One of the preeminent documentary photographers of the 20th century, Dorothea Lange was born Dorothea Nutzhorn on May 26, 1895, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Two events in her childhood would have a major impact on the trajectory of Dorothea’s life. Her father left their family when she was twelve, which prompted Dorothea to take her mother’s maiden name, Lange. A bout of polio at 7 left Lange partially paralyzed in her right leg. She said of his that “[It] was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me.”
Following high school, Lange attended the New York Training School for Teachers, but it did not hold her interest. After briefly working at a photo studio in NYC, Lange decided to pursue photography as a profession. She studied at Columbia University before working as an apprentice under several different photographers, including leading portrait photographer Arnold Genthe. Lange soon had a successful portrait studio in San Francisco, where she lived with her husband and their two sons.
Lange’s first real taste of documentary photography came in the 1920s when she traveled around the Southwest, photographing Native Americans. With the crush of the Great Depression in the 1930s, she trained her camera on what even her own neighborhood was not immune to: labor strikes and breadlines. She and her husband traveled extensively together, documenting the hardship they encountered. Lange photographed the people they met and her husband wrote up reports. Of all the commodities in short supply during the Depression, a basic sympathy for one’s fellow man was often among them. Rather than sympathizing with the plight of the homeless who travelled around desperately looking for work, those who were still living comfortably called them Okies or Roadites and denied them inclusion into their communities. To many, they were a problem, not people. Lange helped to humanize them again. In March 1936, people were gathered in a migrant worker camp in southern California. The farm’s crop had frozen, and there was no work for anyone. 32-year-old Frances Owens Thompson and her family, which included seven children, had been eating the ruined peas from the fields and killing wild birds when they could catch them. Lange normally spent as much time as possible with subjects, but she spent only ten minutes with Thompson. The last of the seven images she took would come to be known as Migrant Mother. Because Lange was working for the Resettlement Administration, a federal agency created to help farmers and agricultural workers move to more productive areas, the images she took went immediately into the public domain. Neither Lange nor Thomposon ever saw a dime from the incredibly popular photo, though it did earn Lange the respect of her peers and moved the Resettlement Admin to send 20,000 lbs of food to the camp.
In 1940, Lange became the first woman awarded the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. Following America’s entrance into World War II, Lange was hired by the Office of War Information to photograph Japanese-Americans internment camps and well as to document the 1945 conference that created the United Nations.
Lange stayed active during last two decades of her life, despite increasing health problems. She founded a publishing house, took assignments for Life magazine in such varied places as Ireland and Death Valley, and accompanied her husband on his work-related assignments in Pakistan, Korea, and Vietnam, documenting what she saw along the way. Lange passed away from esophageal cancer in October 1965. Bonus fact: In 1998, Migrant Mother became a 32-cent U.S. Postal Service stamp in the Celebrate the Century series. This was unusual because both of the then-children pictured were still alive and the Postal Service won’t usually issue stamps with people on them if they have not not been dead at least 10 years.
While Dorothea Lange inarguably paved the way for the current and recent generations of female photojournalists, that road was first cleared by Jessie Tarbox Beals. Beals is known as America’s first female news photographer as the staff photographer for the Buffalo Inquirer and The Courier in 1902. This was shortly after Kodak issued the Folding Pocket Camera, which was about the size of a hefty novel, think His Dark Materials, and the Kodak Brownie, the first user-reloadable point-and-shoot camera. Beals had also done a fair amount of photography with earlier models of camera that were as big as her torso. Her tenacity, self-promotion, and willingness to work in situations thought too rough for a woman set her apart at a time when the few women who ventured into photography did portraits.
Jessie Tarbox was born in December 1870 to a machinist and his wife in Hamilton, Ontario. Her father’s invention of a portable sewing machine enabled the family to live lavishly until the patents expired in 1877, at which point he began drinking and his strong-willed wife had to support the family. Jessie became a certified teacher at 17 and taught in Massachusetts attempting to become an artist but discovering she had no innate ability. Her life changed the following year when she won a camera for selling a magazine subscription. During the summers, Jessie offered students from a nearby college four portraits for a dollar, about $30 today, to supplement her income. She made the decision to focus on news photography after attending the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the experience of making photographs and meeting other women photographers heightened her fascination with that occupation. Jessie married Alfred Tennyson Beals in 1897. In 1899 her photographs of the local prison were published in a newspaper, although they were uncredited
Beals left teaching in 1900. That September, she received her first photo credit from a Vermont, making her first published female photojournalist. In 1902, Jessie broke into full-time professional news photography when the editor of Buffalo’s two local papers hired her and allowed her to freelance for out-of-town correspondents, as well. She got her first “exclusive” in 1903 and proved her ability to hustle when she got photos of a murder trial that had been declared off-limits to photographers by perching precariously on a bookcase to shoot through a transom, the little window above a door. She used a 50 pound 8 x 10 format camera for her assignments and took pride in her physical strength and agility, as well she should. I’ll put a link in the shownotes to photos *of Beals, one of which shows a police officer presumably holding some of her equipment and having to lean way to one side against the weight of it. If I forget the link or your app doesn’t do html, @ me. Don’t forget, a lot of podcast players will let you share directly from the app. Overcast now lets you share specific clips from the show, which Twitter follower @anImaginaryEcho shared a clip she and I could both relate to from last week’s episode on failed utopias called We Built This City.
