Who Was The First Female Photographer?

by JR Thorpe

If you think photography begins and ends with Instagram, now's the time to expand your horizons (and adjust your shutter speed): May is National Photo Month, a celebration of photographers of all shapes and sizes. And it's an opportune time to delve into the history of photography — and in particular some of the women who helped to shape the medium's destiny after photography was invented in the 1830s.

These days, the idea of women as high-achieving photographers is part of our culture; portraitists like Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus and photography and film artists like Cindy Sherman have been groundbreakers in their fields — not only for women, but for the technology in general.

This hasn't been the case for much of photography's history, though. Not only have our ideas about photography often excluded the real stories of women who were influential in its early years; photography is also often seen primarily as a Western invention, when in actual fact, it spread pretty rapidly into other cultures: the first photograph by a Japanese woman, Shima Ryu, was likely taken in 1864.

Unfortunately, the history books often depict the early years of photography as largely dominated by white men, who primarily had both the means and the freedom to experiment with the new technology and contribute to its future. But alongside these male pioneers, there were female innovators whose contributions deserve to be highlighted, too.

Anna Atkins (1799-1871) May Have Been The World's First Female Photographer

There's a lot of competition for the label of first female photographer in the world, but Anna Atkins, a British artist who had learned the techniques of calotyping and "photogenic drawing" from their inventor Henry Fox Talbot, has a strong claim on the title.

And Atkins has another feather to her cap: she was a scientist trained in botany, and would publish the first book in history comprised of photographic images, all taken by herself. She wanted to take photographs as a way of recording specimens, and produced a book of cyanotypes (photos in which subjects are mounted on photosensitive paper and then exposed to sunlight) of algae and seaweed in 1843. They're not only scientifically useful; they're also gloriously beautiful. If you're a woman with a photography habit and a streak of STEM in you, you've got Anna Atkins as part of your heritage.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) Photographed Portraits Of Unreal Characters

In 1864, the pioneering British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron wrote what is now a famous mission statement:

"My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real & Ideal & sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty."

Cameron was among the foremost photographers of the 19th century, pushing the newly discovered technique towards becoming an art form with her portraits of people dressed as characters from Shakespeare or myth.

Introduced to photography by the astronomer Sir John Herschel (whom she would later photograph), she was able to pursue her visions in Victorian England despite a lot of opposition from people who thought photography wasn't necessarily ladylike. "From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour," she wrote in her memoir, "and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”

Virginia Oldoini (1837-1899) Was The First Queen Of Selfies

The Countess of Castiglione, as she was technically called, was an astonishingly dramatic figure. An aristocrat and mistress to Napoleon's nephew — who would himself become Emperor of France — Oldoini also pioneered the idea of artistic self-expression through one's own image, though she herself didn't take her own photographs. Instead, she was the muse of the court photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, and the results were a catalogue of over 700 portraits of the Countess in delightful costumes or (gasp) revealing bare limbs, leading to her description in 2016 as "the mysterious selfie queen of Parisian society".

The Metropolitan Museum, however, notes that she was "far from being merely a passive subject — it was she who decided the expressive content of the images and assumed the art director’s role, even to the point of choosing the camera angle. She also gave precise directions on the enlargement and repainting of her images in order to transform the simple photographic documents into imaginary visions—taking up the paintbrush herself at times." The results are among the most beautiful and strange in photography's history.

Harriet Chalmers Adams (1875-1937) Combined Photography With Adventure

One journalist has described Harriet Chalmers Adams as "the original adventure-lebrity". She was the archetype of the affable 19th century explorer, armed with a pith helmet and prone to wandering off with her husband, fellow adventurer Franklin Pierce Adams, to places like the Andes or the Amazon. She attained her fame as a photographer by the fact that, along with her remarkable achievements, she'd also decided to record them; when she arrived at the National Geographic Society to pitch a few articles in 1906, they discovered that she'd not only lugged photographic equipment into remote regions and taken color photographs, but had also made films. In the hugely successful career that followed, she'd go on lecture tours armed with slides of her own photographs, presented with great charm while wearing an evening gown.

Lola Alvarez Bravo (1903-1993) Refused To Be Just An Assistant

Alvarez Bravo was one of the first women to lead Mexican photography as an art. She became famous for her portraits of Mexican luminaries like her friend Frida Kahlo and for her photojournalism — but was, in the words of the New York Times, "overshadowed by her more famous husband", the photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who would initially teach her the art, but only really wanted her to be his assistant. After they divorced, Alvarez Bravo would come into her own as a photographer, doing naturalistic portraits and venturing onto the street to depict "real" Mexico, in violation of convention about where women were meant to be seen. “If my photographs have any meaning," she would comment, "it’s that they stand for a Mexico that once existed.”