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Visual arts

A revelatory picture

Studies show that women played an active role in the history of Latin American photography, with next to no recognition

A photograph taken in São Paulo circa 1942 shows Hildegard Rosenthal working on the photo enlarger

Self-Portrait of Hildegard Rosenthal / Instituto Moreira Salles

Women have had an active role in Latin American photography and its associated market since the nineteenth century, although they have rarely been recognized for their contributions. This is what researchers Helouise Costa and Erika Zerwes, organizers of the recently-released Mulheres fotógrafas/mulheres fotografadas – Fotografia e gênero na América Latina (Women photographers/women photographed – photography and gender in Latin America; Intermeios, 2021) have found. The book includes 29 articles written in Portuguese, Spanish, and English, by scholars from countries like Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Germany. “The goal of this set of interdisciplinary articles is to help us understand the role of women in establishing photography as a professional artistic field, as well as the photographic representation of women in Latin America,” explains Costa, a professor and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of São Paulo (MAC-USP).

The book is the result of a 2017 seminar with the same title, held at the institution following an international invitation. The event, in turn, was an offshoot of a postdoctoral study developed by Zerwes, under the supervision of Costa. Both initiatives were funded by FAPESP. “More than simply revealing unknown female photographers or curious aspects of their biographies, our goal was to question the reasons that led women to be less visible in the hegemonic narratives of the history of photography and to think about how they have been portrayed,” points out Zerwes, currently developing research at the German Center for Art History in Paris.

Hence the focus on gender. “Many believe gender studies are only about women, but one can study gender from the perspective of men or the LGBTQ+ community,” points out Costa. “The goal is to understand, for example, how gender has affected the work and recognition of a certain group.” Zerwes agrees. “In our case, gender studies can illuminate the power relations that sustain the professional and artistic circuit of photography in different historical contexts,” she explains.

Booed for being a woman
According to the book, the role of women in photography in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was first and foremost linked to the handmade crafts created behind the scenes of family businesses and commercial studios. This occurred both in European countries and in the United States and Latin America. “Women, whose access to art academies was forbidden, sought out alternative activities in which they could exercise their creativity,” write Costa and Zerwes in the book introduction. “In the field of photography, they were valued for their supposed inherent manual skills, which made them highly sought after to work in photo labs, as well as for retouching and colorizing.”

The article “No limite da invisibilidade: Mulheres fotógrafas no Brasil na primeira metade do século XX” (On the edge of invisibility: women photographers in Brazil during the first half of the twentieth century), included in the book, is authored by Costa. One of the four female professionals whose careers are analyzed by the researcher is Mary Zilda Grassia Sereno (1909–1998), from Rio de Janeiro, who worked for Brazilian newspapers between the 1940s and the 1970s. “While she worked on many different kinds of content, her passion was photographing soccer,” shares Costa. “Among other achievements, she was the only female photographer to cover the 1950 World Cup. Upon entering the field, at Maracanã Stadium, she was loudly booed for being a woman.”

Costa states there are still few robust studies associating photography and gender in the world. In Brazil, interest in the topic has been building for the last 10 years or so. Advancing research has revealed details about the careers of figures like German photographer Fanny Paul Volk (c. 1867–1948), who migrated to Curitiba (Paraná) with her family at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1881 she began working behind the scenes at a photo studio belonging to her fellow countryman Hermann Adolpho Volk, whom she would marry five years later. “Fanny’s mother, Anna, who also worked in the studio, taught her to take photos at a young age,” shares Giovana Simão, author of the PhD thesis “Fanny Paul Volk: Pioneira na fotografia de estúdio em Curitiba” (Fanny Paul Volk: a pioneer in studio photography in Curitiba), defended as part of the sociology program at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR).

Later, in 1904, Volk decided to return to Germany by himself. Before leaving, he gave the studio to his ex-wife, who became its main photographer and manager, serving the local elite. “She created a network of correspondents in Brazil and Germany, imported equipment from there, and advertised job openings in publications in Berlin,” adds Simão, a professor at the School of Music and Fine Arts at the State University of Paraná (UNESPAR). “She would also take photos outside the studio, including of men, which was daring for the time.” This went on until 1918, when, around the age of 50, Volk sold the business to focus on her grandchildren. “Removing herself from the photography scene contributed to her disappearance from the history of Brazilian photography,” notes the researcher.

Casa da Memória – Cultural Foundation of Curitiba Portrait of Angelo Casagrande and his son Elviro, taken in Curitiba by Fanny VolkCasa da Memória – Cultural Foundation of Curitiba

Missing archives
Zerwes recalls that, between 1910 and 1930, the figure of the “modern woman” emerged in Europe, especially in Germany, driven by women entering the public sphere and the workforce. Widely publicized by the press at the time, this image was particularly significant for the history of Latin American photography. “While it was a very strong cultural trait in Germany and in the Weimar Republic (1919–1933)—where many of the photographers who settled in Latin America during the 1930s came from or moved to—photography was much sought after by these women, as it was one of the few areas accessible to women during that period,” explains the researcher.

