Exhibition and book review by Miss Rosen for The Luupe The most famous images of war are largely shot by men: images of stoicism, heroicism, drama, and tragedy often focusing on the male participants. Over the past century, while women war photographers have slowly made their mark, they have not been outwardly recognized for their […]
Exhibition and book review by Miss Rosen for The Luupe
The most famous images of war are largely shot by men: images of stoicism, heroicism, drama, and tragedy often focusing on the male participants. Over the past century, while women war photographers have slowly made their mark, they have not been outwardly recognized for their efforts until now.
In Women War Photographers: From Lee Miller to Anja Neidringhaus (September 2019, Prestel), editors Anne-Marie Beckmann and Felicity Korn showcase the contributions of eight women who have risked their lives to get the picture.
Published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name originating at Kunstpalast in Germany, the book features the work of Gerda Taro, Lee Miller, Catherine Leroy, Susan Meiselas, Carolyn Cole, Françoise Demulder, Christine Spengler, and Anja Niedringhaus.
The project took root after the Kunstpalast purchased 74 photographs by Anja Niedringhaus for their collection. It was then, when amassed that a missing link in the story of photography began to reveal itself. “Most people aren’t aware of the efforts that women have contributed to everyone’s image of war,” Korn says. “Lots of these images were published worldwide; we just didn’t think about who took the pictures. If you look at the anthologies of war photographers, most of these women have been overlooked.”
Women War Photographers begins against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, with the work of Gerda Taro (1910-1937). “She is probably the first woman photographer ever killed in action,” LIFE magazine acknowledged in her obituary. Taro had been publishing her work under the name of American photographer Roberta Capa, but soon came to make a name for herself. Her untimely death sent her into obscurity until her work was rediscovered with a major exhibition at ICP in 2007.
By the time of Taro’s death, American fashion model Lee Miller traded in her frocks for the opportunity to work behind the camera. After apprenticing with Man Ray on Paris, Miller had developed a style unlike anyone before or since. When World War II began, she started documenting the Blitz before traveling to the continent, where she covered the war for Vogue.
Paris of the 1940s gave birth to two women who went on to photograph the Vietnam War: Catherine Leroy (1944-2006) and Françoise Demulder (1947-2008). “We think of the Vietnam War as the turning point for women war photographers because it was the first war that didn’t follow any rules,” Korn says. “Women were no longer under any restrictions, as they had been during World War I and II; the could work as freely as men. They had to be very adventurous.”
Leroy and Demulder headed to frontlines and made some of the most powerful images of guerilla warfare. They became embedded, a practice that Christine Spengler (b. 1945), Susan Meiselas (b. 1948), Carolyn Cole (b. 1961), and Anja Niedringhaus (1965-2014) would each embrace in their own way.
“Spengler focused exclusively on the fate of women and children, the everyday life that goes on behind the frontlines. She felt they didn’t have a language in the news, and weren’t represented enough,” Korn says. “She went into areas where, as a woman, it was easier to move. She was not seen as an aggressor. She could approach people differently than men. Both Anja Niedringhaus and Susan Meislas did that as well.”
Like Spengler, Meiselas sought out the overlooked, documenting the Sandanista fighters in the Nicaraguan Revolution during 1978 and 1979 for Magnum Photos. Working in color, Meiselas’d vivid images revealed a raw, visceral side of war — one that can be felt strongly in Carolyn Cole’s photographs made in Iraq, Palestine, and Liberia in the early ‘00s.
Women War Photographers concludes with the black and white photographs of Niedringhaus, made in Iraq and Afghanistan, where she was killed. Her chapter echoes that of Taro, except we no longer must wait decades to acknowledge her contribution to the history of photography.
While Women War Photographers recognizes just how influential these women are in shaping our worldview, the book and exhibition are built on a simple premise: “There is no such thing as a female gaze or female perspective,” Korn says.
“They would never speak of a female gaze themselves. Spengler does reflect this because that’s how she identifies. She would say that as a woman, she took different pictures from her male colleagues — but I don’t think she would say that’s the same for the other women photographers. I don’t think it interests them either. They want to be respected as photographers and that’s why they took the pictures.”
Women War Photographers: From Lee Miller to Anja Neidringhaus is on view at Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland through May 17, 2020