Florence’s Alinari Archive Delves Deep Into the History of Underknown Women Photographers
Nearly 200 years ago, two new methods of image-making debuted within weeks of each other in 1839: the daguerreotype, direct-positive photographs where images were burned directly onto silver-plated copper plate, in France and the calotype, the original photographic negative in the form of silver chloride–sensitized paper, in England. Together, their inventions—by men who held the patents and usually also restricted access to the equipment necessary to make them—hailed the inception of photography.
Nonetheless, women have been professional photographers—and among the medium’s fiercest innovators—since its invention, though, their names, contributions, and work tend to be lesser known, like Bertha Beckman, famous for being the first-ever professional woman photographer. Recent efforts have been made to correct photography’s male-dominated canon, including the 2021 survey exhibitions, “The New Woman Behind the Camera,” which debuted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before traveling to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. That same year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York received a major gift of 100 works by women photographers aimed at “unfixing the canon.”
Similarly, a recently opened exhibition at the Villa Bardini and Forte di Belvedere in Florence uncovers female photographers from the city’s historic Alinari Archive, which includes a collection of over 5 million photographic materials, a photographic library, and vintage photographic instruments amassed by the world’s oldest photographic firm (dating to 1852). Curated by Emanuela Sesti and Walter Guadagnini, “Fotografe! Women photographers: Alinari Archives to Contemporary Perspectives,” which runs through October 2, includes 50 photographers spanning the 19th century to today.
The show sprouted from an effort to understand female involvement in the early days of the Florentine Alinari firm. After learning that women’s roles were largely limited to administrative work or attaching photographic prints to supports, the curators decided to chart the presence of women in the firm’s international and historic photography collection. Some of those included in “Fotografe!” are now broadly known, such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Margaret Bourke-White, and Diane Arbus. Others have been rarely, if ever, exhibited.
Below, a look at seven groundbreaking women photographers whose work is seeing renewed exposure.