Rare Species? : The Female Landscape Photographer in the Wild!

I was browsing through my collection of photography books at the weekend and it struck me  – almost all the photographers are men!

Where are all the female photographers?

I have a mixture of books by some of the most famous photographers from the past as well as some from contemporary photographers; I love them all and I feel very inspired each time I open them. Naturally, my collection includes a lot of landscape work but also few other bits of photojournalism or portrait photography. Work by Ansel Adams, Michael Kenna, Galen Rowall, Bruce Barnbaum, William Neill, Alain Briot, Joe Cornish, Charlie Waite, Oscar Marzarolli, Thorsten Henn, David Noton, Bruce Percy, Daniel Bergman, Colin Baxter, Eddie Ephraum, Michael Freeman and Robert Maplethorpe all stand proudly on my shelf. The only two books by women that I own are by macro/flower photographer Sue Bishop and a book of landscapes by Fran Halsall. The ratio of male to female is about 8:1 – so what is going on? Is this really representative of the world of photography or do I have some kind of warped outlook on the subject?

So, feeling somewhat guilty about my own rather one-sided sample, I had a look around at lists from various sources on the ‘best, famous or master’ photographers and guess what, I am not alone in having a very male biased collection!

Starting with the alphabetical list of  ‘Famous Photographers’ on Wikipedia there are about 65 photographers with names starting with A – of those only 11 are women.

At first I reasoned that this is probably just a reflection of the way things were in the past, when women in art were rather frowned upon and society at large did not recognise women artists. Female art was often regarded as craft and few women reached the heady heights of the male dominated art world. So, I can understand the low ratio of women to men in photography from Victorian times right through to about the fifties but what has amazed me in my search on this topic is that this gender bias still seems to exist today!

A bit more research was required…..

Of the TIME magazine Top 10 Photographs for 2012, only 1 was taken by a woman – Callie Shell (candid photo of Barrack Obama), the rest were all taken by men.

Callie Shell Obama TIME

Here is a short video of Callie discussing her behind the scenes photoshoot with Obama, a very humble lady with a wonderful talent.

Callie Shell talking on her work behind the scenes with Obama

So, as Callie says in the video ‘people want to see these images, they want these people to be real, so that’s what you have to convince magazines to run’. So how hard is it to get magazines to run female work?

I looked at a lot of websites but they all tell the same story……..

Digital Camera World has an article in 2012 entitled  ‘The 55 best photographers of all time. In the history of the world. Ever. Definitely.’http://www.digitalcameraworld.com/2012/07/17/famous-photographers-the-55-best-photographers-of-all-time/ And how many of those are women? Only 6! And who are they?  Annie Liebovitz (contemporary), Dorothea Lange (1895 – 1965), Anne Geddes (contemporary), Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 -1879), Eve Arnold (1912 – 2012), and Diane Arbus (1923 -1971). All amazing, all photojournalists or portrait specialists and only two are living, working artists. Examples of their wonderful images are shown below.

Annie Liebovitz
Dorothea Lange
Anne Geddes Famous Female Photographers
Anne Geddes
Diane Arbus
Julia Margeret Cameron Famous Female Photographers
Julia Margaret Cameron
Eve Arnold

Here’s another one ‘50 Great Photographers You Should Know’ http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/50-great-photographers-you-should-know/. Hongkiat is a relatively new Asia based website filled with articles and tips for photographers and bloggers, 6.5 million page views per month! So, their list is very contemporary and global, you might therefore expect to see a slightly different focus with a higher proportion of female photographers…. not so. The ratio is still very low only 3 out of 50 represented. Check out the awe-inspiring portfolios of Sarah Cheng de Winne, Natasha Gudermane and Alexandra Hager (shown below). All are either portrait or photojournalistic genre photographers. Their portfolios are stunning but why so few, and why no landscape representation?

Nude in interiour 15. jpg
Natasha Gudermane
Sarah Cheng de Winne
Alexandra Hager
Alexandra Hager

Picture Correct Magazine has a score of 2 out of 10 http://www.picturecorrect.com/tips/top-10-most-famous-photographers-of-all-time/ – Dorothea Lange and Annie Leibovitz.

