Six Vintage Women Photographers You Should Know

Sharing my camera collection awhile back inspired me to compile a list of my favorite female photographers--from the past anyway! I'm not sure who my favorite modern female photographers would be since I usually spend more time researching and looking through vintage photographs. Through my browsing I've discovered a number of photographers who's names aren't household staples, but whose work is inspiring and should be better remembered. These are a few of the women I look to when I need inspiration and a reminder of the beautiful work one can create with enough passion and focus.

Nina Leen is one of my all-time favorite photographers, partly because her work is so prolific! If you've admired a vintage LIFE photo of a teenager in the 40s or hairstyles and trends from the 40s or 50s, you were likely looking at a Nina Leen photograph. Her images appeared on more than 40 LIFE magazine covers and continue to bounce around the web today popping up on every vintage inspired Pinterest board and blog. She had a talent for taking her assignments and capturing timeless and even humorous images. When she captures teenagers at a dance she snaps the most beautiful moment featuring a myriad of expressions that tell so much about each figure.
Janine Niepce is a photographer who's work I knew before I knew her name. Which is so often the case with female artists; images we consider iconic by women are so often uncredited where male photographers tend to have much more recognizability with their work. You see a famous Irving Penn image, you know Irving Penn took it because every magazine, book, person under the sun is so earger to tell you it's Irving Penn! Anyway, Janine Niepce is a talented photographer from France. She studied at the Sorbonne and latered developed films for the French Resistance and is considered one of the first photo-journalists in France. Beginning in 1946 she began traveling extensively recording the changes in French culture, before reporting globally from Japan to Cambodia and the US. Through her long and varied career she published over 18 books and her work is astonishing in its artistry and commitment to using photography as a tool for documentation and political change. Many of my favorite photographers by her are her work in Paris, showing quiet scenes of everyday life that rival Cartier Bresson. 
Ruth Orkin is best remembered for her famous series An American Girl in Italy which was a fun project between Orkin and a friend about showing what it was really like being young and abroad and ending up created some timeless and iconic images still inspiring photographers (and bloggers!) today. Her work is more diverse than that series though--she worked photographing nightclub performers, children, series for LIFE magazine, and famous actors--but through it all she has a cinematic quality to her images. Perhaps even more inspiring than Orkin's work is her sense of adventure. Her first step towards serious photography was a solo bicycling trip she took at seventeen across the country.
Louise Dahl-Wolfe is one of my favorite vintage fashion photographers; her work was always poised and even influenced better-known Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. From the 1930s through the 1950s she worked for Harper's Bazaar and for a few years before her retirement in 1960s she was a freelance photographer for Vogue and other periodicals. In her fashion photography she was known for her outdoor shoots using natural light and a style in locations distant from her NYC base that became known as "environmental" fashion photography. Looking at her work today we see a poise and precision to each shot rare in modern photographs. And while her figures always appeared glamorous, the models also seemed human, from a 1987 retrospective of her work, "…more than any other fashion photographer of the 1940’s, she replaced the glamorous goddess in the gilded cage with an approachable, active woman with a sense of self…the woman coping so capably with wartime exigencies, participating in sports or traveling to foreign locations always elegantly attired and comfortably well-off…she was both forthright and feminine" She also knew the value of her aesthetic vision and gave up her career at Harper's Bazaar when a new artistic director tried to influence her style--you have to admire someone who knows their worth!
Vivian Maier is probably the most mysterious photographer in this mix. She never worked professionally as a photographer and didn't even develop most of her film in her lifetime. Her photographs were discovered by chance a few years ago, or rather her rolls of film were. Slowly developing the pictures and trying to find people from her past a vague picture of Maier was a reclusive nanny often remembered with a camera in hand emerged. Her life was quiet, her work completely unrecognized, and her past still largely a mystery. There's a wonderful documentary on her story and a large archive of her striking street photographs; both highlighting how talented and creative she was. For me Maier is a reminder that your life's work isn't always about recognition; I like to think she was satisfied merely in the act of photography rather than the finished product or fame. It was enough for her to silently create and capture and in many ways that should be our goal as well--to do good work whether we receive attention for it or not.Regina Relang was a German photographer who worked at Vogue in the 1930s and continued being a leading fashion photographer through the 1950s and 60s. What I love about Relang's work is how modern many of her photographs seem. Some look more like current photographs sent through a black and white filter than older work shot in film. She had a real sense of humor to her photography as well; including small details like winking bell boys or capturing candid behind-the-scenes moments where a model poses as a child buys a balloon behind her. They feel less posed and more authentic than a lot of other vintage photographs and are as striking today as they must have been in the 1950s.


The Kazlight Anthem said...

This was a beautiful and wonderfully put together post. Thank you so much for sharing all of these; all of these women definitely need more recognition!

Karina xx


Izzy said...

Oh wow I love this post, I remember I was in Paris a couple of months back and just missed an exhibition on female photographers which I was super sad about. I studies Vivian Maier on a photography course a couple of months back and her photos are so beautiful!
Though I was really sad to find out the first photo you posted is staged, it's still beautiful though <3

The Quirky Queer

chachamisu said...

I like the photographs so much. They are very beautiful and unique, no awkward poses or expressions. Thank you for the inspiration.

Rebecca, A Clothes Horse said...

@Izzy, I know what you mean but it's only sort of posed; they took the shot twice in a row on the same corner but the men's actions/reactions were all their own--it wasn't like they told them what part to play. I think it's interesting how much debate that picture creates; the woman in it sees it a celebration of freedom, of just being young & abroad, but so many other people see it as a prime example of street harassment. I enjoy the myriad of expressions in it. There's so much going on in it to look at and pull-apart. It's a very layered image.

Marie-Noëlle Lafosse said...

Great post Merci

Marie-Noëlle Lafosse said...

Great post Merci

Anonymous said...

Very good info and well presented. I knew about Vivian Maier; after seeing the movie I could not help but spend several hours each evening in front of the computer looking at her pictures and reading all I could find about her on the internet. I'm yet to get to know the others. Thanks for the leads.

Kenna and Lulu said...

Vivian Maier is fantastic! Loved the "Finding Vivian Maier" documentary :)

Monika Wlodarczyk said...

So inspiring!