After my babies came I determined to learn to use the brush. I wanted to hold their lovely little faces in some way that should be also my expression, so I went to an art school; two or three of them, in fact. But art is long and childhood is fleeting, I soon discovered, and the children were losing their baby faces before I learned to paint portraits, so I chose a quicker medium.
–Gertrude Käsebier quoted in “The Camera Has Opened a New Profession for Women–Some of Those Who Have Made Good,” New York Times, April 20, 1913, X12.
Starting, as her words above suggest, from a maternal and aesthetic desire to find an art form in which to capture the beauty of her children, Gertrude Käsebier went on to achieve financial success and critical recognition in her time in the realms of fine arts photography as well as in commercial photojournalism. In considering the remarkable career of photographer Gertrude Käsebier, two proverbs come to mind: “We are all a product of our times” and “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Following Käsebier’s art studies at the Pratt Institute, her husband fell ill so she turned to portrait photography in order to keep her family financially afloat. Not lacking in confidence, she sought out the preeminent photographer Alfred Stieglitz who, over time, became a champion of her work. Käsebier, like Stieglitz, is associated with the Pictorialist school, which sought to elevate the status of photography to a fine art.
Technological advances in the reproduction and publishing of photographic images gave rise to illustrated magazines in the 1890s and 1900s. Käsebier took on photo assignments for publications such as World’s Work and Everybody’s Magazine, which provided a wider audience for her work, thus increasing her notoriety and acclaim. By the turn of the twentieth century, Käsebier had achieved twin success at the top of both art photography and magazine photography.
Growing up in the Colorado Territory, Käsebier had Native American playmates. Later, in New York, between 1898 and 1899, she made numerous portraits when the cast from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show visited her studio. The most famous portrait from these sessions is “The Red Man.” The Library of Congress holds the original negative (above left) which can be compared with the print (above right) that Kasebier modified artistically.
Photography curator Beverly Brannan sums up Käsebier’s artistic career ”as an American success story, rising from frontier origins to fine art, from precarious means to financial stability. She rose to the top and maintained her position in a fiercely competitive field, artistically and financially . . . “ Other women whose professional photographic careers stemmed from their desire to capture their children’s fleeting childhood include Sally Mann and Melissa Pinney.
- Read more about Gertrude Käsebier’s life in photography in photo curator Beverly Brannan’s biographical essay about Gertrude Käsebier, one of a series on groundbreaking women photojournalists.
- See more photographs by Gertrude Käsebier via the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
- View photographs by other notables from the Pictorialist school such as Alfred Stieglitz, Julia Margaret Cameron, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and F. Holland Day.
Good article, Jeffb
Thanks for this article, Jeff. I finished a Teaching with Primary Sources course at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia about photography and identity. I plan to study more about Gertrude Kasebier, as well as use the photo of mother and child taken by her in my unit on Our Families, Ourselves with the preschoolers that I work with. I so relate to her statement that opens up the article.
You’re welcome, Peggy. I’m so pleased to learn that the blog post will lead you to incorporate Kasebier and her work in your teaching. Thank you for taking the time to write.