Before Roberta Bayley snapped The Ramones punk barely had a name. She charged the drainpipe limbed human Afghan hounds just $125 for their now-iconic debut album cover. With a grotty grey tone and the snotty asocial manner of her subjects, her lens said this is punk as much as the music contained therein. Part of the reason she proved so successful at capturing the zeitgeist is that she filmed it from within. This, in part, is the story of female photography and why women have crystalised culture through a lens that defied the usual male gaze.
In a male-dominated industry, grassroots trailblazers like Annie Leibovitz, Lynn Goldsmith and Phyllis Christopher defied the bourgeoisie by placing themselves within the movements themselves. This not only meant they skirted around the usual gatekeeper channels that wouldn’t let them in, but that their unprecedented access allowed for images of genuine intimacy. In short, females pioneered a style of gonzo-photography that the more mechanically trained traditions missed out on. And if the boom of pop culture was about anything, it was about everyone suddenly being part of the discussion.
This was true when Frances Benjamin Johnston first began photographing all-black subjects at the Hampton Institute with evident empathy in an education project of former slaves, and it continued up until Leibovitz’s lens became a voyeur view of the counterculture movement.
Nevertheless, struggles still remained, as Eve Arnold declared: “I didn’t want to be a woman photographer. That would limit me. I wanted to be a photographer who was a woman, with all the world open to my camera.” Fortunately, Arnold did overcome obstacles and provided a new sympathetic gaze to photography. “If a photographer cares about the people before the lens,” Arnold once said, “and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.”
To celebrate the works achieved by female photographers over the course of the 20th century in the field of pop culture, we have curated the finest examples that our partners over at Taschen have to offer. From the trailblazing force of Annie Leibovitz to Lynn Goldsmith’s ability to craft creatively intimate relationships, these glorious images tell a story of a movement in a very meta sense.
Trailblazing female photography of pop culture:
In 1970, Annie Leibovitz’s career began as a photojournalist for Rolling Stone. She was only 21 years old but suddenly found herself thrust into the heart of highwire zeitgeist and her lens bottled up spiritually iconic moments like Tom Wolfe’s pen. This notion of getting to the true heart of a subject rather than capturing the gaudy aesthetic is something that soared in her work.
As she said herself, “I’ve said about a million times that the best thing a young photographer can do is to stay close to home. Start with your friends and family, the people who will put up with you. Discover what it means to be close to your work, to be intimate with a subject. Measure the difference between that and working with someone you don’t know as much about. Of course, there are many good photographs that have nothing to do with staying close to home, and I guess what I’m really saying is that you should take pictures of something that has meaning for you…”
That style of intimacy was a million miles away from a lot of her male counterparts who were hoping for the salacious scoop. In turn, she caught the naked vulnerability of defining artists of the era in a state of downed tools and painted scenes like a tapestry of the times as they unfurled before her flicking lens. Below you can see examples of her work from the Taschen publication Annie Leibovitz: The Early Years. 1970–1983.
The revolution of punk was integral to the progression of culture as a whole. It was a movement that they’ll be talking about in a thousand years time as the moment that the stiff-upper-lip of art was smacked off of its face if there is anything left to remember it by. The fact that Lynn Goldsmith’s images of Patti Smith helped to capture the vulnerable core of it is a stunning force to behold.
“All the friends I’ve had in life since I’ve been 20, probably, my closest friends, have been collaborators,” Smith says. “I’m a worker, and I’m not that social, so my relationships, my long-term relationships, are usually work-centric, as well as love-centric, really caring about the person.” Rarely has a sense of friendship been captured with such artistic fidelity as her collaboration with Goldsmith.
As Taschen explains in Lynn Goldsmith, Patti Smith: Before Easter After, “Goldsmith’s studio shoots with Smith capture the enormous contradictions between ideals of strength and beauty, and are testament to Goldsmith’s unique ability to draw out both the cool and the spirit of her subjects.” You can check out a collection of those images below.
Bettina Rheims’ career kickstarted back in 1978, when she took a series of photos of a group of strippers and acrobats, launching herself as a daring new eye in the photography world. Eroticism traditionally held a male gaze but Rheims entered into it and her lens didn’t flinch offering up a new take on intimacy.
Since then, she has braced all the slings and arrows flung her way as she boldly goes where her lens leads her even if it does attract controversy. Her view, however, was that art is art and if happens to be bipartisan then so be it. “I have always believed that whether the work is my idea or a commission, it is personal work,” she once said. “In the end, as my old master Helmut Newton used to say, there are only two kinds of pictures: the good ones and the bad ones.”
With this mindset, her images have explored the Freudian side of the psyche in a boldly alluring fashion. This takes a defiant sense of artistry and a sense of boldness that has illuminated the way for others. As she once said, “I think that I first started to shoot naked women because I wanted my father to look at my images and father liked very pretty women.” There is a wry smile to the frank psychology that comes across in the images depicted below from the Taschen collection simply titled Bettina Rheims.