Last week, the Library Of Congress’ blog ran a brief post about American photographer Gertrude Käsebier (cass-eh-beer—oh, boy, dictionary writers are going to kill me now), who was one of the first female photojournalists. No doubt her place in the history of photography had much to do with this, but reading about her, there’s no doubt her personality did much to gain her success, as well. She seems to have been an extremely determined, almost single-minded woman; thus, even in the late 1800s, she gained renown for her work in an age when most women cared for family and home instead of running a business.
More than any of this, though, what drew me to her work was not only the era in which she worked—I suppose we could call it the birth of popular, publicly consumed photography in the States—but her subject matter and her reason for capturing it on camera:
After my babies came I determined to learn to use the brush. I wanted to hold their
lovely little faces in some way that should be also my expression, so I went to an art school; two or three of them, in fact. But art is long and childhood is fleeting, I soon discovered, and the children were losing their baby faces before I learned to paint portraits, so I chose a quicker medium. – Gertrude Käsebier quoted in “The Camera Has Opened a New Profession for Women–Some of Those Who Have Made Good,” New York Times, April 20, 1913, X12
Her comment about needing a “quicker medium” did make me chuckle, and you may find yourself doing the same! Also, it is interesting that her impetus for learning photography was the same as many women today—a desire to capture the all-too-speedy days of childhood. Man’s nature cannot be changed, can it? Finally, portraits are not something I do, myself, but perhaps that makes me even more interested in the genre. I prefer to photograph places and things, but people—that’s difficult. For one thing, I’m rather shy upon meeting someone. Often I see interesting-looking folks about, but don’t want to pester them. That is the shyness mindset, I suppose!Born Gertrude Stanton in 1852, the future photographer married aristocratic Eduard Käsebier in on her twenty-first birthday in 1874. Unfortunately, from the sound of things, Gertrude was not very happily married. Even so, the couple had the three children that drew Gertrude to study art at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute; it was here that she fell in love with the camera despite her desire “to be associated with fine art and the upper classes” (via); photography was not considered appropriate for social climbers and those with social status in those days. Thus it is no surprise that Gertrude did her best to lift the status of this form to a high art, and if you even skim over her career, you’ll see she was quite successful.
By 1897, she had moved from her home portraiture studio to one on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan—it was then known as, believe it or not, “Ladies Mile” due to the number of women patronizing and occasionally running business in the district. Her main goal aside, though, Käsebier ended up making some incredible portraits—of Booker T. Washington, Auguste Rodin and especially her portraits of the cast of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Born in Fort Des Moines and then growing up in the Colorado Territory, Käsebier had great affection for the Lakota people; seeing a parade for Buffalo Bill’s show while living in New York, she asked Buffalo Bill Cody if she could photograph the Sioux traveling with the show as part of a personal art project.
Consequently, many of the Sioux Wild West Show cast members complied and sat for sessions with Käsebier during 1898 and 1899 (though I am deeply curious about their feelings regarding being photographed, what it was like, and what they thought about the results—did they find the whole thing odd?).
The results of her Sioux portrait sittings are really marvellous—simple, honest portraits of people living in a place and fashion far from what they’d always known. Yes, they’re studio posed, but they remain powerful—perhaps they’re even more powerful because of this, because a portrait photographer ought to know how to pose their subject to the subject’s very best advantage. I’d say Gertrude succeeded in meeting her goal. Käsebier differs from other portraitists in that she captures the person—so often, portraits seem gummed up by background, by props, even sometimes by the costume of the subject.
“My children and their children have been my closest thought, but from the first days of dawning individuality, I have longed unceasingly to make pictures of people…to make likenesses that are biographies, to bring out in each photograph the essential personality.” (via)
Unlike her contemporary Edward Curtis, Käsebier focused more on the expression and individuality of the person than the costumes and customs. While Curtis is known to have added elements to his photographs to emphasize his personal vision, Käsebier did the opposite, sometimes removing genuine ceremonial articles from a sitter in order to concentrate on the face or stature of the person. (via)
It is for this gift of showing us the person that Käsebier rocketed to fame, becoming America’s leading portrait photographer, and in 1899 selling her photograph “The Manger” for $100 (roughly equivalent to $2,800 in 2014 dollars)—more than any photograph had ever sold for up to that time. But though she learned to use a camera in order to photograph her children, and those photos are indeed wonderful, her Sioux portraits really stand out. There’s just something about them.
This portrait of White War Bonnet, for instance—I’m just drawn to his eyes, trying to ascertain what he was thinking. It’s quite stunning. She really did give us a sort of capsule biography, don’t you think? She spent a decade photographing Native Americans.In addition to her process of taking portraits, I’ll confess to being intrigued by the depth of field, which often results in a soft focus on eyes and faces where nowadays we like to have such things sharp. Was this intentional? Käsebier was widely regarded as one of, if not the, finest photographers in the United States and indeed the world, so this interesting focus in so many of her works must be intentional. What was she trying to say? Or was this merely the result of the technological restrictions she worked with?
