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Breaking Barriers: American Women Photographers of the 1920s to the 40s

By Margaret Denny

Women with cameras were on the forefront of world events in the early twentieth century. Their presence would be noted in many genres: documentary, portraiture, architecture, advertising, and photojournalism. These women covered events that affected the nation, its citizens and ultimately the world, capturing the moment’s cultural mores and transitions. Many opened portrait studios where they profiled individuals in the fine and performing arts, as well as literary, notable and political figures. Some documented strife and struggle, the landscape and people affected by the Great Depression, while others traveled great distances photographing architecture, manufacturing, and industrial growth. More than a few documented the sacrifices and tragedy of wartime on the home front and on the battlefields. All the artists profiled below—and there were many more—set an example for women photographers to follow.  


From the 1870s to the late 1880s, photography schools in New York offered courses for women. By the early twentieth century, aspiring photographers enrolled at the Clarence H. White School of Photography at Columbia University. Besides acquiring knowledge of the medium through professional institutions, this new generation of women included many who obtained advanced education at colleges or universities. The four women profiled here documented the era spanning two major social and political upheavals: the Great Depression and World War II. 

Berenice Abbott

Born and raised in Ohio, Berenice Abbott (1898–1991) attended Ohio State University, then moved to New York, initially to study journalism but eventually switching to sculpture and painting. In 1921 she traveled to Paris, where she pursued her interest in sculpting for several years, studying with sculptor Emile Bourdelle. There, a chance meeting with the American-born avant-garde photographer Man Ray presented Abbott with an opportunity to work as a technical assistant in his studio, even though she had no previous training. She eventually opened her own portrait studio with an expanding clientele that included artistic and literary figures, among them Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst, James Joyce, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

In 1925, Abbott met the photographer Eugène Atget, and she photographed him the following year. By then, Atget had created 10,000 images of Parisian storefronts, doorways, arcades, public spaces, private gardens, and everyday people pursuing daily activities. After Atget’s death in August 1927, Abbott raised money to purchase the artist’s negatives and prints, eventually bringing them to the United States, where she promoted his work among private collectors and institutions. In 1968, she sold his collection to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. By 1929, Abbott had returned to New York, where she opened a portrait studio and turned her attention to recording the city’s rapidly changing panoply: buildings, shop fronts and street activity.

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 Berenice Abbott, Night Scene in Manhattan. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number e.g., LC-USZ62-108760]

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Berenice Abbott, Barclay Street Elevated Platform, 1933. Photo: Museum of Contemporary Photography, Gift of Maxine and Lawrence K. Snider

Her association with Atget led to her interest in architectural photography. During the 1930s, Abbott documented Manhattan from the dizzying heights of its skyscrapers—in Night Scene in Manhattan (1936), the city’s lights dramatically emphasize its modern architecture—to vernacular street scenes such as Barclay Street Elevated Platform, which invite comparisons with the paintings of Edward Hopper. These photographs, noted for their bold forms and strong contrasts, and made under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), culminated in the exhibition and book project Changing New York, published in 1939. 


Abbott had a long, productive career, photographing across genres, from portraiture and architecture photography to scientific investigation. She continually sought niches in photography that stimulated her interest in the medium, but as a single woman supporting herself, she also sought avenues that provided financial support. By the late 1930s, Abbott began experimenting with scientific photography, eventually becoming editor of Science Illustrated magazine. Her interest in scientific education developed when she worked with a commission of scientists and teachers to improve the illustrations in science textbooks. 

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 Thérèse Bonney, Europe’s Children, 1943.  Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduced courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, [Reproduction number e.g., LC-USZ62-123456]

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Thérèse Bonney, Dressing Table designed by Léon Jallot, 1925-35.  Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [Reproduction number e.g., LC-DIG-ppmsca-19361]

Thérèse Bonney

Like their male counterparts, women photographers undertook a variety of commissions to remain economically viable. Inspired by the industrial forms, fashions and décor of Modernism featured at international exhibitions, photographers recorded the latest design developments. In 1919, American-born Thérèse Bonney (born Mabel Bonney,1894–1978) traveled to France after studying at the University of California, Berkeley, Radcliffe College, and Columbia University. 


After completing her Ph.D. at the Sorbonne in 1921, Bonney settled in Paris to promote a cultural exchange between France and the U.S. In collaboration with her sister Louise and widowed mother, Addie, she formed Bonney Services, an international press agency that operated well into the late 1930s. In the beginning, Bonney hired a photographic staff. She then began taking her own photographs, initially concentrating on photographing design inspired by the 1925 Paris Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels moderne, such as the dressing table designed by Léon Jallot.

Drawn to Paris’s artistic circles, Bonney made influential and stimulating friends: Gertrude Stein, Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and others she photographed. Her connection with Eugène Cardinal Tisserant of France allowed her access to the Vatican City resulting in her book of photographs The Vatican, published in 1939.

