Ladies of the Lens: New Photo Show Features Women Photographers Who Changed the Game

Life Magazine Six Photographers
The exhibit, LIFE: Six Women Photographers, at the New-York Historical Society through October 6, 2019, features the work of Margaret Bourke-White, one of LIFE Magazine’s first four full-time photographers, one of only six women LIFE photographers; her photograph was the cover of LIFE’s inaugural issue © Karen Rubin/

Finally, female photographers who changed the game will get the credit and recognition they deserve in a new exhibition celebrating pioneering women photographers. The exhibit, called LIFE: Six Women Photographers, is a partnership between LIFE Magazine and the New-York Historical Society. Together they are shining a spotlight on groundbreaking female photographers with work that spanned decades, from the 1930s to the 1970s. And while their work is clearly worthy of praise, it sadly hasn’t received the attention it deserves, until now, more than 50 years later.

It’s important to note, this is the first exhibition ever to focus on the women of LIFE Magazine, and it’s definitely the first time the women behind the camera are getting the acclaim and focus they earned over decades of hard work and passion. These women didn’t just do their jobs and take photographs. They had to fight for their space in the photojournalism field and had to literally physically fight for the opportunity to get these shots. These women not only shaped history, but they also influenced the way people experienced history and the way we view those periods in time, still today. 

If you ask curator Marilyn Kushner, it’s about time these women get their due. “Many of these women are not known, they’re not even in photography history books,” said Kushner, who will co-curate this exhibit. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.” 

Why this Exhibit Matters

At a time when female photographers were few and far between, and female professionals, let alone women photojournalists, were a rarity, these women were capturing the state of the country and the world with their photos. And yet, no one knows who they are. Imagine dedicating your life to important work, and having no one know that you are the talent behind the photos. Imagine watching men receive constant applause for work that does not even compare to your own achievements. As it turns out, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

These women are not mentioned in history books; their photos are not shared in photography collections and up until now, their groundbreaking images were never shared publicly in any sort of exhibition or show. That only makes this exhibit that much more meaningful and impressive. 

Each of the women featured at this exhibition worked at LIFE Magazine during the mid-20th century, beginning in the 1930s through the 70s. Their iconic visuals and photography style perfectly represented the mission of LIFE, and they were some of the magazine’s most talented photographers brought on board after editor Henry Luce’s photography-centric weekly launched in 1936. 

LIFE Magazine was one of the first weekly periodicals to focus on imagery and photography rather than just the written word. It was all a part of Luce’s vision for the magazine. In a confidential memo Luce circulated throughout the Time Inc. offices back in 1936 he expressed his admiration for the work of these women photographers: “At the forefront of history, these photographers enabled the public to see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events,” during an era he dubbed the “American Century.” 

During the years that LIFE Magazine was such a big part of the human experience, Americans saw the country and the world through the lens of the photographers featured prominently in the magazine. Now, several decades later, we’re learning that many of those talented photographers were women. “These pioneering women photographers captured events international and domestic, wide-ranging and intimate, serious and playful,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. And now is our chance to honor their contribution to society, and celebrate their masterful work.

What You Can Expect to See There

This expansive exhibit will feature works by these six female photojournalists, with a total of more than 70 images from these prominent photographers, all of whom worked at LIFE magazine in the 1930s through the 1970s. The women who will be featured are: Marie Hansen, Martha Holmes, Lisa Larsen, Nina Leen, Hansel Mieth, and Margaret Bourke-White. The photos will be organized into sections by artist, and the exhibit will be a combination of enlarged images as well as photos matted and framed in black. 

Nina Leen Life Photographer
Beauty school, 1940s. (Nina Leen/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

These photographers covered a wide range of subjects, so you can expect the exhibit to represent that vast collection of images. From celebrity photos to candid shots of homelessness and other social issues that plagued the country during their time the exhibition will cover it all. There is also a lot of war coverage, from World War II to the cold war.  In fact, Margaret Bourke-White, the photographer who shot the first ever cover for LIFE’s inaugural issue, was also the first American female photographer to enter the Soviet Union and cover active World War II combat zones. Another featured photographer, Marie Hansen, highlighted women’s contributions to the war effort by capturing a room full of gas mask-wearing trainees from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), training for deployment in WWII. 

Another photojournalist, Martha Holmes, chose to cover pop culture and celebrities, but she managed to infuse social commentary into her photos, capturing the racial tension and shifting social landscape of the times. In addition to photographing celebs such as Jackson Pollock, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Judy Garland, she is best known for her 1950 snapshot of a white woman embracing mixed-race singer Billy Eckstine. This photo, one of Holmes’ favorites, was met with criticism from fans and editors. LIFE almost didn’t run the photo. “It was before the civil rights movement got going,” she said before her death. Luckily, Henry Luce decided to run it, noting that’s what the future was going to be like. 

billy eckstine frank sinatra Martha Holmes
Billy Eckstine and Frank Sinatra, who both had shows coming up at the Paramount Theater, appear together on a call-in radio show 1949

All in all, the photos are moving, eye opening, and transformative — it’s like traveling back in time to when they were taken in the first place. According to the New York Historical Society Museum & Library, this exhibit “reveals these photographers’ important role in creating modern photojournalism and defining what LIFE editor-in-chief Henry Luce called the “American Century.” 

The LIFE: Six Women Photographers exhibit is currently on display at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West) in Manhattan. It will run through October 6th, so check it out while you can.

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