At Large  April 19, 2023  Caterina Bellinetti

Female Photographers Who Shaped the Way We Look at the World

© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

Margaret Bourke-White, photograph from “Franklin Roosevelt’s Wild West,” LIFE, November 23, 1936

In the summer of 2019, the New-York Historical Society presented more than seventy images taken by six of the most important photographers of the past century: Margaret Bourke-White, Marie Hansen, Martha Holmes, Lisa Larsen, Nina Leen, and Hansel Mieth. All employed by LIFE magazine, these women contributed to the development of modern photojournalism between the 1930s and the early 1970s. Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society remarked, “These pioneering women photographers captured events international and domestic, wide-ranging and intimate, serious and playful. [...] We are honored to highlight their work in our Center for Women’s History, where their contributions to photojournalism can shine.”

© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

Margaret Bourke-White, photograph from “Franklin Roosevelt’s Wild West,” LIFE, November 23, 1936

Margaret Bourke-White, arguably the most renowned among the six photographers, was the first to be hired by Henry Luce in 1936 for the newly founded LIFE. In her memoirs Portrait of Myself, Bourke-White noted that the magazine wanted “faces that would express what we wanted to tell. Not just the unusual or striking face, but the face that would speak out the message from the printed page.” The six photographers followed this path and created photoessays that documented the life of American workers, Hollywood stars, soldiers and conflicts, major political events of the nineteenth century, and women’s lives in the postwar era. 

Bourke-White was the first Western photographer to allowed to take images of the Soviet industry and its workers. She covered the Second World War, becoming the first female war correspondent, and took the famous photograph of Mohandas K. Gandhi a few hours before he was assassinated in 1948.

© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

Lisa Larsen, photograph from “Tito As Soviet Hero, How Times Have Changed!” LIFE, June 25, 1956

Lisa Larsen, a German-born photographer, worked for major publications such as Vogue, The New York Times, and Glamour. While at LIFE, she was sent to cover the visit of Yugoslavia’s president Josip Broz (Tito) to the Kremlin in 1956. She also traveled with Cornell Capa to Jamaica to cover Queen Elisabeth II’s first royal tour and she was the first American photographer allowed to visit Outer Mongolia in the late 1950s.

© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

Martha Holmes, photograph from “Mr. B.,” LIFE, April 24, 1950

Marta Holmes, instead, became famous for her unique portraits of Hollywood stars of the caliber of Jackson Pollock, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. Her 1950’s image of the mixed-raced crooner Billy Eckstine being hugged by a white fan sparked huge controversies. “It was groundbreaking back then in that it was a black man hugging a white woman,” Holmes said, “There was a discussion about whether we should run it or not.’” Henry Luce pushed for the photograph to be in the magazine because, he said, “this is what the future is going to be.” 

© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

Nina Leen, unpublished photograph from “American Woman’s Dilemma,” LIFE, June 16, 1947

Each in their own way and through their work, these women contributed to a new way of looking at the world. This exhibition emphasizes the fundamental role that these women played in the development of LIFE and American photojournalism while drawing attention to the much-overlooked contribution that female photo-reporters always had in the history of photography.

© LIFE Picture Collection, Meredith Corporation

Marie Hansen, photograph from “The WAACs,” LIFE, September 7, 1942

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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