American photography has many fathers, like Mathew Brady and Alfred Stieglitz, but there was just one woman who was its mother, Gertrude Käsebier. Not only was she one of the first American women to have a successful career as a photographer, but she was one of the first photographers anywhere to focus on the family. In her timeless images of mothers and children, she helped to shape the modern way we photograph today. In her day, she was famous and influential, a model for young women photographers at a time when proper women were supposed to stay home and tend to their families. Gertrude Käsebier (May 18, 1852 – October 12, 1934) was one of the most influential American photographers of the early 20th century. She was known for her images of motherhood, her portraits of Native Americans and her promotion of photography as a career for women.
In 1864 her family moved to Brooklyn, New York. Ten years later Gertrude Stanton married Eduard Käsebier, a German immigrant and businessman. After raising her family, from 1889 to 1896 she studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and quickly gravitated toward photography. However, the marriage did not work out and in 1880 the couple separated. Käsebier described her marriage thus:
“If my husband has gone to Heaven, I want to go to Hell. He was terrible… Nothing was ever good enough for him.”
Soon her work became recognized and was often exhibited. Her first solo exhibition was held in 1896 at the Boston Camera Club, and the following year Käsebier opened her own studio in New York City. Her photographs were included in the Philadelphia Photographic salons of 1898, 1899, and 1900. She exhibited her photograph titled The Manger at the salon of 1899, and it was purchased for $100, setting a new precedent in the photography art market. Her photographs also appeared in numerous magazines and were featured in the first issue of the influential Camera Work.
At the turn of the century, American photography was dominated by “pictorialism“, whose adherents believed that the photographer had to manipulate images, using soft focus, printing in colors other than black-and-white, or adding visible brush strokes and other surface manipulation to the photograph. Like other photographers of the period working in the Pictorialist style, Käsebier was interested in promoting the medium as a fine art. As part of this effort, in 1902 she, Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence H. White, and Edward Steichen formed the Photo-Secession. She was also a member of the Professional Photographers of New York and of the Linked Ring in London and a cofounder of the Women’s Federation of the Photographers’ Association of America (1910). In 1916 she broke openly with Stieglitz and cofounded the Pictorial Photographers of America with White. About 1927 she closed her portrait studio. A retrospective exhibition of her photography was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1929.
In all her work she attempted to capture a symbolic, yet intimate view of her subjects. Käsebier worked primarily with platinum prints, although she began using a gum-bichromate process in 1901.
In 1900, Käsebier was called by Steiglitz “the foremost professional photographer in the United States.” Her work inspired other women like Imogen Cunningham and Laura Gilpin to become photographers, and she helped guide photography away from the manipulated imagery of pictorialism. Today, she is hardly remembered. Nonetheless, whether we aware of it or not, we are all the children of Gertrude Käsebier.