Among her diverse subjects, Bonney’s World War II reportage is remarkable yet underrecognized. In 1939, having traveled to Finland to photograph preparations for the 1940 Olympic games, she was the only foreign photojournalist on the scene when the Soviet Union invaded in November. The traumatic events surrounding the Russo-Finnish war (1939–1940) materialize in her tireless and sympathetic recording of the hardships of women and children.


For her rescue work in Lapland, which experienced five days of bombardment, she received the White Rose of Finland award. In the summer of 1940, Bonney frequently found herself under fire, in England during the Battle of Britain (the Blitz) and in the Battle of France. When the Germans threatened Belgium and France, Bonney helped evacuate refugees living near the French-Belgian border. Positioned at the Ardennes when the German military broke through the border, and as the official photographer assigned to the head of the French Army, Bonney pursued the ever-shifting front. She was the only foreign photographer at the Battle of the Meuse and accompanied the Ninth Army in its retreat.  


The aftermath of the war in France and Spain and its effect on civilians remained her focal point: the struggle among the innocent to survive the lack of food, medicine, heating, and the most basic supplies. Bonney conducted what she termed “truth raids” to chronicle the situation of everyday citizens. She traveled to the United States several times, seeking relief aid for Europe’s war victims. In 1940, she mounted an exhibition of 200 photographs, War Comes to the People: History Written with the Lens by Therese Bonney, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Library of Congress in Washington. Her photographs appeared in Vogue and Collier’s, newspapers, and her books War Comes to the People (1940) and Europe’s Children (1943). She also delivered lantern slide lectures, describing how the world conflict affected innocent people. The publications, exhibitions and lectures in the U.S. earned Bonney a Carnegie Corporation grant to continue her research in unoccupied France. 

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Dorothea Lange, Pregnant migrant woman living in California squatter camp, Kern County, 1936. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [Reproduction number e.g., LC-USF34-009033-C]

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 Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother: Nipomo, CA, 1936. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,  [Reproduction number e.g., LC-DIG-fsa-8b29516]

Dorothea Lange

Social, cultural, and political events shaped the opportunities and career development of women photographers, especially the Great Depression leading up to World War II. Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) remains one of the most renowned women photographers who specialized in documentary photography for print media. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, at age seven Lange contracted polio, which left her with a limp; she tried hard to compensate for her disability. When she was twelve, her father left the family. These circumstances consumed her with bitter memories and honed her sympathetic vision toward others. After attending public high school in New York and deciding to become a photographer, she apprenticed in the studio of Arnold Genthe, who had gained fame for his soft-focus imagery of San Francisco’s Chinatown. In 1917, she studied photography with Clarence H. White before traveling west to San Francisco with a girlfriend. Subsequently, Lange opened a portrait studio catering to an affluent clientele. By the early 1930s, however, her attention turned to the many homeless and unemployed people she saw outside her studio whose lives were affected by the Depression.  


A California rural relief project photographing migratory workers was one of Lange’s early assignments with the Farm Security Administration headed by Roy Stryker. Her photographs from this period include Pregnant migrant woman living in California squatter camp, Kern County and Daughter of migrant Tennessee coal miner living in American River camp near Sacramento, California. 


Driving home one day, having noticed a sign that read Pea-pickers Camp, she turned her car around to investigate. There she found a destitute mother with two young children and an infant in a lean-to tent. Lange took several shots from a distance, moving in closer until she obtained what is considered by many the quintessential photograph of the Great Depression: Migrant Mother: Nipomo, CA, 1936, taken that day. This image of an impoverished mother (Frances Owen Thompson), surrounded by her children, gazing out beyond the viewer with determination and courage, illustrates Lange’s innate capacity to penetrate beneath appearances, concentrating on gesture and expression. Her iconic photograph appeared in the Survey Graphic and was reproduced in multiple news outlets, prompting public sympathy and governmental relief. Later in the decade, Lange traveled with her husband, Paul Schuster Taylor, an economics professor at Berkeley, to the drought-stricken Southwest, documenting the migration it caused. The resultant publication, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939), features quotations from the subjects photographed. 


When the United States entered World War II, Lange undertook government assignments for the Office of War Information (OWI) and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) in collaboration with Ansel Adams. Together, in what Lange considered her most difficult assignment, they documented Japanese Americans on the West Coast forced to relocate to internment camps. 

Margaret Bourke-White 

Many of the women photographers of this time worked for print media, including newspapers, magazines and books. Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971) was the first staff photographer for Fortune and one of the first four staff photographers for Life, where she gained a worldwide reputation as a photojournalist. Throughout her career, she authored numerous articles and wrote or co-authored ten books illustrated with her photographs. Like many of her colleagues, Bourke-White studied at the Clarence H. White School of Photography. Her interest in the medium had developed earlier, however. She recalled childhood experiences in the Bronx and New Jersey with her father, Joseph White, a mechanical engineer and amateur photographer, accompanying him on factory visits when she was only eight years old; nature walks in search of photographic subjects; and developing prints in the family bathtub. 

