Women Photographers: Gertrude Kasebier Rebels

Born in the mid-nineteenth century, Gertrude Kasebier was both conventional and rebellious, a late bloomer like George Eliot. She married and had children at the usual age, her early 20’s, and like many women, found to her dismay that her marriage was unpleasant and there was no way out of it because of the divorce laws at the time. After her third child was born, she lived her own life, albeit still married, and yet even so, her husband supported her when she started art school in her late 30’s.

She became a professional photographer in her 40’s, and her early photographs have the sweetness and sentimentality of the posed art photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, of a generation earlier.

This photograph of Kaseiber’s, for example, was sold for $100 (equivalent today of about $2,000), the most money anyone had ever paid for a photograph.

The Manger 1899
The Manger 1899

Money: there was the rub or would be as the years went on. A couple of years after “The Manger,” Kasbier was one of the founding members of the Photo-Succession group, along with the inimitable Alfred Stieglitz. He was a big fan of hers, for a while, until she pursued a path of financial and commercial success while he continued to virtually give away her photos if he thought the buyer was a true art lover, as Stieglitz defined it. The thing of it is that Kasebier needed to support her husband and family. Like women writers of the time, her needs were a combination of the creative and the practical. As a writer and mother myself I totally empathize.

She was becoming known and sought after as a portraitist. Her early portraits, for example of Native Americans with the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show,  emphasized the sitter’s face and expression, the person’s individuality rather than “quaint” costume.

Native American 1903
Native American 1903

Eventually she broke away, the first member of the Photo-Succession to do so, just as earlier she had been one of the founders. She was followed by others.

Thirty years after their marriage had broken down,  her husband died, and after that she was free to fully take her own direction, establishing the Women’s Professinal Photographers Association of America.

This photograph from her later work is titled “Yoked and Muzzled–Marriage.” But it was taken five years after her husband died.  To me this photograph is a statement about her struggle for independence, not only with regard to her personal marriage, but in her ties to Stieglitz and his control. Note the small white figures of children on the left, reminiscent of the sweet sentimentality of her early work, contrasting with the heavy figures of the oxen.

Yoked and Muzzled--Marriage 1915
Yoked and Muzzled--Marriage 1915

A year after this photograph was taken,  she co-founded Pictorial Photographers of America, in direction opposition to Stieglitz, mentoring and inspiring the upcoming generation of women photographers.

She inspires me too. Because she was a late bloomer. Because she was a female artist who also made a living. And ultimately, as I think about her life, perhaps she wasn’t so much a rebel as someone who simply found her own way, sometimes joining with others, sometimes breaking away from them when their paths diverged and she was ready to continue on another road.

8 thoughts on “Women Photographers: Gertrude Kasebier Rebels

  1. charles sims

    I am a long term collector of GK’s photos.. your interpretation of her thoughts were unique especially from a female point of view. Most people have not gotten the coded message that her pictures stated… You should write a book…

  2. Fred Johansen

    Quoting from the article: “And ultimately, as I think about her life, perhaps she wasn’t so much a rebel as someone who simply found her own way, sometimes joining with others, sometimes breaking away from them when their paths diverged and she was ready to continue on another road”

    This is the closest you come to the truth of YOUR life. Your article reveals the pain and frustration you are feeling and your feeling of inadequacy floats like a silent veil over your article.

    Be yourself. You are neither female or male, artist or slave. You have unique talents. You either bring them forward or you die the slow death of apathy and resignation. Think on these things.

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