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Photography With a Feminine Flair

A historical survey examines how women shaped the medium

A HISTORY OF WOMEN PHOTOGRAPHERS By Naomi Rosenblum. Abbeville Press; 356 pp., $60

Women have been creative and enthusiastic participants in photographic practice since its inception in 1839. Unlike painting, photography was deemed a suitable avocation for women. Given this rich history, it comes as a surprise that the first comprehensive survey of women's photography has only just been published.

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This historical neglect might merit some understandable righteous indignation. But scholar Naomi Rosenblum, author of ``A World History of Photography'' (1984), discusses the prejudices against women's work with forbearance in her new book, ``A History of Women Photographers.'' She realizes that a clear and accessible historical outline of American and European women's photography will go a long way toward vindication.

When daguerreotypes, photographic imaging on metal, were introduced to the world in 1839, several people stepped forward to claim prior or simultaneous invention. Among them was Friederike Wilhelmine von Wunsch, a German painter. As photography on paper became increasingly prevalent, women in the upper and middle classes took up the practice as serious amateur artists and as scientific investigators.

Throughout the 19th century, women became increasingly active in commercial photography. By 1900, popular magazines extolled women's unique ability to coax sitters into pleasing and believable poses. Gertrude Kasebier, a New York photographer, was renowned as a portraitist. Similarly, Alice Austen of Boston and Eva Watson-Schutze of Philadelphia were both well regarded and well paid.

As art photography proliferated in Europe and America, many women joined photographic societies to facilitate showing their work. Despite the hazards of roaming city streets unaccompanied, some women photographers made forceful records of urban life.

In the period between the world wars, women photographers fully rivaled men in originality, determination, and technical quality. In Germany, for instance, Germaine Krull's robust photographs of industrial landscapes evinced women's ability to comprehend the modern world. Women helped make photography a central medium in the fertile art movements of the period, like Constructivism, Dada, and Surrealism. Berlin artist Hannah Hoch pioneered modern photomontage by combining pictures cut from popular magazines into intriguing images.

Women's participation in advertising and photojournalism increased throughout the 20th century. Margaret Bourke-White, who created some of the century's most memorable photographs for Life magazine, had influential counterparts in Germany, England, and France.

In the post-World War II period, photography departments were established at major universities, multiplying opportunities for women and men to learn the medium. Museums and galleries enlarged both the time and amount of space given to photographic exhibitions. Though far from equal, women's access to museum shows, newspapers, and magazines has gradually risen.

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Since the 1960s, the women's movement has championed a great deal of women's art work, fostering photographic expression ranging from Anne Noggle's portraits of women's strength to Cindy Sherman's mass-media-inspired self-portraits. At the same time, women of color have used photography to analyze and challenge stereotypes, instilling feminism with a record of community life, street culture, and religious experience.

It is instructive to ponder how much our visual understanding of the contemporary world has been shaped by women photographers. Mary Ellen Mark's poignant images of Mother Theresa's efforts on behalf of India's poor are matched by Donna Ferrato's searing series on battered women. Celebrities depicted in Annie Leibovitz's unique graphic sensibility have become a staple in recent photojournalism.

During the last century and a half, women's photographic practice has been so extensive that it cannot be neatly packaged in one volume. Inevitably, there will be grumbles that this or that photographer was omitted from the survey. But Rosenblum's effort is not to canonize the 240 women included, but to establish the wide historical significance of women's photography, and to offer an initial outline through which to elucidate the work of many.

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