In honour of International Women’s Day, here – in no particular order – is a handful of my favourite female photographers. Some are very famous, some less so; all are worth checking out if you don’t know their work already.
Höfer was the artist that first got me excited about the potential of writing about photography. Inheriting an interest in architectural photography from her mentors Bernd and Hilla Becher, she has made a career of photographing architectural interiors. Her light-filled shots of sumptuous theatres, European palaces and magnificent libraries are a fascinating record of the interiors we inhabit, not to mention astonishingly beautiful. Though not quite so lauded as her male contemporaries – Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff were fellow students at the Dusseldorf Academy – Höfer’s work deserves just as much praise.
In 1992, Sally Mann achieved international notoriety with her series Immediate Family. Using an 8 X 10 bellows camera, Mann produced a series of intimate photographs of her family, largely focusing on her three children, Emmett, Jessie and Virginia. Picturing the children in all states – clothed and naked, dirty and clean – Mann was variously accused of exploiting her children and of producing child pornography. Her images remain haunting and discomforting; a unique portrait of childhood infused with the swampy tone of Southern Gothic. See also At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women, which captures the confusion of female adolescence, and Proud Flesh, a series of tender portraits of Mann’s husband, who has muscular dystrophy.
Active in the 1920s and 1930s, Tina Modotti was an Italian photographer based in Mexico, who worked largely in still-life and social commentary. At the beginning of her career, she produced extreme close-ups of objects including fabric and flowers. Her work became more politicised after she joined the Communist party in 1927; she began taking portraits of people including labourers, mothers and children. Eventually deported from Mexico for her political activities, Modotti spent the latter part of her life dedicated to political campaigning in Russia and Spain, ceasing to take photographs. Historically somewhat overlooked in favour of her husband and mentor, Edward Weston, Modotti’s surviving body of work is small but essential.
In 1843, Anna Atkins produced what was probably the first book to use photographic illustrations, British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. A trained botanist, Atkins was keen to find ways of recording botanical specimens. Having learned of the invention of photography from Sir William Henry Fox Talbot, Atkins acquired a camera, but nonetheless settled on the camera-less technique of cyanotype photogenic drawings. Atkins produced hundreds of prints and, in 1853, completed another book, Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Ferns. Proving that photography could be both beautiful and scientifically useful, Atkins work remains a fascinating example of early photographic methods.
Criticised and praised in equal measure, the French artist Sophie Calle is nothing if not divisive. Perhaps best described as a conceptual artist, Calle consistently produces works which deal with intimacy, identity and inter-personal relationships. She is probably most famous for her 1980 project Suite vénitienne in which she followed a man, Henri B., to Venice. Calle spent eleven days in the city; wearing a disguise, she covertly followed Henri B. around the city, photographing him and keeping a diary of his movements. Recalling the psychologically fraught Venice of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and Nicholas Roeg’s du Maurier adaptation, Don’t Look Now (1973), Suite vénitienne remains compelling and disturbing. See also Le Douler Exquise (2003), Calle’s record of the end of a relationship, and The Shadow (1981) in which she hired a private detective to follow her.