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Dorothea Lange, Daughter of migrant Tennessee coal miner. Living in American River camp near Sacramento, California, 1936. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [Reproduction number e.g., LC-DIG-fsa-8b38518]

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Margaret Bourke-White. George Washington Bridge, 1933. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [Reproduction number e.g., LC-USZ62-76063]

In 1930, on assignment in Germany for Fortune magazine, Bourke-White traveled alone to the Soviet Union intent on documenting industrialization during the implementation of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan, an initiative begun in 1928. Her reputation as an industrial photographer and her modernist approach, which complemented Soviet formalist aesthetics, contributed to her success in documenting the country’s industry and people over three successive years. Fortune ran eight images in its February 1931 issue, and later that year, the American Russian Institute in New York exhibited her photographs to coincide with the launch of her book Eyes on Russia.


The portfolio that served as Bourke-White’s passport to Russia comprised photographs made after her graduation from Cornell University in 1927 and subsequent move to Cleveland, where her family then resided. The city’s industry inspired her, notably the construction of Terminal Tower, the manufacturing district along the Cuyahoga River known as the Flats, and, most important, the production of steel at the Otis Steel Company. Bourke-White’s photographs of Otis Steel appeared in the company’s stockholder brochure, attracting the attention of Time magazine publisher Henry Luce. He invited her to New York to photograph for Fortune, his upcoming magazine for business leaders. 


By monumentalizing modern industry as in George Washington Bridge, Bourke-White gained advertising commissions with manufacturers, among them Buick and Chrysler. After documenting the Chrysler factory in Detroit, she rented studio space at the top of the company’s Manhattan headquarters, where she made the photograph Gargoyle of Chrysler Building Tower, 1930, and was photographed, by her assistant, Oscar Graubner, while perched on its iconic ornamentation. A self-portrait, taken inside her studio designed by her friend the noted industrial designer John Vassos, reveals the stylishly clad photographer posed with her camera equipment in front of streamlined cabinets. 


Bourke-White’s affiliation with Luce’s publications continued when she became the first photographer hired for the new illustrated weekly Life magazine, a position she held for over 20 years. Her monumental photograph, Fort Peck Dam, Montana, appeared on the cover of Life’s premier issue of November 23, 1936. Her photographs showcased the human effort involved in the project and gave hope to Americans mired in the Great Depression. Aerial photography became an important documentary tool for Bourke-White, who admitted, ". . . airplanes to me were always a religion.”

In 1935, Trans World Airlines, Pan American, and Eastern Airlines commissioned her to take promotional photographs for their advertising campaigns. In spring of 1942, the Pentagon sent Bourke-White with credentials to the U.S. Air Force in England to document America’s entry into World War II. Her arrival, accredited to the Eighth Air Force, coincided with the first 13 heavy bombers, the B-17s, Boeing’s famous Flying Fortresses. 

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Oscar Graubner, Margaret Bourke-White atop the Chrysler Building, c. 1930. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [Reproduction number e.g., LC-DIG-ppmsca-19361]

Although women had not previously been permitted to go on bombing missions, on January 22, 1943, after months of negotiating, Bourke-White accompanied a squadron of B-17s on a raid to destroy El Aouina airfield at Tunis, a prime German airbase. From the lead aircraft, she photographed crew members, the planes, and their target. Later that year, she was the first woman photographer attached to the U.S. military in Italy photographing artillery preparations and infantry raids as the allied armies pushed the Germans northward. On one surveillance mission in a Piper Cub, she and her pilot were nearly ambushed by four Focke-Wulfs. Bourke-White’s documentation of the Italian campaign, Germany’s collapse, and the liberation of German concentration camps in 1945 was published in her books They Called It Purple Heart Valley (1944) and Dear Fatherland Rest Quietly (1946).


From the 1920s to the 1940s, women’s achievements in photography reached new pinnacles. Now women approached photography and navigated its institutions for a multitude of reasons: some applied photography in their everyday careers in studio portraiture, photojournalism, fashion, and advertising photography, and in historical and scientific studies. Photography provided compelling visual examples of their aspirations at the time, thereby affording positive and inspiring models to other women on a large, diverse scale that had never been available before. More broadly, the visual expression of women photographers influenced the tastes, aspirations, and goals of a new twentieth-century woman.

About the Author:

An independent photo historian specializing in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photography, Dr. Margaret Denny, Ph.D., has taught history of photography at colleges and universities in Chicago and presented at national and international conferences. Her publications include “Mrs. Alfred Broom’s Interesting ‘Snap Shot’ Post Cards” in Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom, exhibition catalog, Museum of London, (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2015). She was co-curator of Margaret Bourke-White’s Different World exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, May 24–August 26, 2018, and wrote two articles for the accompanying catalogue. Her essay “Viewing and Display: Pre-Photography to the 1970s” appears in The Handbook of Photography Studies, Gil Pasternak, editor, (London:  Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). 

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 5, Issue 1, Winter 2020. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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