• PROOF:
  • October 9, 2013

Women of Vision: The Pioneers

Fifteen years ago I was asked to write a book entitled Women Photographers at National Geographic and happened to mention the project to a colleague, a well-known male photographer then on the magazine staff.

“Women photographers? It’ll be a short book,” he said, flicking the notion away as if it were a bit of stray lint on his jacket sleeve.

He was wrong. The book was substantial in size (271 pages) and in the number of women photographers featured in its pages (more than 40).

To be fair, he might be forgiven for thinking the way he did. The tally of women photographers at National Geographic, as at other magazines, has always trailed that of men. Fortunately, the gap has narrowed since the first woman, Kathleen Revis, was put on the photographic staff in 1953 (more about her later.)

Unsurprisingly, parity was slow in coming. After Revis it would be 21 years until the next woman, Bianca Lavies, made her appearance on staff, followed three years later by Jodi Cobb (featured in the upcoming “Women of Vision” exhibit).

In fact, the work of women photographers had appeared in fits and starts in the magazine long before Revis, through over-the-transom solicitations. There was, for example, Dorothy Hosmer, who had quit her job as a secretary, paid $89 for a third-class steamer ticket, and set off for a trip around the world. In 1937 Hosmer wrote the editors of the magazine from Florence—she was 26 years old at the time—and asked if they would be interested in publishing an “account of her trip with illustrative photographs.”

Gypsy women and children, Transylvania, circa 1937
Gypsy women and children, Transylvania, circa 1937 Photograph by Dorothy Hosmer

They were interested, and the account of her trip was published in 1938 with the breathless title: “An American Girl Cycles Across Romania: Two-wheel Pilgrim Pedals the Land of Castles and Gypsies, Where Roman Empire Traces Mingle With Remnants of Oriental Migrations,” despite the misgivings of the infamously intolerant John Oliver La Gorce, an associate editor of the magazine. “I should imagine …” La Gorce wrote Editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor in a dissenting opinion, that a certain percentage of readers “wouldn’t want their daughters to read this story fearing that it might give them the idea that it was all right to travel the world on one’s own if such an account appeared in the Geographic.”

Grosvenor ignored him, and published a second story by Hosmer. In case readers were curious what the intrepid young freelancer looked like, the piece featured a picture of Hosmer crossing the border of Poland. She stands by her bicycle, wearing a short-sleeve checked blouse and ankle-length divided skirt while a customs officer examines her passport and rucksack.

Franklin Fisher, then chief of illustrations, suggested Hosmer be paid $500 each for two articles and their photographs. La Gorce, true to his pinched nature, undercut him, saying: “I certainly wouldn’t offer more than $300.”

Two decades before Hosmer, the magazine published “Young Japan,” by Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore in the July 1914 issue, making her probably the first woman to have photographs in the Geographic. Scidmore was a friend of Gilbert H. Grosvenor. She was also the only woman on the Society’s Board of Managers from 1896 to 1907, and her photographs are distinguished by grace and wit, which Grosvenor, no doubt, appreciated. “Women,” Grosvenor once wrote, “often see things about the life and ways of people which a man would not notice …”

In addition to her keen eye, Scidmore understood the value of using color in the otherwise monochromatic magazine, then in its infancy. With a self-confidence devoid of arrogance, she gently prodded GHG to publish more color. At that time “color photographs” were actually hand-colored black-and-white plates. Autochrome, an early color process, would not be in regular use for another decade.

Scidmore hand-tinted her own plates and pronounced herself satisfied with the results. “Herewith 31 pictures of women and children, mostly children, as you see …” she wrote Grosvenor. “I have had them made uniform in size and strongly colored, so that you can cover yourself all over with glory with another number in color.”

There were other women in those early years. The remarkable Harriet Chalmers Adams had 21 stories published in the magazine from 1907 to 1935, and although she is listed as an author in the National Geographic Index, an examination of her work shows that she took photographs as well. Adams, one of the first and few women correspondents of World War I, was an adventurer and explorer in the tradition of the intrepid 19th-century journalist Nellie Bly. Before her death in 1937, she retraced the trail of Columbus, crossed Haiti on horseback, and according to the New York Times, “reached twenty frontiers previously unknown to white women … including every linguistic branch of the Indian tribes from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego …” This may be why a Washington Post obituary remembered her as a “confidant of savage head hunters.”

French WWI soldiers warm by a fire in Lorraine, France, circa 1917
French WWI soldiers warm by a fire in Lorraine, France, circa 1917.
Photograph by Harriet Chalmers Adams

In 1953, the magazine hired its first woman staff photographer, Kathleen Revis, a quiet self-effacing woman who loved the outdoors, taught herself how to shoot pictures, and just happened to be the sister-in-law of the Editor, Melville Bell Grosvenor.

Schoolgirls climb Gold Hill past old abbey walls in Shaftesbury, England, in 1955
Schoolgirls climb Gold Hill past old abbey walls in Shaftesbury, England, in 1955.
Photograph by Kathleen Revis

“Melville Grosvenor wanted to bring women to National Geographic,” says Mary Smith, the picture editor who handled most of Revis’s stories. “He wasn’t a bit afraid of smart women; he liked and respected them and as far as he was concerned, the smarter the better.” Let others grouse about favoritism. MBG pushed criticism aside. “It seems the boys thought it was some joke or I was nepotizing,” he wrote Revis, in response to the baritone-pitched grumbling. “My only comment was, ‘Well, boys, when you see a natural photographer, encourage him or her all you can!’ Kathleen, you are a natural photographer. You not only have a feel for a picture but you love it, study it, and live with it … Keep on taking pictures. Try to tell a story in them.”

And that is exactly what every woman photographer hired by National Geographic has done since then.

“Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment,” a new traveling exhibition that celebrates the work of 11 women photojournalists, opens at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., on October 10.

Cathy Newman is an Editor at Large at National Geographic magazine. Follow Cathy on Twitter.

There are 17 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Promish
    October 21, 2013

    Very nice picture……!!!!

  2. Ann Jones
    October 20, 2013

    Absolutely brilliant, totally inspired, thank you!

  3. Yeon Ling Yuan
    October 18, 2013

    Inspiring!

  4. Ginna brelsford
    October 17, 2013

    Great job. Thanks

  5. Raphael Totty
    October 16, 2013

    Who said women are weak? Totally wrong!

  6. Gloria
    October 14, 2013

    good job, Cathy!

  7. Shahida niaz
    October 12, 2013

    nice pictures and graet book

  8. suganthakumar.m
    October 12, 2013

    Great.. Amazing..!! Congrats to them .. Very nice

  9. suganthakumar.m
    October 12, 2013

    Gr

  10. sanathoi
    October 12, 2013

    Amazing pic

  11. S.L. Sistrunk
    October 11, 2013

    “Women need only speak more loudly and often to be heard.”

  12. S.L. Sistrunk
    October 11, 2013

    Women only need to speak louder and more often for individuals to hear.

  13. Gretl’s Dupre’ Galgon
    October 11, 2013

    Hip Hip HerRay!

  14. Lora
    October 11, 2013

    Wow, what a great book and amazing images

  15. Sofy
    October 10, 2013

    Yeah, another point for women every where, yes women can do it too!!

  16. Amirul Islam
    October 10, 2013

    Nice Pictures

  17. Amirul Islam
    October 10, 2013

    Nicer

Add Your Comments

All fields required.