Beals’ her first *nationally recognized photograph was, of all things, a portrait of Sir Thomas Lipton, the inventor of the tea bag. In 1904, the Buffalo newspapers sent Jessie to the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Mo., and her husband went along to print her photographs. Beals was initially denied a press pass, but she convinced the organizers to let her photograph the fairgrounds before the exposition opened. Pass in hand, she simply stayed in once it opened. She climbed ladders and floated in hot air balloons to get her shots, ultimately becoming the official Fair photographer for the New York Herald, Tribune, Leslie’s Weekly, three Buffalo newspapers, all the local St. Louis papers, as well as the Fair’s own publicity department. Beals often generated photographs for which a writer would be assigned later, developed several story ideas which did get written and anticipated the use of series of photos or picture stories in place of the then-standard single images.
Beals created opportunities for herself by making pictures of dignitaries attending the Fair. She interrupted President Theodore Roosevelt on his tour of the Fair to make his photograph and followed him throughout the day, making more than 30 photographs. Her aggressiveness paid off when she was given credentials as a member of his Presidential party and accompanied Roosevelt to a reunion of the Rough Riders in San Antonio in March 1905.
Work as a news photographer dried up for Beals after the couple settled in New York City, so she and her husband opened a studio. The American Art News commissioned two women–Beals and Zaida Ben-Yúsuf–to make portraits of prominent artists. This assignment won approval from critics and colleagues who preferred Beals’ style and led to other jobs in major magazines. Beals’ maintained an art photography element in her repertoire for the next 20 years.
Early on, Beals envisioned an international career for herself. Even though she ended up concentrating on the United States, her interest in being on the road resulted in widely distributed publication including The Craftsman, American Homes and Gardens, Bit and Spur, Harper’s Bazaar, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. By 1928, when Beals was 58, she could no longer maintain her frenzied pace. With her daughter Nanette, then 17, she went to California where the wives of Hollywood executives were eager to have their mansions photographed. This project soon ended the next year when the stock market crashed. Beals and her daughter returned to New York, where she rented space in a darkroom and lived in a basement apartment, around the corner from her first New York studio. As a woman in her sixties, Jessie continued to win prizes with photographs of gardens and estates, but she never regained her earlier success. A lifetime of hustling for work had taken its toll on her body and lavish living had taken its toll on her bank account. Jessie Beals died in the charity ward of Bellevue Hospital May 30, 1942, at age 71.
Photography was by no means exclusively American occupation. Least of all because it was invented in France. So let us do what Jessie Beals couldn’t and go beyond these united states. When Homai Vyarawalla passed away in 2012 at age 98, it brought to a close her four decades of work as India’s first female photojournalist, documenting India’s independence and the transition that followed. Born to Parsi parents in December 1913, Homai was the daughter of a theater actor/director father and a mother who actually steered her away from a career in medicine, not wanting her to work long late-night shifts her whole life. She spent much of her childhood on the move because of her father’s travelling theatre group, but the family eventually settled in Mumbai (then called Bombay), where she attended the JJ School of Art. In college, Homai met her future husband Manekshaw Vyarawalla, who introduced her to photography.
She received her first assignment, to photograph a picnic, while she was still in college. It was published by a local newspaper, and she soon began to pick up more freelance work. Vyarawalla’s early work centered on photographing people from all walks of life around Mumbai, which drew more attention after her photographs were published in The Illustrated Weekly of India magazine. The Vyarawallas moved to Delhi in 1942 to work as photographers for the British Information Service. Vyarawalla was one of a scant few female photojournalists working at the time in Delhi and could often be seen cycling through the capital with her camera strapped to her back.
Vyarawalla stood on the front lines, sometimes literally, of a tumultuous transition from colonial rule to independence. Draped in a sari and lugging heavy photographic equipment, Vyarawalla was usually the only female photographer on scene. Luckily, this was an era when the media had unprecedented access and an ongoing camaraderie. “All of us helped each other,” she said of her male counterparts. “If someone was changing film, he would request another photographer to take an extra picture for him. We even traded negatives so that no one missed out on a good picture.”
