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
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Daniel, P., and Smock, R., A Talent for Detail:
The Photographs of Miss Francis Benjamin
Johnston. 1889-1910, New York: Harmony Books,
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.
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