Art Photography

On Women Photographers (and their rarity)

I suspect that the low numbers of women practicing photography is very little to do with gadgetry and everything to do with culture and expectations.

In the 1850’s or so, photography was actually quite commonly a womans hobby. The reason being, that once rich women had birthed their husbands children and told the maid what to do for the day, she had very little to do with her time other than look wistfully out the window while attending to her needlecraft samplers. Clearly, some women wished for a more interesting and adventurous hobby. Cue photography. There are some photographic historians who believe that at least 50% of photographers in the early days of photography were women, but this is hard to demonstrate because so little of the material is actually recorded in any meaningful way. We can find shoeboxes of photographs at any flea market full of photographs, but very few have any identifiable information on them. Some of the early leading and prominent art photographers were women though, and a fair bit is known about them.

Over the decades that follow, it became more normal for even wealthy women to work. Families became less flush with the cash and dropped essential services such as maids and nannies. Women looked after the family, women did the household chores etc, more “upper class” families became considerably more “middle class”. This was particularly compounded by the Wars, which of course sent even more women out to work, because the men were away getting shot at, amongst other unpleasant things. When these men didn’t come home, the women obviously had to juggle working, rearing children and looking after the house – leaving very little free time for anything resembling a hobby.

As we went though the 1940’s and the 1950’s, there was an uncomfortable air of division between men and women. On the whole (at least my research shows) women often worked, ran the houses and looked after the children. You think this left spare time for fun? Men were free to take up their own pastimes. Photography was having a bit of a golden age at the time, with cameras coming down in cost and developing becoming much more accessible at time. Attitudes at the time too, were that science and art was something that was mans work, something a little lady couldn’t possibly get her head around. Why this change of ideas from the Victorian era and before? Who knows, but I’m researching it.

As my Grandmother puts it, the 40’s and 50’s were a “dark time” for many women. They struggled to find their own identify in a changing world. For women spending their formative years in this decade, a hobby is something that they generally didn’t have. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, but pastimes were something best done when the housework was in bed and the children were asleep. How much photography can you really do while you’re checking on the kids every half an hour? On the contrary this was a time of clubs and societies for men. Photographic societies were booming again, populated largely by men looking to get out the house and spend time enjoying themselves.

You didn’t really start seeing more freedom and equality for women until you start looking at those born in the late 50’s onwards. Growing up through the 60’s and 70’s passed on values of equality between the sexes. These women still weren’t generally encouraged by their parents to live a free and independent lives.  But crucially they were forming their own shared experiences as a generation, and they would pass those experiences onto the next generation.

My generation. Born in the 80’s. Encouraged as a child to have a go at anything you want. No longer are there social barriers to entry for so many hobbies. No longer are women expected to only take up hobbies that can be fitted around their own domestic life, because quite frankly most of us women don’t have a “domestic life”. We are no longer expected to marry, settle down and have kids before we hit our mid twenties. That gives us YEARS of time to figure out what we enjoy doing. Plus at school everything is taught equally – and that has only been in force in the last twenty years – if that! Boys are taught cooking and girls are taught woodwork. No one says that we as girls can’t do anything just because we were born with a vagina instead of a penis.

The world has wised up.

Amongst photographers my own age, I know considerably more female photographers than male photographers. At least a 75%/25% split. I only know two or three female photographers above the age of 35, compared with dozens of male photographers.

Plus of course, the cost of entry has been levelled. It has always been in the past, that women generally earned less than men. There is still a pay divide, but not on the same scale has it has been in the past. Plus as less women are choosing to have children, that means that women on the whole have more earning potential and more money. That means more money to buy the gadgets that we lust.

Society is changing considerably. We are the first generation of women that has truly found it’s voice – thanks to our parents. We are the first generation who can do anything we want to do, without feeling male dominance breathing down our neck.

And it’s fabulous.