Nearly 200 years ago, two new methods of image-making debuted within weeks of each other in 1839: the daguerreotype, direct-positive photographs where images were burned directly onto silver-plated copper plate, in France and the calotype, the original photographic negative in the form of silver chloride–sensitized paper, in England. Together, their inventions—by men who held the patents and usually also restricted access to the equipment necessary to make them—hailed the inception of photography.
Nonetheless, women have been professional photographers—and among the medium’s fiercest innovators—since its invention, though, their names, contributions, and work tend to be lesser known, like Bertha Beckman, famous for being the first-ever professional woman photographer. Recent efforts have been made to correct photography’s male-dominated canon, including the 2021 survey exhibitions, “The New Woman Behind the Camera,” which debuted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before traveling to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. That same year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York received a major gift of 100 works by women photographers aimed at “unfixing the canon.”
Similarly, a recently opened exhibition at the Villa Bardini and Forte di Belvedere in Florence uncovers female photographers from the city’s historic Alinari Archive, which includes a collection of more than 5 million photographic materials, a photographic library, and vintage photographic instruments amassed by the world’s oldest photographic firm (dating to 1852). Curated by Emanuela Sesti and Walter Guadagnini, “Fotografe! Women photographers: Alinari Archives to Contemporary Perspectives,” which runs through October 2, includes 50 photographers spanning the 19th century to today.
The show sprouted from an effort to understand female involvement in the early days of the Florentine Alinari firm. After learning that women’s roles were largely limited to administrative work or attaching photographic prints to supports, the curators decided to chart the presence of women in the firm’s international and historic photography collection. Some of those included in “Fotografe!” are now broadly known, such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Margaret Bourke-White, and Diane Arbus. Others have been rarely, if ever, exhibited.
Below, a look at seven groundbreaking women photographers whose work is seeing renewed exposure.
Bernardine Caroline Théodora Hirza Lejeune
There were few professional female daguerreotypists working during the 19th century and identifying them and their work has long been a challenge. Of the only four found to date in the Alinari Archive, two were quasi-nameless and listed strictly as ‘Madame’ or ‘Widow of’ followed by their husbands’ names. One of these women is Bernardine Lejeune.
Lejeune’s role in creating photographs, by fixing images onto silvered copper plates, wasn’t easy to discover, as her works weren’t directly attributed to her by name. She worked under the name of the studio that she cofounded with her husband, Jean Louis Bargignac. It was called Leba, an acronym combining the first two letters of her last name with those of her husband’s surname. Leba was a prominent daguerreotype and photography studio in Brussels in the 1850s, producing portraits such as this 1853 likeness of a man in an impressive shoulder-tasseled uniform. Lejeune and Bargignac also worked with a publisher to create reproductions of Peter Paul Rubens’ engravings, a project still in progress when Bargignac died in 1858. Lejeune continued operating the studio after his death.
Helene Magdalena Hofmann
After studying photography in Munich as a teenager, Bavarian photographer Helene Magdalena Hofmann opened an eponymous shop when she moved to Gorizia in 1901. In that northern Italian town bordering Slovenia, she bought a photography studio on 32 Corso Francesco Giuseppe that had belonged to photographer Arthur Floeck, and established herself as a portrait photographer. Hofmann also specialized in photographing tableaux vivants, such as this one of three men waving their bowler hats at some imaginary person off in the distance. (The lighting and backdrop hint that the men are in fact in a studio). Other tableaux vivants depicted card players, sitting and smoking at a table set up against the same studio backdrop of a make-believe landscape.
Hofmann also photographed cityscapes, including the World War I destruction around Gorizia, and images of soldiers on the front lines. Her husband Giuseppe Eckerl, who she met when he started working in her studio, died in 1918 after being sent to the Russian war front. She continued operating what the couple renamed as the Eckerl Hofmann studio, after his death.
Madame d’Ora (Dora Philippine Kallmus)
A trailblazing female photographer in her hometown of Vienna, Dora Philippine Kallmus was the first woman admitted to theory courses at the city’s illustrious Graphic Training Institute and among the first to become a member of the Vienna Photographic Society. Just two years later in 1907, after a brief apprenticeship with photographer Nicola Perscheid in Berlin, she opened a studio in Vienna under a fanciful name-bending pseudonym—Madame d’Ora.
