OG Photography, in its base form, with film and chemicals and dark rooms, was the great equalizer. It was an art form where men and women could work side by side without the stigma of gender, without one being less, or more, than the other. OG Photography in its purest form was about who could make an impactful image, or a beautiful image, or a narrative image, from start (shooting) to finish (printing) no matter what gender the photographer was/is.
It wasn’t the process, it was the end product, no matter the gender of the creator, that mattered to the public. The process of making a photograph, the magic of it, mattered only to the photographer.
Photography also didn’t have the embedded sexism that centuries of drawing/painting and sculpture had. Photography, by that yardstick, was a relatively new art form, one that was open to anyone who could afford the materials to make photographs happen.
As a student in a technical art school in the mid-to-late 1970s, one that was steeped in graphics rather than the fine arts, my memory says that I left the sexist defined world of that time at the door of the school when I entered for my class of the day. Photography was my major. And I was good at it right from the start. So were my fellow students, who were mostly male.
As a female photographer, I never felt discrimination in the field. Not in my student days. Not in the years, or decades, since. I still have relationships with my fellow students – almost exclusively online – and we support each others’ work, whether that’s just a thumbs up or a full on critique.
I knew in high school that I wanted to be a photographer. As a girl and teenager I spent time pouring over the photographs and photo essays in Life, Look, and National Geographic magazines that were always spread over Grandma K.’s coffee table. She encouraged me in a number of ways to be creative, but she always thought my eye was meant for the camera.
During art school and the years after, there were many women photographers who had well known work and were in the public eye. In Art History, besides studying the obvious men photographers, we equally studied the lives and works of the women photographers – like Julia Margaret Cameron, Dorthea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Mary Ellen Mark, Imogen Cunningham- and we watched Annie Leibovitz’s and Cindy Sherman’s career skyrocket in real time.
My struggle with photography as a career was not about sexism or discrimination in the field. My struggle was financial. And that means it was personal, not social. So there were many years where I could not jump start my photography career because I couldn’t afford to. As an example, in the early 1990’s I worked in the offices at Lonely Planet and around my desk I had a few of my framed images from my travels. The marketing guy often would come out and ask my opinion on cover image choices (this one or that one) and one day he was looking at my images around my desk and asked why I wasn’t out traveling and shooting covers and images for the books. Lonely Planet, at the time, I don’t know about now, had a policy of not paying for writers or photographers travel, they only paid per image after the fact, but they did pay me $7.50 an hour to work in the office … a job was a job back then and the images I took, I took for myself.
I have always been encouraged by my counterparts to get back into shooting – and when I started working as a technical engineer and making bank, I could start to afford the gear I needed to get working again.
Digital photography changed my life.
But it also changed the life of photography.
Now, everyone can be a photographer. Or they can try to be.
When cameras themselves became mini-computers with one function – to take instantaneous images – that is when tech culture infiltrated photography, for better or for worse.
My tech career started out much in the same way that my photography studies did – I left my gender at the door. All I had to be willing to do in tech was to be a Cowgirl in Cowboy territory. Unfortunately, the Cowboy mentality in tech didn’t last long. And Tech Bro Culture started to take over. I think this is when it started in photography as well. The Tech Bros talk about cameras and photography in the same way they talk about their latest computer or game purchase, the latest snippet of code they programmed, all puffery and stuff, and full of one-upmanship. Tech Bro Culture is centered in ego and ego does all the talking, the judging of others, and most of all, it does all the feeling of insecurity. This comes out of the “fake it ’til you make it” mentality. We see this daily in tech offices. And maybe I see it more, and understand it, because I live in the SF Bay Area.
It may also play in hiring, or not hiring, a woman for a gig. Lord knows that Silicon Valley has its pockets of misogyny, sexism, and, let’s throw ageism in there too – which reaches out into other branches of commerce and influence.
And who better for a Tech Bro Culture guy making photographs, or looking to hire a photographer, to put down than the women making photographs to make himself feel better?
Women in photography today seem to have a different kind of hurdle than I did when I started out. It’s a bit of sorting out of identity. I never, ever, considered myself to be a woman in photography, and I bet my photographic women ancestors didn’t either. I consider myself to be a photographer. I consider myself to be an artist. Period. Always have, always will. Gender has nothing to do with my status as a photographer.
Rejection is a part of everyday life, especially for a creative, whether you are male or female. I do think that photography is still the great equalizer and in the end it is the image that matters most.
How do I get around the current Tech Bro Culture in photography? I ignore it. Plain and simple. Because my work is my work and I know what I’m doing.
My advice to other women in photography is to do the same. Be confident in your work and love what you do. Keep pushing yourself forward. Find the people, the galleries, the clients, that love you and your work – and leave the rest of them in the dust.
Tell me in the comments if you, as a woman in photography, have ever felt put down or discriminated against because of your gender. Or, if you are like me and think of photography as the great equalizer. I’d love to hear your story.
Image Credit: Steven Baigel