Women Documenting History: Primary Sources from the Library of Congress on Women Photojournalists

You and your students may know the names of Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, or Clare Boothe Luce. Fewer, however, will know the names of the photographers Helen Johns Kirtland or Toni Frissell, who documented wars, often from the front lines.

Helen Johns Kirtland, 1919

Helen Johns Kirtland, 1919

Toni Frissell, sitting, holding camera on her lap, with several children standing around her, somewhere in Europe, 1945

Toni Frissell, sitting, holding camera on her lap, with several children standing around her, somewhere in Europe, 1945

During World War I, Helen Johns Kirtland, a photojournalist with Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, often traveled with the YMCA, which provided physical fitness classes for the troops. With the YMCA staff, Kirtland was able to spend time with the soldiers in the trenches learning and photographing their experiences. In addition to being a skilled photographer, Kirtland’s essays for Leslie’s were simple and elegant, bringing the battlefield to readers’ homes.

Toni Frissell may be best known for her work as a fashion photographer and for her photographs of the wedding of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier. However, she also worked as a photographer during World War II. She donated her services to the American Red Cross, Women’s Army Corps, and Eighth Army Air Force, and her photographs included images of women soldiers, African American fighter pilots, and children orphaned by war.

A Woman on the Battle Front. Helen Jones Kirkland, 1918

A Woman on the Battle Front. Helen Johns Kirtland, 1918

U.S. soldiers resting among ruins of building, with soldier lying on plank in foreground, on the Siegfried Line, Rhone Valley, German Front. Toni Frissell, 1945

U.S. soldiers resting among ruins of building, with soldier lying on plank in foreground, on the Siegfried Line, Rhone Valley, German Front. Toni Frissell, 1945

Think about it:

  • Study selections of work by Kirtland and Frissell. What similarities and differences do you see in each photojournalist’s work?
  • What aspects of each photographer’s work can be controlled by the photographer and which are out of the photographer’s control? Choose a photograph you like and think about how this affects how you respond to the photographs.
  • Kirtland was married to another photojournalist and they often traveled together. How do you think having a partner helped or hindered her work?
  • Compare the work of these photojournalists to the work of those covering current conflicts. Beyond the use of color or black and white film, what differences and similarities do you see? Whose work would you like to see in a book or newspaper and why?
  • If you were a war photographer, what aspects of war would you want to cover? What do you think readers would want to see?

Want to learn more about woman war correspondents? Explore Women Come to the Front for biographies and see some of the work of these and other photojournalists. Want to learn about other women photojournalists? Explore the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division to see some of their collections.

Want other resources to inspire Women’s History Month activities? Explore the Women’s History Month portal, which includes materials from the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Let us know how you will celebrate Women’s History Month in the comments.

One Comment

  1. Lisa Cain
    February 26, 2017 at 9:33 pm

    Thank you for this information as I am compiling a list of women who can serve/do as mentors/models for young girls to aspire to be like.

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