa/writers/lange/power_2

 

8. http://home.gwu.edu/~mfpankin/archwss.htm

 

9. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/wcf/wcf0001.html

 

10. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/women/lured.html

 

11. http://www.sla.purdue.edu/WAAW/Palmquist/

 

 

 

12.           Jane Reece Collection, 1903-1944,WSU Special Collections

 

13.         Schwarz Reece Collection, 1912-1937, WSU Special Collections

 

14.         Fullerton Jane Reece Collection,  1924-1961, WSU Special Collections

 

       

             

15. Alberti, Johanna.  Gender and the Historian, Longman, Harlow , England . 2002

16. Davidov, Judith Fryer.  Women's Camera Work, Duke University Press Durham and London, 1998.

17. Langer, Freddy.  Icons Of Photography: The 19th Century, Prestel , Berlin , London , New York , 2002.

  18. Lister, Martin.  The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, Routledge , New York ,   NY. 1995.

19. Rosenblum, Naomi.  A History of Women Photographers,  Abbeville Publishing Group, New York , NY . 1994.

20. Vasseur, Dominique.  The Soul Unbound: The Photographs of Jane Reece, Dayton Art Insitute, Dayton , Ohio . 1997.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Rosenblum, Naomi.  A History of Women Photographers, Abbeville Press , New York , 1994.

p.7 Rosenblum discusses the major photographic history surveys and cites specific exclusions of women photographers.

p.260 lists some of the publications devoted to women in photography. 

[2] Dayton Art Institute, The Soul Unbound: The Photographs of Jane Reece, The Dayton Art Institute, Dayton , Oh. 1997

[3] Langer, Freddy, Icons of Photography, Prestel , New York , 2002.

[4] Rosenblum, Naomi.  A History of Women Photographers, Abbeville Press , New York , 1994.

   pgs.  8-9 provide statistics for the commercial value of work produced by women.  She sites the Musuem

   of Modern Art in New York as an institution representative of typical collections throughout the U.S.