Women photographers made their mark long before there were camera bags designed for them, vintage camera T-shirts sold to them or magazines marketed to them. These women weren’t looking for accessories to make them appear feminine on shoots; they were looking through cameras to change the world.
Other than their vision, all they brought to battle – or to the top of skyscrapers – was resolve. Their determination and courage paved the way for women in photography, regardless of the genre. They weren’t women with cameras. They were photographers who happened to be women. We can all learn from them. So, let’s start with three who changed the face of photography forever.
She scaled the tallest building in America with her camera. Perched a thousand feet over Manhattan, Margaret Bourke-White crawled out on a gargoyle atop the Chrysler Building and made iconic images of New York City that became symbols of architectural elegance and national pride.
Margaret Bourke-White was a trailblazer who accomplished many “firsts.” When she entered the field of journalism in the 1920s, women were assigned to write or photograph for “society pages.” With her father’s encouragement, Bourke-White opened a studio in Cleveland. During her tenure there, she ventured into dangerous steel plants. Blazing cauldrons and showers of sparks revealed the industrial might of a nation. Her dynamic photos caught the attention of Henry Luce, the well-known publisher of Fortune Magazine. He hired Bourke-White as their first photographer in 1929 and sent her on a first assignment: covering the Swift hog processing plant. The pig plant was just as challenging as steel mills with pungent air, dangerous working conditions and bloody surroundings.
Following her success at Fortune, Bourke-White became one of the first photographers hired by industry classic, LIFE Magazine. As a testament to her impact on journalism – and America’s collective memory – her photo of the Fort Peck dam graced the inaugural issue of LIFE. The photo issued a statement that technology and American ability could overcome the economic depression of the 1930’s.
During World War II, Bourke-White was among a stalwart group of women correspondents who covered war from the front lines. In one of her most difficult assignments, she documented the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp in 1945.
Bourke-White was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1956. She spent six years writing her autobiography, Portrait of Myself, which was published in 1963. She bravely continued photographing until her death in 1971.
As the first female photographer to be killed while reporting on war, Taro’s legacy as a pioneering photojournalist consists almost exclusively of dramatic photographs from the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. Her ability to achieve unprecedented physical and emotional closeness to her subjects impressed editors and distinguished her work from male colleagues. In one of the first known photographic partnerships, Taro worked alongside Robert Capa. Their work from the Spanish Civil War and their romantic relationship are chronicled in the stunning saga, The Mexican Suitcase. While covering the crucial battle of Brunete in July 1937, Taro was hit by a tank and killed. Her photographs are a striking but little-known record of an important moment in the history of war photography.
At 21 years old, she bought a one-way ticket to Laos en route to the battlefront in Vietnam. She only carried her Leica, some money she’d saved and an unwavering desire to tell compelling stories. At five feet tall and under 90 pounds, Leroy didn’t fit the profile of an average war correspondent. But her tenacity impressed colleagues and captors alike. As she was leaving an encampment where she’d been detained, she boldly asked if she could photograph her North Vietnamese captors. The resulting photo of Viet Cong soldiers relaxing appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine. “Photojournalists were my heroes,” she said. “When I was looking at Paris Match as a girl, to me that was an extraordinary window to the world.” Leroy was the first woman to win the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for conflict photography.
As one of few female photojournalists covering the war in Vietnam, Leroy “brought a sensitivity to the war and to the brutality,” said Ken Light, director of the Graduate School of Journalism’s Center for Photography at the University of California, Berkeley. “I hate to say it, Light continued, “but it’s a woman’s eye. It was very different than what the men were doing at the time.”
About Rachel LaCour Niesen
Rachel is a co-founder of MatchStick Strategies, a content marketing consulting agency that helps companies create and carry out content marketing strategies that reach big-picture business goals. Find more musings from Rachel on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.