Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 904:
WOMEN AND PHOTOGRAPHY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 904.

Today, women change the world as they photograph it. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Joseph Niepce finally managed to make the first photograph in 1826. By 1840 he and Daguerre had worked out the kinks, and we could finally capture a passing moment.

From the beginning, photography became a battleground between external reality and our inner vision. The catch is, external reality and inner vision had very different textures for women than they had for men in the 19th century.

One 19th-century reality was that few women could lay their hands on this exotic new technology -- too few to define a female perspective on questions of inner and outer reality.

Two women who finally did delineate the question were Frances Benjamin Johnston, born in 1864 in West Virginia, and Anne Nott Brigman, born three years later in Hawaii. Johnston took up photography in 1889; Brigman took it up in the 1890s.

Brigman's camera created eerie pantheistic visions. Female nudes flow organically out of wind-whipped scrub pines. You can't tell where nature ends and the human begins. There's a terrible intensity to her pagan celebrations. She writes,

Trees at high altitudes are squat giants twisted and torn with the sweep of ... prevailing winds ... One day during the gathering of a thunder storm when the air was hot and still and a strange yellow light was over everything, something happened almost too deep for me [to tell].
That was the road Anne Brigman walked. Francis Johnston, on the other hand, was the hard-bitten professional. Her camera recorded America -- industry, presidents, schools, national parks, social programs. The title of her biography, A Talent for Detail, comes from something she wrote in the Ladies Home Journal.
"The woman [photographer]," she said, "must have ... common sense, ... good taste, a quick eye, a talent for detail, and a genius for hard work."
If Johnston created reality, she did it only by irony. Here's a picture of students in one of the Indian schools we'd set up after we'd crushed the Indian Nations. Indian students are debating the question of citizenship for Negroes of the South.

She also sits in two self-portraits. On one side, she strikes a proper Victorian pose. On the other she slumps, drinking beer, smoking a cigarette, and exposing her lower leg -- violating the canons -- mocking her world even as she documents it.

So you look at their photos, and you wonder if Brigman and Johnston didn't come from different planets. Then you pick up the common thread. It is rebellion. Both women told us that an old order was ending. And end it did. Soon after WW-I, both artistic revolution and women's suffrage had taken place. Brigman and Johnston pointed their cameras at the world, and the world really did change under their lenses.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Daniel, P., and Smock, R., A Talent for Detail: The Photographs of Miss Francis Benjamin Johnston. 1889-1910, New York: Harmony Books, 1974.

Heyman, T.T., Anne Brigman: Pictorial Photographer/Pagan/Member of the Photo-Secession. Oakland, CA: The Oakland Museum Oakes Gallery, September 17 through November 17, 1974.

Sullivan, C. and Janis, E.P. Women Photographers, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1990.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, University of Houston Art and Architecture Librarian (and photographer) for her counsel on this episode and for providing a wealth of source material.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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