Women in front of the camera – and behind it

Why are portraits of women so often limited to their beauty, while men get all the rest – the quirky, the mysterious, the interesting look? My photography class at the Stanford International Center couldn’t care less for these conventions and took portraits of women who struck us as being strong, witty, brave, funny and expressive.

This is a small presentation that I gave on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2016 at the I-Center.

angelina jolieFamous magazine photographer Gregory Heisler wrote that whenever magazine editors ask him to take portraits of men, he can make them look quirky, mysterious, characteristic – and definitely interesting. Photographing women, he continued, is a totally different story. Even news magazines never ask him to show a woman’s personality. “The clear message I’ve gotten […] over the years […] is that men have to look interesting but women have to look good.

Sounds like mid- 20th century? Well no, Heisler stated this in his 2013 book 50 Portraits.

And it shouldn’t surprise us, as a few clicks or a stroll to the news stand are enough to be reminded. All these magazine editors could have chosen to show Angelina Jolie as the refugee rights activist, film director or indefatigably traveler she is – but why bother if you can show a pretty face?

The range of what a commercial photographer can show about a person who happens to be female is so limited, Heisler wrote, that he usually rejects those assignments. But as with other areas, this bias can change once women take over some control – as well control of the camera.

In their self portraits, famous female photographers hardly ever depict themselves as smiling beauties. Instead they often look as if their thoughts are one step ahead of the viewer.

self portraitsSince the 19th century, female photographers have themselves contributed in shaping our world view. While they tend to earn less – as women across all professions – they are also often less famous. You have probably heard about landscape photographer Ansel Adams, street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and war photographer Robert Capa. But do you know Imogen Cunningham, Vivian Maier and Mary Ellen Mark?

As they are among the greatest photographers of the 20th century, it is worth to have a look:


Imogen Cunningham – the architecture of plants

A woman born in the 19th century, Imogen Cunningham (1883 – 1976) was lucky to have had the support of her father and her professors who allowed her to pursue a good education. Most women of her time and ambition had not. But despite her degree in chemistry and a photo studio at the West Coast, she became a house wife for quite some time, after she married a professor, had three sons and they all moved to California. During this time she was bound to photographing mostly the garden and her children, but still, she excelled.

Cunningham is mostly known for her abstract still lives – mostly of plants, some of which look like opera houses in her images – and her soft Pictorialist portraits, but she did far more than that: In the 93 years of her life she was part of many different photographic movements and genres in the US and collaborated with many other famous photographers, from Ansel Adams to Dorothea Lange.

Vivian Maier – a lifelong secret

In 2007 a young photo collector – John Maloof – bought a box with 30.000 negatives from a thrift shop in Chicago. When he developed them, he realized that he had found a treasure: an unknown, immensely gifted street photographer by the name of Vivian Maier, whose name was in the box. He looked for her for two years, until in 2009 he read in the newspaper that an old nanny by the name of Vivian Maier had died.

What had happened? Maier was born in NYC to French and Austrian parents. Although she grew to be a very independent woman, she worked as a nanny for her whole life. But while walking around with the children, she took 100.000s of pictures with a secretive Rollei camera over the course of half a century. In some pictures she places her shadow or her reflections into the cityscape – a mysterious stranger who does not talk and act, only observes.

Did she know how talented she was? Why didn’t she want anyone to see the pictures?

She was ultimately very poor and couldn’t pay her apartment any more, so she sold some boxes with negatives shortly before her death – which were found by young John Maloof. Today she is world famous – her art is being compared to that of Henri Cartier Bresson and there is a film about her – but she didn’t live to see it. And we cannot even be sure if she would have liked it.

Mary Ellen Mark – centering the marginalized

Mary Ellen Mark (1940 – 2015) took up the camera at, yes, age nine. She did a Master in photojournalism and moved to NYC, where she photographed the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, the women’s liberation movement and transgender culture in the 60s and 70s, mostly for magazine assignments.

She was mostly interested in the margins of society: the homeless, the lonely, the drug addicted, the prostitutes. “What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence”, she said. Mark established a strong relationships with her subjects: Once she spent six weeks in an Oregon prison to capture the life of female prisoners, another time she made friends with a group of prostitutes in Bombay. She often went back to her subjects after months or even years.

For her last assignment, CNN sent her to New Orleans to capture the long-term consequences of storm Katrina on the local inhabitants. A month later she died.


Imogen Cunningham once published an article on Photography as a Profession for Women, urging women to take up a camera – not to outdo men, but to contribute in shaping the world view. This is what we are trying to do at the Bechtel International Center photography class. These last weeks we made portraits of women and girls that go beyond the mere stereotype of beauty. We met women who struck us as being strong, witty, brave, funny and expressive – women who hold up half the sky, as the Chinese proverb goes. Here you can find our gallery: https://stanford-i-center.smugmug.com/Half-the-sky

About myself: I work in the San Francisco Bay Area for German media and try to teach new Californians like myself to use photography as a language – a native language! Any questions or comments? Below, or here on twitter: @chessocampo