Atelier d’Ora became an early studio capturing modern dance and fashion, and Kallmus hobnobbed among creatives and aristocrats who later sat for her portraits. In addition to Viennese high society and members of the (formerly) royal Hapsburg family, she photographed figures such as artists Gustav Klimt and Tamara de Lempicka, fashion designer Coco Chanel, and dancer and actor Josephine Baker, whose art world contributions are currently highlighted in the main exhibition of this year’s Venice Biennale. The Alinari collection holds Kallmus’s 1926 portrait of avant-garde fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, which is in the photographer’s signature style accentuating the contours, textures, and expression of her sitter via a neutral background and expert lighting. Another one of her photographs on view is of a lithe nude woman wearing only high heeled shoes, shown in evocative soft focus.
Building on the success of her Viennese studio, in 1925 she and her partner, Arthur Benda, opened a Parisian studio where she started photographing for fashion magazines. The Jewish-born photographer operated it until the Germans invaded the city in 1940. She went into hiding during World War II while many of her family members were killed in concentration camps. Following these personal tragedies, Kallmus’s photographic style and subject matter changed. She documented an Austrian refugee camp in 1945, and beginning in the 1950s, she made a series depicting Parisian slaughterhouses.
Edith Arnaldi (also known as Rosa Rosà)
Edith Arnaldi is well known for her feminist and Futurist writing, but her photographs, produced between 1933 and 1954, still remain grossly underrecognized. (She’s also better known by her pen name, Rosa Rosà, which she adopted in 1908 when she moved from Vienna to Italy.) But away from her desk, Arnaldi was an active photographer who experimented with a wide range of formats including infrared photography, color film, and night photography.
Arnaldi briefly studied photography with early 20th century German photographer Helga Fietz in Rome in 1933, but is believed to be mostly self-taught. Arnaldi photographed landscapes, people, and the places she traveled to. Notably, she visited southern Italy often from 1934 onward and was one of the earliest female photographers to document the local women leading traditional lifestyles there, like in undated works such as Portatrice d’acqua della Ciociaria. The young woman comfortably looks directly into Arnaldi’s lens, pausing briefly before walking down cobbled stairs with a water jug perched expertly atop her head. Most of Arnaldi’s photographs are being publicly exhibited here for the first time, in an effort to extend her place from the Futurist movement into the history of photography.
Wanda and Marion Wulz
Photography was a family legacy for Trieste-born Wulz sisters, Wanda and Marion, who were introduced to the medium by their father Carlo (who had inherited Studio Fotografico Wulz from his own father, Giuseppe). Carlo urged his daughters to be photographers even though they were interested in other creative outlets—Wanda in playing piano, Marion painting. When their father died in 1928, the sisters fully committed to operating the portrait studio he left them, though their images were more experimental in form, and they transformed the family workshop at Palazzo Hirschl into a hangout for the day’s artists, writers, and musicians.
The Wulz sisters preferred female subjects, taking portraits of figures such as Surrealist painter Leonor Fini and Olympic fencing champion Irene Camber, who won gold at the 1952 Games in Helsinki. Their images affirm a new model of womanhood that was coming into focus in the 1920s.
It was around this time that the Wulz sisters also became interested in Futurism, with Wanda reading Anton Bragaglia’s treatise, Fotodinamismo futurista, and meeting the movement’s founder, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (whom she photographed). Wanda soon started creating images that illustrated motion and superimposed multiple exposures, like Jazz Band (1931) where negatives of a woman and drum set overlap, and most famously Io+gatto (1932), which combines a self-portrait with a close-up of her cat, Mucincina. The Wulz sisters are mostly celebrated for their photographs of the early 1930s, after which they focused on commercial work.
Marion Post Wolcott
During the Great Depression, the images of struggling Americans commissioned by the New Deal agency Farm Security Administration became iconic visual messages advocating for change. Those taken by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange of poverty-stricken migrants and those deeply impacted by the economic crisis are the program’s best known products, but the over 9,000 photographs produced by Marion Post Wolcott (the only other female photographer hired by the FSA in the 1930s) are insightfully fueled by her personal interest in social activism.
Before her short photography career freelancing for newspapers and magazines and then working for the FSA, Post Wolcott studied at New York’s New School for Social Research and the University of Vienna. She aimed to use photography as a tool to expose social injustices and complex social issues, creating formally strong and insightful images of American life under difficult working conditions in the process. In works such as Jorena Pettway sorting peas inside her smokehouse (1939), of a Black woman in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, carefully processing peas while surrounded by jars of preserved fruits and vegetables, Post Wolcott illustrates the preciousness of food and the laborious measures taken to conserve it. Portrayed in the understated seated silhouette pose of Whistler’s Mother, Pettway represents dignified American industriousness in the face of scarcity.