“Why should not the camera as a medium for the interpretation of art as understood by painters, sculptors, and draughtsmen, command respect?,” the photographer Gertrude Käsebier asked. Trained at the progressive Pratt Institute in the late 19th century, she quickly established herself as a pictorial photographer—part of a movement devoted to the medium as an art form—and focused on portraits and themes such as motherhood. To evoke an ethereal atmosphere, and distinguish her prints from those of commercial photographers and amateur snap shooters, Käsebier combined darkroom manipulation with forceful compositions and a delicate tonal range.
Informed by her childhood on the Great Plains, Käsebier photographed Dakota Sioux performers who toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West spectacle at her New York studio. These sittings—which resulted in portraits of figures such as Joe Black Fox (c. 1899)—aspired to sensitive portrayals of individuals. But they also attest to the complex power dynamics by which these performers had to conform to preconceived ideas about what constituted an authentic identity.
As a principal member of the Photo-Secession group of pictorialists, founded in 1902 by Alfred Steiglitz, Käsebier contributed work to their influential journal Camera Work (as well as the earlier Camera Notes). Käsebier formally left the group in 1912 and later helped to found several professional organizations.
“I earn my own money. I pay my own bills. I carry my own license,” she said of the work she did in her studio, which was known for its comfortable atmosphere and understated decor. Sitters included actress Evelyn Nesbit, architect Stanford White, author Mark Twain, artist Robert Henri, and photographers F. Holland Day and Edward Steichen. Käsebier recalled a sitting with sculptor Auguste Rodin: “When he knew he was going to be photographed, he’d stiffen…. I caught him on one of his moments. He was relaxed and brooding. He didn’t know he had been photographed until it was all over.”
Käsebier remained influential until her death in 1934, even as tastes shifted toward more mobile and less manipulated images. Steichen, the pictorialist-turned-modernist who would become a curator at MoMA, remained devoted to her work, and photographers who worked or apprenticed in Käsebier’s studio include Alice Austin, Alice Boughton, Alvin Landon Coburn, and the sisters Williamina and Grace Parrish. Their respect may reflect her ethos: “The key to artistic photography is to work out your own thoughts,” Käsebier said. “If a thing is good it will survive.”
Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, Archives, Library, and Research Collections, 2020
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.