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Women Photographers at
Text by Cathy Newman
Foreward by Tipper Gore
Format: Hardcover, 272pp.
Publisher: National Geographic Society
Pub. Date: September 2000
WIPI Review by Carole Glauber
One hundred years ago, photography advertisements extolled the magic and enchantment of photography. At the same time, women embraced the camera with enthusiasm unmatched by the other arts. Women with their cameras appeared everywhere to record special moments and events while photography albums became a common component of households. Travel pictures piqued the interest of people who never dreamed of journeying to faraway places. Today, Women Photographers at National Geographic honors the extraordinary contributions of four generations of female photographers who traversed the globe for this magazine.
For nearly a century, National Geographic Magazine has inspired its readers with photographs and stories from around the world. Women Photographers at National Geographic is an intimate glimpse at the women behind the cameras and the photographs they create. Ranging from evocative portraits, to pristine landscapes to disturbing war scenes, these pictures reinforce the universal power of the image. "Surely to write about women as photographers is to celebrate them both as photographers and as women," observes author, Cathy Newman."To be a woman photographer for National Geographic is to complicate the complicated...to know the woman behind the work-to know how she thinks, what she feels, why she photographs, can only deepen our appreciation."
An introduction by photo-historian Naomi Rosenblum contributes a summary of women's role in photographic history leading to their involvement in National Geographic. By providing historical context, Rosenblum enables readers to understand more about women's contributions to photography. She competently sets the scene for what is to come: 144 lush photographs in both color and black and white divided into five chapters by topics with titles as "Insight," "Lured by the Horizon," and "Women's Work." Within these chapters, the statistics are revealing. Of 70 photographers regularly shooting for National Geographic, 14 are women. Most of these are freelance workers. Only seven photographers are staff photographers and of these, only one is a woman-Jodi Cobb.
The book opens with a hand colored photograph by Eliza Scidmore, who as author-photographer of the article, "Young Japan," published in July, 1914, became the first woman with photographs in the magazine. Luckily, the magazine benefited from the farsightedness of Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor and his successor, Melville Bell Grosvenor who did not hesitate to print stories by independent female travelers exploring the globe alone.
Harriet Chalmers Adams, a president of the International Society of Woman Geographers had 21 stories printed in the magazine from 1907 to 1935. The book even pays tribute to unpublished photographs from their archives by mention of Ella Maillart, a "Swiss adventurer, photographer, and writer," who made a 3500 mile journey across China in 1937. The first woman staff member, Kathleen Revis, hired in 1953, happened to be Grosvenor's sister-in-law, but nevertheless proved herself hard working and capable thereby "a perfect pioneer woman photographer for Geographic."
However, the book is really about contemporary women photographers at National Geographic and it is here that the author successfully delves into new territory for a coffee table photobook. Newman devotes a powerful section to conflicts unique to women as they make difficult choices affecting their families and their career. Quotes from the photographers and their editors describe how they succeed, how they fail, and how they do some of both. Literal descriptions entail the difficulty of saying good-bye to crying children they know they will not see for extended periods. Annie Griffiths Belt brought her child with her for a number of years, creating a different set of logistical challenges. Some try to maintain marriages, others recount broken relationships. "Things corrode in your absence," observed photographer Sarah Leen acknowledging the struggle to keep a marriage intact."It's a challenge to know how to balance your life. In this respect shorter assignments are better. The days of going on the road for ten weeks at a time are over...Most marriages don't have to put up with this." As Jodi Cobb asserted, "You can have a life in the field, or you can have a life at home. But it's hard to have both." For contrast, Newman gives examples of the other side of the coin-the men who admit they do not necessarily have such struggles-that it is often easier for them to leave for their assignments.
Regardless of gender, there are always risks. Maggie Steber recounts being chased by machete-weilding men in Haiti, Karen Kasmauski survived exposure to radiation in Brazil; Alexandra Avakian's knee shattered in Romania and Annie Griffiths Belt suffered a spinal compression fracture in New Zealand. They emphasize the chance of becoming emotionally attached to the people they photograph and then leaving them behind.
The photographs in Women Photographers at National Geographic seem bigger than life. Therein lies the capacity of photographers and editors to crop out or enlarge part of the image, or manipulate the image with the computer or printing process. There are the ethical questions as to what are photographic truths or the use of photography to emphasize personal issues. In this book, Palestinians are depicted mostly as an oppressed, terrorized people, while Israelis are shown primarily as Hasidic-both far from the truth. There is the startling cover photograph by Joanna Pinneo in Mali in 1988 that arouses curiosity with little explanation to satisfy-only that it is a napping family covered by a blanket of sand from a dry lake bed.
Women Photographers at National Geographic takes the reader on some amazing journeys, both personal and universal. We share the perils and discomforts as well as the joys and discoveries experienced by these women. When women adventurers succeed, it thrills us as it sets an example, the achievement is thereby amplified, and encourages a new generation of gifted photographers to follow.
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