Vyarawalla’s photos poetically captured pivotal moments in India’s history, like the first flag raising, the departure of British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, the celebration of the first Republic Day in 1950 and her favorite subject, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, whom she described as “the highest authority of the country. … very photogenic.”. Her work also includes candid, close-up photographs of celebrities and dignitaries who visited India, including China’s first prime minister Zhou Enlai, Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, Queen Elizabeth II, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and US President John F Kennedy. She had the rare distinction of getting to know her high-profile subjects intimately, a relationship she never exploited. Vyarawalla’s biggest professional regret, she would say in an interview was missing the meeting where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. She had been on her way to attend it when her husband called her back for some other work.
In 1966, when Indira Gandhi became India’s prime minister, the rules had suddenly shifted. Until then, Delhi photographers had been able to get close to important subjects with minimal effort. “I have taken photographs of presidents and prime ministers as close as 5 feet. We were never considered a security menace. From Indira Gandhi’s time, we had to stay at least 15 to 20 feet away while taking a picture,” noted Vyarawalla. That change in policy, that made impossible the candid photos that were such a part of her career, combined with her husband’s death a few years later, moved Vyarawalla to hang up her camera, retiring in 1970.
Vyarawalla’s story of triumph and commitment would have faded away had it not been for an inquisitive photographer who noticed a solitary female name in a long list of men in the Press Information Bureau records. He kept inquiring about her and, one fateful day in the early 1980s, she agreed to meet him at, fittingly, a camera repair shop. “It was after 50 years of having taken these pictures that I started to see the value of my work,” she wrote in March 2005. “I was just earning a living at that time with no thought of preserving it for posterity. In a country where a great man like Gandhiji has been forgotten, why would I be remembered? All I want today is for people, especially the young, to see what it was like to live in those days.” The Times of India called her “the grand old lady” and mentioned her numerous accolades, including the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor, bestowed on her in 2010.
Speaking of being honor — segues, I’ve still got them! — IT was another great week for send-ups and shout-outs from your fellow Brainiacs. Ryan over at conspiracy Theoryology gave me a great plug on his episode on the belief that Finland is a myth created to protect a prime fishing location and there isn’t even land there.
Neville Shane Davar posted on our FB page, “Each episode is like taking an informative holiday from my weekly grind . Thanks Moxie.” and thanks to everyone who shared pics of their pets on the post about Adopt a Shelter Pet day.
We got some great Twitter love from @seanish123 who retweeted the episode post and commented “I think this was my favorite episode ever. Hard choice to make, but this one was immensely interesting. I had only ever heard of the Shakers. All the rest of the societies you spoke of were completely new to me. Now I understand why Chris Traeger wanted an octagonal house.” (That’s Rob Lowe’s character on Parks & Rec.)
You can reach me all of those ways if you have a question or find a great fact, or you can leave it on my voicemail at 804-404-2669. It’s voicemail only, so my fellow introverts don’t have to worry about me picking up.
Just as Homai Vyarawalla documented India’s transition from British rule to independence, Tsuneko Sasamoto, considered the nation’s first female photojournalist, recorded Japan’s dramatic shift from a totalitarian regime to an economic superpower. Sasamoto’s subjects ranged from impoverished citizens in the lean postwar years, to student protesters and striking coal miners in the turbulent 60’s to independent-minded women born in the Meiji Era who struggled against deeply-entrenched sexism to find their own voices. And as far as I can tell, Sasamoto is still still alive and still shooting, at least as of age 101, when she had an exhibit open and was working on a book. Asked by a reporter if she carries her own equipment, she nodded. “Cameras have become much lighter lately. They are easy to carry around.” Sasamoto prefers the older mechanical cameras but she has made the switch to digital, though she admits it can be difficult to understand the different functions on the camera.
Born in 1914 in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, Sasamoto’s father was a kimono dealer. He was staunchly against her early dreams to be a painter or novelist, but Sasamoto’s mother allowed her to attend an art institute without her father’s knowledge (her progressive mother would also later deflect relatives’ attempted to arrange a marriage for Sasamoto). When work as an illustrator fell through, Sasamoto was offered a job as a “photo agent” in the new Photography Foundation, established during the second Sino-Japanese war in 1939. The idea of being Japan’s first female photojournalist resonated with her deeply… despite the fact that she’d barely held a camera up to that point.
Despite claims of youthful shyness, the young photographer often acted boldly. At a shoot with a foreign dignitary, Sasmoto messed up a photograph. Normally, that would mean no photo, but Sasamoto went to one of the prominent people involved and in the best English she could, asked if they would let me take their picture again. This risky moved paid dividends. Word got around of a female photographer who spoke English and she began to get specific assignments to shoot foreign dignitaries.
