The New Woman Behind the Camera

Women have been at the forefront of photography from its earliest days. However, as this major new exhibition at the Met contends, not until the 1920s did they emerge as “a powerful expression of modernity, a global phenomenon that embodied an ideal of female empowerment based on real women making revolutionary changes in life and art.” 

Whether one agrees or disagrees, it’s a theory that’s brought together a wonderful collection of images – 185 photographs, photo books and magazines, by 120 photographers from over 20 countries – some familiar — and many, especially from the Far East, unfamiliar. At a time when race and gender seem to be at the forefront of the arts, this exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a welcome reminder of the often-overlooked role of women in advancing modern photography between the 1920s and the 1950s, a period defined and shaped by the rise of Fascism, Communism, and two world wars. 

The invention of small, light-weight cameras was a boon to women and allowed more of them to become street photographers, war photographers, documentarians, and visual ethnographers. They ventured more easily into spaces – public and private — previously unavailable to them. 

During an Attack, 
Taken 1943, Printed, CA 1960s
by Galina Sanko, Russian, 1904 – 1981
Dead SS Prison Guard Floating in Canal, 
Dachau, Germany, 1945 
By Lee Miller, 1907 – 1977
Haircutting in Front of a General Store and 
Post Office on Marcella Plantation 
Mileston, Mississippi, 1939 
By Marion Post Wolcott, American,1910-1990

Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange were among those women who were recognized and rewarded for their pioneering work. MBW’s image of Ft Peck Dam graced the first cover of Life Magazine, and she continued to contribute to its pages, making her the most famous female photographer of her era. 

Flood Relief, Louisville, Kentucky, 1937
Margaret Bourke-White, on assignment for Life Magazine
Fort Peck Damn, Montana, 1936
Margaret Bourke-White, American, 1904 – 1971

Dorothea Lange, whose work recently received a one-woman show at The Modern Museum, was a successful portrait photographer in San Francisco before turning her talent to social causes. Hired by the Farm Security Administration in 1935 to document the migration of agricultural workers, her stunning images of migrant families helped generate support for social assistance programs. 

Drought refugees from Oklahoma camping by 
The roadside, Blythe, California, August 17, 1936
Dorothea Lange, American, 1895-1965

Though Mao Zedong is famous for saying, “Women hold up half the sky,” it’s still a surprise to see their heretofore unacknowledged work as photographers, especially at the front lines. 

Mao Zedong Swimming in the Yangtze River, 
1956, Printed Later 
Huo Bo, Chinese, 1924- 2017
Female Pilot, 1952, Printed 1988
Nieu Weiyu, Chinese, 1927-2020

The New Woman Behind the Camera                                                           
Metropolitan Museum of Art
July 2 to October 3, 2021
Photos and Text by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

About Eleanor Foa Dienstag (36 Articles)
Eleanor Foa Dienstag is a veteran author, journalist, photo-journalist and award-winning corporate writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, the New Republic, the New York Observer, Ms., Travel & Leisure, and many other websites and publications. Eleanor is the author of three books. Her most recent, available on Amazon and Centro Primo Levi is MIXED MESSAGES: Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile. It is a multi-layered memoir about Eleanor’s personal journey, her father’s exile from Fascist Italy and the Foa Family journey, whose Italian-Jewish roots go back to the 1500s in northern Italy where her ancestors were famous printers. WHITHER THOU GOEST: The Story of an Uprooted Wife, also a memoir, was acclaimed by Business Week for its insights into corporate life. Her third book, In Good Company: 125 Years At The Heinz Table, offered a unique view of a quintessential American company. Eleanor served as staff speechwriter to the Chairman and CEO of American Express. In 1983, she founded Eleanor Foa Associates ( It provides a wide variety of corporate writing and marketing services. Eleanor is past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), received speechwriting awards from IABC, and was awarded literary residencies at Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). She resides in Manhattan.