GERTRUDE KÄSEBIER: THE DAME OF ALLEGORICAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Capturing the evocative images of motherhood and powerful portraits of Native Americans with such Pictorialist style that makes the photograph an allegory, the American portrait photographer, Gertrude Käsebier, is remembered as one of the most influential American photographer of the early 20th century.
Born Gertrude Stanton on May 18, 1825, in Fort Des Moines, lowa, Käsebier strongly advocated photography as a career for women throughout her life. She married at the age of 22 to a businessman named Eduard Käsebier. After raising her family, from 1889 to 1896 she studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and quickly gravitated toward photography.
Displaying the Influence of her painting training in her Pictorialist style, Käsebier produced a series of photographs on the subject of motherhood and soon became recognized. In 1896, her first solo exhibition was held at Boston Camera Club, and the following year she opened her own studio in New York City. Käsebier also exhibited her photographs in the Philadelphia Photographic salons of 1898, 1899, and 1900, and Alfred Stieglitz reproduced five of her images in his journal Camera Notes in 1899.
Käsebier exhibited her photograph titled “The Manger” at the salon in 1899, and it sold for $100, the highest prize yet paid for a photograph. Her photographs also appeared in numerous magazines and were featured in the first issue of the influential “Camera Work”.
From about 1898 to 1912, Käsebier, like Alfred Stieglitz, belonged to the Pictorialist school, which sought to elevate the status of photography to a fine art. As a part of this effort, Käsebier, Stieglitz, Clarence H. White, and Edward Steichen formed the Photo-Secession in 1902. Käsebier was also a member of the Professional Photographers of New York and of the Linked Ring in London. In 1910, she cofounded the Women's Federation of the Photographers’ Association of America.
In 1916, Käsebier broke openly with Stieglitz and cofounded the Pictorial Photographers of America with White. About 1927 she closed her portrait studio and in 1929, a retrospective exhibition of her photography was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Art and Sciences.
Käsebier was best known for her sensitive depictions of motherhood and for her numerous portraits, often of famous artists and writers. In all her work, she attempted to capture a symbolic, yet intimate view of her subjects. Her practice of painting on her negatives and her use of the gum-bichromate, gum-platinum and bromoil printing techniques yielded photographs that revealed the hand of the artist and enforced the medium’s expressive potential.
Käsebier died on October 12, 1934 at the home of her daughter, Hermine Turner. After her death, she was the subject of many exhibitions, including two major retrospectives, one at the Delaware Art Museum in 1979 and the other at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1992. Her best-known photograph, “Blessed Art Thou Among Women” (1899), was featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 2002.