In those years, before the electric flash, photographers had to pack as many flashbulbs as they could carry, plus the heavy camera and other equipment, and could only take as many photos as they had bulbs. But that wasn’t the biggest inconvenience. “What troubled me most,” Sasamoto recalled, “was the fact that women had to put on skirts and high heels when they worked,” which was no help when she had to climb step-ladders to shoot from a higher angle. This, of course, paled in comparison to the sexist and discriminatory comments from officials and other bureaucrats she was trying to shoot. What’s more, her father and brother worried about her working late at the night and her brother urged her to give up work and get married before it was too late.
Sasamoto did marry, and then divorce in her 30s, because she could not spend enough time with him as a busy freelancer. Her second marriage ended when her husband passed away decades ago. Living alone, she’s careful to look after herself, swearing by a glass of red wine every night and a piece of chocolate every day. “I also eat a lot of meat. People often say old people shouldn’t eat meat because it is bad for their health, but that is not true,” she said. Getting old is rough, even for strong, independent women. In the span of a year, Sasamoto broke both legs and a hand, but even while undergoing physical therapy, Sasamoto was busy photographing flowers for a tribute to a friend that passed away.
In 2017, Sasmoto received The Lucie Award for Lifetime Achievement, a sort of Oscars for photographers, in recognition of her long career: “Ms. Sasamoto’s lifetime work has been focused on taking pictures of independent-minded women who have struggled through the hard times of the Meiji Era, when women did not have much freedom or much choice in life.”
You can’t talk about photojournalism without talking about war. Here we have more potential subjects than such an advanced species should. We’ll go with photojournalist and war correspondent Dickey Chapelle, who was born Georgette Louise Meyer in March 1918 in Wisconsin. By the age of sixteen, she was attending aeronautical design classes at MIT. She worked at a local airfield, hoping to become a pilot; however her mother found out she was having an affair with one of the pilots and forced Georgette to move to Florida to live with her grandparents. She found work there writing press releases for local air shows. Her work took her to Havana where witnessed a Cuban pilot crash during an air show; she rushed to a pay phone and landed a story in The New York Times. Eventually, she moved to New York, where she met her future husband, Tony Chapelle, and began working as a photographer for Trans World Airlines, which kicked off her photography career. It was after her divorce fifteen years later that Georgette started going by Dickey. She took the name from Admiral Richard “Dickey” Byrd, who had spoken at her high school.
Despite middling photographic credentials and at a time when most editors did not send women to war zones, Chapelle managed to convince the Navy to allow her cover the front lines in the Pacific theater of World War II, and following Marines into the deadly battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. She accompanied Fidel Castro in the jungles of Cuba; was smuggled into Algeria by rebels to cover their side of the story in the war with France; and made parachute jumps into conflict zones of Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, she was imprisoned for two months in Hungary, and probably escaped being executed by stuffing her tiny camera into a glove and tossing it out the window on the way to an interrogation. Through her career, she reported from Japan, India, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Cuba, Algeria, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Korea, Laos, and Vietnam. She learned to jump with paratroopers and usually travelled with the troops. This helped to earn the respect of both the military and journalistic community, though Chappelle would still be on the receiving end of orders like “Get that broad the hell out of here!” Chapelle was a tiny woman known for her strong will and her signature uniform: fatigues, an Australian bush hat, black-rimmed glasses, and pearl earrings.
Dickey left the United States for Vietnam in 1961. After a trip to Laos where she observed unacknowledged American CIA operatives in combat there, Chapelle realized that nobody back home had a clue what was really happening in Southeast Asia. Chapelle tried repeatedly to report on what she was seeing, but nobody was buying her dispatches. After a number of failed attempts to discredit Chapelle, the government used a different tactic to silence her — they put her to work for the CIA and 800 of her photographs “disappeared.”
On November 4th, 1965, while Chapelle was traveling with a patrol in Vietnam, the Marine lieutenant walking in front of Chappelle stepped on a tripwire, setting off an explosive boobytrap made of a mortar shell and hand grenade. Schrapnel severed her carotid artery. Chapelle became the first female American war correspondent killed in action. Her last moments were captured in a photograph by Henri Huet, including the chaplain giving her the Catholic sacrament of last rites. You can see her pearl earring; her bush hat lays nearby. Her body was repatriated with an honor guard of six Marines and she was given full Marine burial. In October 2016, Chapelle was officially declared an honorary Marine. And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. This was another topic where I ended with more subjects to cover than I started with, like Gerda Taro, German Jewish war photographer active during the Spanish Civil War, who is regarded as the first female photojournalist to die on the frontlines in a war. So keep your earballs open for part 2, and probably 3, somewhere down the road. Thanks…
And a happy belated birthday to superfan Michael Kannisto. I can’t sing you Happy Birthday, not because it’s copyrighted, but because I have a singing voice like a kid’s first bagpipe.