Ladies Behind the Lens

(The following is an article, written by Brett Carnell and Helena Zinkham of the Prints and Photographs Division, for the November/December 2016 Library of Congress Magazine.)

“If one is the possessor of health and strength, a good news instinct … a fair photographic outfit, and the ability to hustle, which is the most necessary qualification, one can be a news photographer.”

 Jessie T. Beals, West Park, New York, 1908.

Jessie T. Beals, West Park, New York, 1908.

So said Jessie Tarbox Beals in a 1904 interview with a St. Louis newspaper. Beals was known as America’s first female news photographer because The Buffalo Inquirer and The Courier hired her as a staff photographer in 1902. For most of her career, Beals worked as a freelance news photographer.

News photography is a great strength of the Library’s collections, but work by women photojournalists can be hard to find among these millions of pictures. A new Library web presentation, “Women Photojournalists,” sheds light on these talented individuals through a series of 28 biographies written by Beverly Brannan, photography curator in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.

For almost 100 years, newspapers and magazines relied primarily on male photographers because photojournalism was seen as physically demanding work considered too rough for women. As a result, many of the women who succeeded in this field had remarkable life stories as well as skill with the camera. Brannan explores their contributions to the field of photojournalism, tracing their work behind the camera from the advent of photojournalism in the late 19th century up to today. The biographies provide insight into the challenges faced by women photographers as well as their achievements in American photojournalism.

Women photojournalists had at least two things in common—they were willing to push hard to succeed and they wanted to tell stories through pictures. Beyond that, the women’s backgrounds are as diverse as the subjects they documented. Many needed to earn a living, but quite a few were financially independent. Many had a college education or formal training in art, but others came to photography through family interests. Several gravitated to war zones or social justice issues, while others focused on local events and daily life.

The new site builds on “Women Come to the Front,” a 1995 Library exhibition that featured eight women photojournalists who covered war: Therese Bonney, Toni Frissell, Marvin Breckinridge Patterson, Clare Boothe Luce, Janet Flannery, Esther Bubley, Dorothea Lange and May Craig.

Frances Benjamin Johnston shows children her Kodak camera, circa 1900.

Frances Benjamin Johnston shows children her Kodak camera, circa 1900.

“While preparing an overview of the Prints and Photographs Division’s collections, I realized that women had played a more prominent communications role during the Second World War than seemed to be appreciated by those studying the era,” said Brannan, who curated the exhibition.

In the new web presentation, Brannan includes gifted women from every generation of photography, including some like Frances Benjamin Johnston and Toni Frissell, whose papers are housed in the Library of Congress.

Johnston’s family’s social position in Washington, D.C., gave her access to the presidential administrations of Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt and other notables, which helped launch her career as a portrait photographer and photojournalist with the Bain News Service. Her interest in social justice is reflected in her images of such vocational institutions as Hampton Institute in Virginia and the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. In the 1910s and 1920s, her photographs of estates and gardens around the country illustrated her lecture series titled “Our American Gardens.”

Toni Frissell in Red Cross Uniform, 1942.

Toni Frissell in Red Cross Uniform, 1942.

Frissell is best known for her high-fashion photography for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But during World War II, she used her connections with society matrons to aggressively pursue wartime assignments at home and abroad.

“I became so frustrated with fashions that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do a real reporting job,” Frissell said.

Charlotte Brooks was only one of a handful of women hired as a full-time staff photographer at Look magazine, where she mostly covered home and family life in post-war America. Her work is well-represented in the Look Magazine Photograph Collection in the Library of Congress, having worked for the magazine for 20 years, until the publication ceased in 1971.

The website includes such contemporary photojournalists as Brenda Ann Kenneally, Susan Meiselas and Marilyn Nance, whose careers began in the final decades of the 20th century. Their focus is on people—like those affected by Hurricane Katrina, those forced from their homes in Northern Iraq and working-class people in African-American communities.

“Photography should not be about the photographer,” said Meiselas when she spoke at the Library of Congress.

Yet the images produced by these women reflect their indomitable spirit and worldview.

All photos from the Prints and Photographs Division 

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