In this article, we take a closer look at five photographs by women in the DAM photography collection, exploring the work of one pioneering woman in photography and four contemporary photographers whose names you should know.
Henrietta Augusta Mostyn
One of the oldest photographs in the DAM collection and the earliest example we have by a female photographer was made by Henrietta Augusta Mostyn (née Nevill) in the 1850s. Photography is the product of years of scientific discoveries and technical innovations but in 1839, it was introduced to the public and from that point forward photography rapidly evolved as did society’s uses for it. The desire to capture images of the world around us drew many to the new medium. Mostyn primarily made photographs of people, architecture, and the landscape. This view of a large country house and its garden with a group of friends or family to the left combines all three. Mostyn came from a well-to-do family in England which likely made it a little easier for her to have the opportunity to pursue the art of photography in its early years. In December 1852, the Society of Arts in London organized an exhibition called Recent Specimens of Photography, which was one of the earliest exhibitions dedicated exclusively to the photographic medium. It brought together the work of 76 photographers, rising professionals as well as amateurs. Mostyn and her sister Isabel were the only two women included in the exhibition. In the years that followed, Mostyn seized the opportunity to take part in the male-dominated photography clubs that were emerging at this time—she exhibited with The Photographic Society in 1854 and participated in the Photographic Exchange Club from 1855–58. Later in life while living in Wales, Henrietta Augusta Mostyn continued to support women in the arts by building Mostyn Art Gallery (est. 1902) in Llandudno, which initially served as the headquarters and exhibition space for Gwynedd Ladies’ Art Society, a group of artists who came together because they were denied membership to existing local art societies due to their gender.
The space Mostyn and others forged early on certainly helped to open more doors for female artists to follow. Jumping forward in time, let’s take a look at the work of four contemporary female photographers in our collection.
Judith Joy Ross
Judith Joy Ross is an American photographer best known for her sensitive portraits of strangers. Photography provided an avenue for Ross, an introverted person by nature, to connect with people in a way not so easily done in her everyday life. She does not give her subjects direction, rather Ross provides an opportunity for people to share of themselves at a particular moment in time. This photograph, made at Eurana Park in Pennsylvania where Ross grew up, shows two adolescent girls as they sit casually but confidently on the stump of a tree. The stump stands taller than most and serves as a pedestal for the girls, their gesture and expression. The tree’s growth has been stunted but sat atop it is the next generation and all the potential they carry. Ross’s photography is about the humanity and vulnerability that binds us all.
Angèle Etoundi Essamba
Angèle Etoundi Essamba makes empowering pictures of the Black female body. She grew up in Cameroon, moved to France then later Amsterdam where she currently lives. Through her photography, Essamba strives to dissolve stereotypes of African women and to celebrate them by creating images that emphasize the dignity, grace, motherhood, strength, and awareness of the African women she knows. Essamba often focuses on fragments of the body so she can highlight the shapes, movement and textures created by the human form and explore how the body can be used as a metaphor. In Fille des sables, a woman’s sand-covered hands and forearms rise upward to cradle her face. The composition focuses our attention on her mouth, the source of her voice. The identity of the woman in this quietly powerful photograph remains anonymous so the meaning conveyed can be universal.
By photographing architecture and the landscape in which it exists, German photographer Ursula Schulz-Dornburg explores the passage of time and traces of change (political, social, cultural, environmental) in the locations she photographs. Erevan-Edchmiatzin is from the series Bus Stops in which she photographed bus stops in Armenia that were built in the 1970s/80s during the Soviet rule of Leonid Brezhnev. Individual architects were commissioned to design each, which resulted in a diverse range of styles and materials. These structures, often isolated in the landscape, were intended to provide shelter for those waiting for their bus but because they are often not maintained, many no longer do. For Schulz-Dornburg, these bus stops have now become symbolic of time, decay, history, and the idea of being in between a place, space or time.
In her series Witnesses of Time, Flor Garduño considers ways the cycle of life and deep connections to the natural world, history, and indigenous traditions/beliefs are integrated into everyday life of the people in the villages she photographs around Mexico, Central and South America. The predominant element of El árbol de Yalalag, Mexico is the tree at the center of the picture. The size of the tree alone indicates it has been rooted in the land for some time, perched on the edge of a hillside. As it grew, the tree was shaped by the wind and surrounding environment and was witness to the life around it. A path in the lower left leads our eye to a woman, adjusting her shawl or possibly caught in a moment of reverence for something greater than herself. If you look closely at the leaves and branches of the tree, you can see they are blurred as they move in the wind, as alive and dynamic as the woman standing before it.