Here is an interesting article from last year in Professional Photographer Magazine ‘19 Most Influential Female Photographers of All Time’. http://www.professionalphotographer.co.uk/News-and-Reviews/2012/3/19-most-influential-female-photographers-of-all-time It seems an unusual number to me, everywhere else has a round number like 20……could they not find a twentieth? Anyway, regardless of why there are only 19, here they are – Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Annie Griffiths Belt, Margaret Bourke-White, Julia Margaret Cameron, Rineke Dijkstra, Jill Furmanovsky, Anne Geddes, Jill Greenberg, Roni Horn, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, Annie Leibovitz, Sally Mann, Tina Modotti, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Ellen Von Unwerth and Carrie May Weems. Only one, Annie Griffiths Belt, is known for landscape photography all the others are photojournalists or portrait photographers.

Not only are women photographers rarely featured in magazines and on ‘famous’ lists but the vast majority of them focus on portrait or photojournalistic genres. So,where are all the female landscape photographers? Is there no female equivalent of Ansel Adams? No Eve Adams?

Having been a scientist for many years before I took up photography, my curiosity is piqued at this kind of data output. What factors could be at play in determining the gender imbalance?

Here are a few possible reasons that spring to mind, but please feel free to add or argue the points!

  • This is just a historical left over ie women are still ‘catching up’ in terms of acceptance and recognition – possibly, but really, are we still held back?? By what?
  • It is too technical a subject – unlikely given the number of women now in medicine, science and many engineering faculties. I must admit that for me the technical side of things must be mastered rather than enjoyed and that side of things holds no particular fascination for me (unlike many of the male photographers I know).
  • It requires getting out in nature and being ‘alone’ in the ‘wilderness’ –  are we afraid of this? I did see this kind of topic come up in a recent interview by Bret Edge of Colorado based landscape photographer Sarah Fischler.  http://blog.bretedge.com/tag/female-landscape-photographers/ Would anyone consider talking about this if she had been a man? I wonder.  While it is true that there is sometimes a concern about safety when you are a bit off the beaten track, I would imagine that we have this in common with many men. Maybe they just don’t admit to scaring themselves silly having strayed just a bit too far to get that special shot!  Personally, I remember having nightmares for weeks after I had sat on the edge of a cliff trying to get a shot of the incoming tide – I have a fear of heights but that was completely overcome by my desire to get that picture. Sadly the image did not live up to expectations!
  • Could it be that those editors selecting images for magazines, lists, galleries etc are predominantly male, and unwittingly have a degree of bias built in? What I mean is could it be that this problem is self-perpetuating because the vast majority of photography magazines, photography gear shops, photography websites etc are monopolised by men? At the risk of being provocativeI think this is reasonably possible. I was recently at Focus on Imaging in Birmingham and I can say that there was a very high proportion of male to female visitors at every stand and similarly, the gear stands were mainly being managed by men. So, are we not techy enough?
  • Is it possible that men and women see things differently? By that I mean could it be that women are attracted more to people, faces and socially interactive genres as by default? I know it seems implausible but when you think about it nearly all the famous women photographers seem to concentrate on people. Successful evolution has required some variation in the hardwiring of male and female brains in terms of relevant spatial coordination and social interactions. So men are not still out there with spears and targets and women are not still back in the cave rearing the offspring (at least I hope not!) but is there a subliminal attraction to one photographic genre over the other that we are unaware of? There is some evidence to suggest that male and female vary in terms of their neurological pattern and colour recognition so…… Definitely a topic for another blog!

So, what attracts me to the male bastion of Landscape Photography? Well, it can’t be the clothes! When you are outfitted in about three layers of scruffy outdoor clothes, pockets gaping from constant use in storing bits and bobs and your knees dirty and worn from kneeling you could not feel less glamorous. Least of all on the way home from an early morning photoshoot when you meet neighbours in their Sunday best! No, we have the silly hats, the gloves with the finger-tips cut out and the magnificent walking boots with gaiters! So, if it’s not the clothes then what is it?

I personally think women are missing out if they haven’t tried landscape photography. For me, it is an absolute joy of seeing the fabulous colours and textures as the sun comes up. I look at the Scottish landscape and I see images everywhere I go; I feel an overwhelming desire, verging on obsession, to get out there and document the best of the world for myself and others to enjoy. So, gender inequality or not I intend to claim my place in the world of the landscape photographer!

I am on the lookout for other women like me, whether it be landscape, fashion, portrait of photojournalism. Get in touch and tell me about your experiences with magazines, gear phobias and wilderness experiences – it’s a jungle out there and we may be a rare species but we are a pretty resilient bunch so, lookout men, the women are out hunting….!

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