An expansive Photo London show turns the lens on the female photographers capturing social history from the 1930s to present
Pioneering female photographers are celebrated at this year’s Photo London with the exhibition, Writing her own Script: Women Photographers from the Hyman Collection on show at Somerset House.
Despite the considerable contribution of women such as Diane Arbus and Lee Miller to post-war photography, critical focus on these formative years is often dominated by male photographers. Curated by the Centre for British Photography, Writing her own Script seeks to remedy that bias, recognising women photographers such as Shirley Baker and Dorothy Bohm and contemporaries Heather Agyepong, Juno Calypso, Laura Pannack and Rose-Finn Kelcey in a rangy show that charts life in Britain from the 1930s to present, where they’re infused with new significance against a backdrop of Brexit and cost of living crisis.
‘The number of women taking part in the Fair has risen steadily to the point where 70% of the artists, curators and gallerists are female,’ said Photo London’s founders Michael Benson and Fariba Farshad. ‘So, we are delighted to spotlight women in photography through this exhibition which offers an important look at the achievements and influence of the female practitioners who have transformed the photographic landscape in Britain over the past century.’
These women not only transformed the photographic landscape, they captured changing social environments, too, weaving a red thread through social history and the medium that endures today.
Shirley Baker was one of the few formally trained post-war women photographers, graduating from Manchester College of Technology and lecturing at Salford College of Art in the 1960s. During this period, she began capturing candid street portraits of the working class in pockets of Salford and Manchester during a time of massive slum clearance.
‘I love the immediacy of unposed, spontaneous photographs and the ability of the camera to capture the serious, the funny, the sublime and the ridiculous,’ Baker once said. ‘Despite the many wonderful pictures of the great and famous, I feel that less formal, quotidian images can often convey more of the life and spirit of the time, ‘ she said.
Baker’s formal training hints at the influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, and Bill Brandt’s pioneering study of The English at Home (1938). But Baker’s curiosity and engagement with the everyday world around her produced her own very singular vision.
This humanism would come to define her work over the next two decades.
‘My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them’, she said of the slum clearances.
Unlike some of her contemporaries, Baker’s photographs were published in two books during her lifetime, and she exhibited at The Photographers’ Gallery, The Lowry and Salford Museum and Art Gallery.
German photographer Dorothy Bohm also began her career in Manchester, starting in studios before abandoning formal poses and artificial lighting in favour of ‘photographing what I saw’, as she put it.
While Bohm did not regard herself as a ‘street’ photographer, she did identify with an emerging school of humanitarian photography. Like Baker, she wanted to show the human condition in all its misery and ugliness – and hope – at a time of great upheaval and change. Photography offered both immediacy and realism.
‘The photograph fulfills my deep need to stop things from disappearing,’ Bohm ruminated. ‘It makes transience less painful … I have tried to create order out of chaos, to find stability in flux and beauty in the most unlikely places.’
Recognition came in 1969 when Bohm’s work attracted notable public and critical acclaim when she was exhibited alongside Don McCullin, Tony Ray-Jones and Enzo Ragazzini at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. She always felt that being a woman amongst the majority of male photographers in this period actually gave her an advantage ‘…because they can get away with things that men can’t. If you’re interested in the human aspect of photography, as I am, then you have to photograph people, and as a woman you are less intrusive.’
Though born in Germany, Bohm lived most of her life in Hampstead, at the same address on Church Row, having arrived in Britain as a refugee from nazism. Much like Baker, in 1942, she obtained a photography diploma from the Manchester Municipal College of Technology and started work in a portrait studio for Samuel Cooper. The War Office also recruited her to assist in the anti-Nazi propaganda effort.
With her husband, Bohm bought a working farm in West Sussex, where life was more redolent of the prewar than the postwar period, and as a counterpoint to her city portraits, offered some of her most atmospheric rural scenes.
The exhibition’s most recognisable and widely viewed work is that of Grace Robertson OBE, who documented ordinary women in postwar Britain in their everyday surroundings. Robertson regularly published in Life and Picture Post, which had over a million readers a week in the UK in the1950s. In her own words, her style focused on intimate stories close to home. Her most famous photographic series included ‘Mother’s Day Off’ (1954) and ‘Childbirth’ (1955).
Robertson’s father, Fyfe, was a respected journalist at Picture Post. To avoid claims of nepotism, some of her earlier submissions used the masculine pseudonym ‘Dick Muir’ to avoid using her father’s name and reveal her gender. However, it was under her own name – and sex – that her first story would soon be published.
In the 1950s, most photojournalists were men, and she was often assigned stories with a more feminine angle. Speaking in 1986, she remembered: ‘The idea of your job, what you might do when you grew up, was still narrow. Aunts would say to me, darling, are you going be a nurse or a secretary? And I had absolutely no desire to be either of those things.’
More than 80 years on, her work stands ahead of most of her male contemporaries as ‘perfectly composed, artifice-free examples of classic reportage’, according to The Scotsman.
Robertson freelanced throughout her career, and her best-known series, ‘Mother’s Day Off’, documented working-class women from Bermondsey in London enjoying a day out in Margate. It was published in Picture Post in 1954. Robertson spent three days in the women’s company, drinking at their local pub, in order to gain their trust and achieve her relaxed portraiture. The series was acquired by the V&A in 1989.
Contemporary London-based photographer Laura Pannack is known for her very recognisable social documentary work, focussing heavily on youth. Like her predecessors, she largely shoots on film, allowing the process to be organic rather than fixing on predefined ideas.
‘I am a firm believer that time, trust and understanding is the key to portraying subjects truthfully,’ Pannack said.
She forms deep bonds with her subjects to fully understand the lives of those she captures on film, with her projects often developing over several years. Her work attempts to portray situations as truthfully as possible, and their intimacy often reveals a genuine connection between herself and her sitter. The resulting photographs show a shared experience of these very human exchanges.
‘Writing her own Script: Women Photographers from the Hyman Collection’, curated by the Centre for British Photography, is on show at Somerset House from 11-14 May 2023. See more for tickets.