Among them are Alice Brill (1920–2013) and Hildegard Rosenthal (1913–1990), who arrived in Brazil in the 1930s. “In addition to the architecture and urban settings of downtown São Paulo in the 1940s and 1950s, they photographed its regulars, anonymous characters from different social strata,” says researcher Yara Schreiber Dines, author of the book Hildegard Rosenthal e Alice Brill, fotógrafas de além-mar – Cosmopolitismo e modernidade nos olhares sobre São Paulo (Hildegard Rosenthal and Alice Brill, overseas photographers – cosmopolitanism and modernity in their view of São Paulo – Intermeios, 2020). In the book, a result of her postdoctoral research conducted at the USP School of Communications and Arts (ECA), Dines—part of the Contemporary Anthropology Group (GEPAC) at the São Paulo State University (UNESP), Araraquara campus—also analyzes two fictional photographic essays published by Rosenthal in the early 1940s. The first consists of a series of self-portraits, while the other, named Alter ego by the researcher, features a model circulating through downtown São Paulo. “In both series, she seeks to create the image of a modern and independent woman,” she analyses.

According to Kátia Hallak Lombardi, a professor in the Social Communication program at the Federal University of São João del-Rei (UFSJ), the photographers began to gain visibility on the national scene in the second half of the twentieth century, much like Brazilian photographers Nair Benedicto and Rosa Gauditano. This is also the case for Swiss-born Claudia Andujar, who moved to Brazil in 1955 and is now recognized, not only for her photography work, but also for fighting on behalf of the Yanomami people (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 276). “She often photographed the female body, especially that of indigenous women, but she never portrayed women in an idealized or stereotyped way. Instead, what we see are depictions of women amongst the simplicity of everyday life,” observes the researcher, author of one of the articles in the book organized by Costa and Zerwes.

Andujar’s work can be seen in books and spaces such as the Inhotim Institute in Minas Gerais, which houses a gallery with more than 400 images. “Andujar is an exception. The lack of archives is an obstacle for researchers investigating the careers of women photographers in Brazil,” says Lombardi. According to Helouise Costa, many of these collections were lost over time. “Some were destroyed by the photographers themselves or by their families, who did not see the value of what they produced,” she says. “Without the images, researchers must turn to the historical and sociological context to understand the career trajectory of these photographers.”

“It is impossible to study photographers or photographic series without analyzing their publications or the debates that took place in the printed pages dedicated to their works,” defends Eduardo Augusto Costa, from the USP School of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU). An expert in archives and collections, he has found around 1,300 photography books and catalogs published in Brazil throughout the twentieth century. The goal is to establish a public library on the subject. According to Costa, despite the publishing of books by photographers, such as Rio de Janeiro native Claudia Jaguaribe and British-born Maureen Bisilliat, and photography historians such as Solange Ferraz de Lima and Vânia Carneiro de Carvalho, women see very little representation in this field in Brazil. “And part of the known history comes from whatever was edited, published, and publicized,” he observes.

The FAU professor states that the photography publishing market gained strength in Brazil from the 1970s onwards, thanks to the National Arts Foundation (FUNARTE), an organization founded in 1975 and linked to the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) at the time. “The photography nucleus of FUNARTE—structured around the foundation’s gallery, which would later become more organized through the FUNARTE National Institute of Photography—was responsible for more than 50 publications between the 1970s and 1980s. They included three catalogs on the role of women photographers in the Brazilian photography scene, something unusual at the time,” says the expert, who also authored one of the articles in Costa and Zerwes’s book. He believes the role of FUNARTE reveals the importance of public policies on culture. “Many of these FUNARTE photography initiatives can be credited to the women who worked at the institution at that time, such as Elizabeth Carvalho and Solange Zúñiga.”

Galeria Vermelho Captured through the lenses of Claudia Andujar, Susi and Mariazinha Korihana Thëri bathe in an igapó (stretch of forest containing stagnant water), in the state of Roraima. The image is part of the 1974 series “A floresta” (The woods)Galeria Vermelho

No credit
Rediscovering the role of women in ethnographic photography is the motto of the project Antropologia, fotografia e patrimônio material no Brasil: Uma perspectiva de gênero (Anthropology, photography, and material heritage in Brazil: a gender perspective), developed by the research group Genders, Images and Politics, at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (GIP-UFRGS). “Especially in the first half of the twentieth century, many of these women who carried out fieldwork alongside their husbands were seen as mere research assistants, such as anthropologist, ethnologist, and museologist Berta Gleiser (1924–1997), who was married to anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro (1922–1997). And this role was not always given credit, especially when it came to producing images,” points out anthropologist Fabiene Gama, coordinator of this research project.

In partnership with anthropologists Barbara Copque, from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), and Fernanda Rechenberg, from the Federal University of Alagoas (UFAL), Gama is also organizing a dossier on gender and image, scheduled to be published later this year in the UFRGS magazine Iluminuras. “The idea is to discuss not only photography, but also cinema and illustration,” says Rechenberg, head of the Study Group on Image and Feminism (GIF) at UFAL, part of a research project on the photographic scene in the capital of Alagoas. “One of the research initiatives was to investigate the female photographers who worked in Maceió from the 1990s onwards. We also focused on the photography collectives of young women that have been emerging in the city in recent years,” explains Rechenberg. “We want to understand why these professionals have been less prominent than men and how class and race deepen this gender asymmetry,” she concludes.

Notions of humanism in documentary photography between the 1930s and 1950s (nº 14/14565-2); Grant Mechanism Postdoctoral Fellowship; Supervisor Helouise Lima Costa (USP); Grant Beneficiary Erika Cazzonatto Zerwes; Investment R$272,255.55.

COSTA, H. & ZERWES, E. (org.). Mulheres fotógrafas/mulheres fotografadas: Fotografia e gênero na América Latina. São Paulo: Intermeios, 2021.
DINES, Y. S. Hildegard Rosenthal e Alice Brill, fotógrafas de além-mar: Cosmopolitismo e modernidade nos olhares sobre São Paulo. São Paulo: Intermeios, 2020.