The pioneering women photographers who helped shape their art
How Anne Brigman, Imogen Cunningham, Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange and Ilse Bing forged a path for others to follow in Pictorialism, documentary and avant-garde photography. Illustrated with works offered online until 13 May
The influential documentary photographer Berenice Abbott. Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone//Getty Images
The first half of the 20th century was a time of extraordinary change in the field of photography. By 1940, the Museum of Modern Art had established the first department of photography in an American museum, cementing the importance of the art form in the eyes of the world.
The names of many male photographers have been written into the history of the period as important drivers of change. But the women who worked alongside them were just as significant, establishing careers in their own right and creating images that redefined how modern photography might look.
Taken together, the work of Anne Brigman, Imogen Cunningham, Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange and Ilse Bing tells an important story.
Working in a range of styles from Pictorialism to documentary and avant-garde photography, these five photographers developed powerful voices that helped to shape the history of the medium across a 50-year period.
From 30 April to 13 May, a collection of their remarkable works will be offered for sale in From Pictorialism into Modernism: 80 Years of Photography, with estimates ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.
Anne Brigman (1869-1950)
Anne Brigman was a San-Francisco based Pictorialist photographer known for her mysterious and poetic compositions of female figures in natural landscapes. One of the first women to photograph nudes in such settings, she made images that emphasised the universality of nature.
Anne Brigman, Untitled, c. 1910. Platinum print, mounted on tissue. Sheet: 9½ x 6¼ in (24 x 15.8 cm). Estimate: $6,000-8,000. Offered in From Pictorialism into Modernism: 80 Years of Photography, 30 April-13 May, Online
Brigman’s prints, particularly those made with the platinum printing process, lend her images a softness and an ethereality — a choice she made with a view to capturing the spirit of her subjects.
Brigman was recognised early on for her successes in photography: she was a founding member of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession group, and five of her images were published in the January 1909 issue of Stieglitz’s sumptuous quarterly publication, Camera Work.
Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976)
Imogen Cunningham was a true master of the photographic medium, capturing a variety of subjects — from botanical studies and nudes, to industrial landscapes and portraits — in images that were praised for their evocative use of light and attention to detail.
Imogen Cunningham, Shen Yao, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, 1938. Gelatin silver print, mounted on board. Sheet: 9½ x 7¾ in (24.1 x 19.6 cm). Estimate $2,000-3,000. Offered in From Pictorialism into Modernism: 80 Years of Photography, 30 April-13 May, Online
Imogen Cunningham, Alfred Salmony, Chinese Art Scholar at Mills, 1937. Gelatin silver print, mounted on board. Sheet: 9½ x 7½ in (24.1 x 19 cm). Estimate: $2,000-3,000. Offered in From Pictorialism into Modernism: 80 Years of Photography, 30 April-13 May, Online
From the 1920s, Cunningham shifted her focus from her early Pictorialist style to in-depth studies of plant life: her photographs of magnolia flowers, which she explored for two years, are among her best-known works.
In 1932, she joined the West Coast group f.64 and devoted herself to ‘straight’ photography that emphasised clarity in unmanipulated images. Yet throughout her career, Cunningham’s pictures retained a subtle romanticism and sensitivity that set her work apart. Today, she is regarded as one of America’s greatest female photographers.
Berenice Abbott (1898-1991)
The photographic output of Berenice Abbott represents a culmination of her experiences in Paris and New York in the 1920s and ’30s. The relationships she forged here with avant-garde artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray helped her to master her art and refine her personal aesthetic.
Berenice Abbott, Gay Street’s Twisting Block, c. 1937. Gelatin silver print. Sheet: 6¾ x 5 in (17.1 x 12.7 cm). Estimate: $4,000-6,000. Offered in From Pictorialism into Modernism: 80 Years of Photography, 30 April-13 May, Online
It was at Man Ray’s studio in 1925 that she first discovered the photographs of one of her most important influences, Eugène Atget. Following Atget’s example, she returned to New York in 1929 and began to document the built landscape of the city.
With support from the Works Progress Administration, she produced a travelling exhibition and publication called Changing New York, which helped to cement her career as a pioneering and influential documentary photographer.
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
At the height of the 1930s Depression, Dorothea Lange began to look outside her successful portrait studio and photograph the world outside, producing images that were less about creating art than effecting social change.
Dorothea Lange, Along the Highway near Bakersfield, California, Dust Bowl Refugees, 1935. Gelatin silver print, flush-mounted on Masonite. Sheet: 10¾ x 13⅝ in (27.2 x 34.5 cm). Estimate: $10,000-15,000. Offered in From Pictorialism into Modernism: 80 Years of Photography, 30 April-13 May, Online
The photographs she captured for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a Depression-era government agency created to raise awareness about and provide support for struggling farmers, are among her most celebrated, chiefly for the way they humanised the plight of rural Americans.
Lange received widespread recognition for her achievements during her lifetime. In 1941 she received the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever awarded to a woman, and in 1954 she joined the staff of Life magazine, which allowed her to travel to Asia, South America and the Middle East as a freelance photographer.
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
Ilse Bing (1899-1998)
Ilse Bing initially set out to be an art historian, but in the 1920s she abandoned her studies at the University of Frankfurt and began to teach herself photography. Influenced by her association with members of the Bauhaus and the Parisian photographer André Kertész, her work exemplified formalist techniques.
Ilse Bing, Orgue de Barbarie, Foire aux Pains d’Epices, 1933. Gelatin silver print, hinged to paper album page. Sheet: 8⅞ x 11⅛ in (22.5 x 28.2 cm). Estimate: $3,000-5,000. Offered in From Pictorialism into Modernism: 80 Years of Photography, 30 April-13 May, Online
Bing was also an accomplished commercial photographer and photojournalist, who made an important contribution to the growing magazine industries of Germany and France.
Throughout her career, she continually pushed the boundaries of her chosen medium. She became one of the first photographers to capture images at night, as well as to use solarisation, the electronic flash and the 35mm camera, establishing herself as a leader in modern photography.