Laying the Foundations
Women Street Photographers
GULNARA SAMOILOVA IS DETERMINED TO SPOTLIGHT WOMEN PHOTOGRAPHERS, FROM INSTAGRAM TO THE GALLERY, AND NOW, WITH A GROUNDBREAKING PUBLICATION.
Think of a great street photographer: who springs to mind? Henri Cartier-Bresson and the “decisive moment”, catching a man mid-air as he jumps over a puddle in Paris? Maybe Joel Meyerowitz and his shot of camel-coated passers-by, caught in shafts of sunshine and steam? Garry Winogrand or Bruce Gilden and their depictions of New York? Martin Parr shooting on the beach in Brighton, Brassaï capturing Paris at night in the 1930s or Daidō Moriyama and his raw vision of Tokyo in the 1960s and 1970s? All big names but so far none of them women – even though, as award-winning photographer, curator and wildly-popular Instagram account holder Gulnara Samoilova puts it, “There were, of course, more women street photographers than history admits to.”
Some of these lesser-known practitioners are picked out in the introduction to Samoilova’s new book, Women Street Photographers, via a brief history written by Melissa Breyer – also a street photographer whose work has been featured in the likes of National Geographic. Breyer foregrounds the little-known Alice Austin, for example, who was born in New York in 1866 and who took upwards of 7000 images in Staten Island at the turn of the 20th century. Then there’s artists such as Jessie Tarbox Beals, who was born in 1870 in Hamilton, Canada and, after being hired by the Buffalo Enquirer in 1902, became America’s first female news photographer.
Breyer also gives a brief overview of other women who documented people on the street and became much better known overall – Berenice Abbott, for example, Helen Levitt, or Diane Arbus, all of whom are part of the established canon and have been for a long time. Then there are the likes of Vivian Maier, widely celebrated only posthumously, and whose story tantalisingly suggests other great, undiscovered female practitioners. Incidentally, but not surprisingly, Maier is about to have a huge show at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. Her work has previously been shown around the world at institutions such as FOAM Amsterdam, Somerset House, London, and the Hasselblad Foundation in Gothenburg. However, Maier was completely unknown in her lifetime, working in Chicago as a nanny in the second half of the 20th century. Pursuing photography for her own satisfaction, she quietly amassed an archive of over 100,000 negatives, which wasn’t discovered until 2007 at an auction house.
Breyer makes clear that there are many reasons why fewer women are known for street photography, none of which are to do with actual images. She describes writer George Sand illegally donning trousers without a permit to walk freely around Paris, laying bare the social pressures that bound socalled “respectable women.” However, Samoilova chooses not to dwell on the many negatives. Instead, she celebrates the wealth of contemporary female practitioners currently working on the street – both to inspire others to pick up cameras, and to create a resource for curators and editors.
Samoilova has brought together 100 image-makers, from those who are known within curatorial and editorial circles, such as Rebecca Norris Webb and Dimpy Bhalotia, to those who are working in obscurity, such as Nastaran Farjadpezeshk, an electrical engineer based in Mashhad, Iran, who creates images in her spare time. The book also includes many different styles and approaches, from richly coloured