Unsurprisingly, Käsebier touched up her photographs before releasing them in order to, as other writers have noted, fully implement her artistic vision. The difference between the original photograph and the released version is fascinating. For instance, her original and her released version of “The Red Man”:Quite a difference, perhaps unexpected to our eyes—I suspect many lo0k at older photographs and figure there was no post-production involved, but obviously, something was being done! There is nothing wrong with the original (though you’ll probably note the softer focus on the unidentified subject’s left eye), but I’ve no doubt the finished version was far better at transmitting what Käsebier saw in her mind’s eye, which is as much a part of photography as what one captures with the camera. Later in life, Käsebier became an advocate for the rights of Native Americans like the Sioux and Lakota; considering she’d grown up playing with their children and made quite an impression capturing them on film, this is no surprise.
Here is another example of Gertrude’s pre- and post-production work, “Heritage of motherhood” from 1904:
Quite a difference; moreover, one that leaves us curious, as Gertrude clearly and outspokenly seemed to love being a mother, much more so than being a wife.
Also, I’m sure you’ll agree that the first photograph is, technically speaking, as close to perfect as one could wish, especially considering the setting must have sent the model’s hair flying about! But it’s a beautiful photo, a fine exposure, yet Käsebier chose to do quite a bit of work before achieving her finished product. A camera can only record what is actually there—it is up to the photographer to make it what they need it to be. Her training and abilities as a painter no doubt aided Käsebier in creating finished photographs that are quite wonderful indeed (most of the ‘effects’ were created through painting).
It is commonly known that Gertrude found marriage, or at least her husband, very unpleasant. Thus it is interesting to consider that upon her husband’s death in 1910, the work of the woman who had complained of his critical nature (and it seems no one has spoken about him besides her, so I prefer taking such things with a chunk of salt) began to slow. Her dislike for the married state (divorce in that era would have been beyond scandalous, and she’d have lost much, if not all, of her social status despite her career) shows up in her work, such as “Yoked and Muzzled” and, to my eyes, this photo of the Brundigee family:Both parents are out of focus, the father more so than the mother; the child alone is in focus. Similarly, in “Sunshine in the House”, a portrait of the Clarence White family, the father’s face is almost entirely shadowed, while the faces of the sons are much easier to discern—and Mrs. White! She gazes into the middle distance beatifically, sternly, and a little bit resignedly, all the while seeming to radiate sunlight from within. Compare that final version to the original: Obviously none of us know what went on in the Käsebier household, but it seems quite sad to me. Taking “Sunshine in the House”—is the “sunshine” not the mother?—and “Heritage of motherhood” together, it seems fairly clear that Gertrude considered longsuffering to be her lot. This is often a part of life, but we should certainly not see it upon anyone’s face (and Miss Manners agrees, whatever that’s worth), with very, very few exceptions. Of course, this is Käsebier’s work, and she is indeed telling us what she things, feels, ponders. That’s the beauty of it, however our own hearts may ache for her sadness. According to Lori Oden in her International Photography Hall of Fame biography, Gertrude dressed in corset, hat, and gloves, much like her social equals; she donned a fur-trimmed gown for a family portrait and dripped in diamonds at her daughter’s wedding. Striding about town, she cut a stylish and confident figure, like other women of her rank. But this is where her physical resemblance to other “upper middle-class matrons” stopped, for beneath those gloves the truth was seen: her fingertips were stained by photographic chemicals (and later on, cigars, too).
Near the end of her life, Käsebier did some photography outdoors, portraiture remaining her first and highest love. Sadly, her eyesight began to fail in the mid-1920s, and by 1929 she found herself unable to see well enough to shoot and nearly entirely deaf. Despite the assistance of her daughter Hermine, Gertrude was forced to close her studio.
Gertrude died in 1934, but not before influencing a generation of photographers—particularly women (including her own daughter, Hermine), encouraging women to enter the photography business.
“I earnestly advise women of artistic tastes to train for the unworked field of modern photography. It seems to be especially adapted to them, and the few who have entered it are meeting a gratifying and profitable success.” (via)
Though it seems Gertrude was forgotten for a few decades, her work is returning to public knowledge at last.
You may enjoy viewing the Library of Congress’ catalog of Käsebier’s work, donated by her granddaughter in 1964. Following a few more of (just a few of) the photographs that grabbed my attention—there are so many!—I’ve listed a few places where you can learn more about Gertrude and the Pictorialist School of which she was a part.
I love the smile on this young woman’s face—of course, as a devoted laundry-hanger, I can probably identify with her happiness at being outside in the sunshine and warm breezes, looking forward to sweet-smelling laundry! That aside, it’s very nicely framed, and actually vibrant (in its mood) for a black and white photo. This is the only photograph of an African-American that I recall seeing in the photos available.I do wonder, looking at some of the photos, that their appeal is as much the life and era they represent as their quality. In her portraits, we see a life of glamour and beauty—granted, of the upper- and upper-middle class—that is long gone, and not only due to wealth. It is seen as unworthy of attempt because it is “inauthentic”. I doubt any of her portrait subjects, save perhaps the Sioux, felt “inauthentic” at all. There’s so much beauty and grace portrayed, things most no longer see as even worth trying for anymore. Could that be another reason her work is finding an audience today?
More about Gertrude Käsebier:
Photographer Spotlight – Gertrude Käsebier at Faded & Blurred
Biography at the International Photography Hall of Fame & Museum
Introduction & Biographical Essay at LoC’s Prints & Photographs Reading Room
Gertrude Käsebier at Wikipedia