by Pat Joel

In recent years, various exhibits have posed the question “Why women photographers?” to stimulate discussion about what is to be gained by gathering together works created solely by women photographers. Cathy Newman, author of  Women Photographers at National Geographic (National Geographic, 2000), says that if we line up a dozen photographs, half taken by women, half taken by men, we probably could not tell the difference. However, gender can affect the story a woman photographer obtains by virtue of access. Newman’s book reveals that sometimes the door opens more readily to a woman, sometimes the door doesn’t open at all, and sometimes a female photographer must enter through a side door.

It is increasingly acknowledged that previously there has been underrepresentation of women’s photography in museum collections and major art exhibits. To address this imbalance, some colleges and museums have recently held exhibits and courses on the topic of women photographers. For example, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., is dedicated to sharing the works of women artists, and provides teaching resources to educators. Always eager to explore the potential of new technologies, some women photographers have discovered a great equalizer in the Internet. Librarians and teachers too can enjoy ease of access to the online exhibits and galleries the Web provides.

In order to measure the significance of women’s perspectives on an artistic or historical level, students need to know specifically who these women are, under what conditions they have pursued their profession, and what promise their lives hold for today’s young women. From a science and technology viewpoint, students will be interested in the challenges posed by early cameras, such as the malodiferous chemicals that ate holes in clothing and blackened fingernails. They can chart the advances and contributions of women as their sphere of influence gradually widened from the inner circle of family and friends to the national transitions and upheavals of the twentieth century. Finally, they can read firsthand accounts of the risks undertaken by female photojournalists on the war fronts and in foreign countries whose cultures proscribe independent activity by women.



Lowry, Lois. Looking Back: A Book of Memories. 1998. 192p. Houghton/Walter Lorraine, $16 (0-395-89543-X); Delacorte, paper, $12.95 (0-385-32699-8).

Gr. 4–8. In this unusually constructed memoir, Lowry randomly assembles photographs of herself, her family, and her friends. These are interwoven with episodes from her life, brief excerpts from her books, and linkages to the characters Lowry has created.

Partridge, Elizabeth. Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange. 1998. 128p. Viking, $21.99 (0-670-87888-X); Puffin, paper, $10.99 (0-14-230024-1).

Gr. 6–up. This fine photo-essay contains more than 60 black-and-white photographs showing Lange’s empathy for her subjects. Partridge draws a portrait of not only Lange’s professional challenges but her personal ones as well, especially her father’s desertion of the family in her youth and her encounter with polio.

Rubin, Susan Goldman. Margaret Bourke-White: Her Pictures Were Her Life. 1999. 96p. Abrams, $19.95 (0-8109-4381-6).

Gr. 6–up. This excellent biography is perfect for middle- and high-school students and gives broad coverage of Bourke-White’s life and career. The book discusses how she was one of the “Founding Four” Life magazine photographers and was sent on assignment during World War II. The accompanying photographic reproductions are authentic to her professional intentions in their crispness and clarity. Also see Emily Keller’s Margaret Bourke-White: A Photographer’s Life (Lerner, 1996).

Sills, Leslie. In Real Life: Six Women Photographers. 2000. 80p. Holiday, $19.95 (0-8234-1498-1); paper, $9.95 (0-8234-1752-2).

Gr. 7–up. This collective biography is a wonderful source of information about the lives of Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems, and Elsa Dorfman. The reproductions of their photographic works are excellent, with crisp resolution on glossy white paper.

Welch, Catherine A. Margaret Bourke-White. Illus. by Jennifer Hagerman. 1997. 64p. Lerner/Carolrhoda, $22.60 (0-87614-890-9).

Gr. 2–4. This is a good introduction to Bourke-White’s successful career as she exposed human tragedy to the world. Colored chalk drawings are substituted for reproductions of her photographs.

Welch, Catherine A. Margaret Bourke-White: Racing with a Dream. 1998. 112p. Lerner/Carolrhoda, $25.26 (1-57505-049-8).

Gr. 4–7. This biography details how Bourke-White made transitions from industrial photography to advertising to photo-essays. A clear and attractive design, plus small photo reproductions, marks this book in the Trailblazers series.

Wolf, Sylvia. FOCUS: Five Women Photographers. 1994. 64p. Whitman, o.p.

Gr. 5–7. Though out of print, this collective biography is an outstanding reference. The photographers whose lives and works it includes are Julia Margaret Cameron, Margaret Bourke-White, Flor Garduno, Sandy Skoglund, and Lorna Simpson.

Wooten, Sara McIntosh. Margaret Bourke-White: Daring Photographer. 2002. 128p. Enslow, $20.95 (0-7660-1534-3).

Gr. 4–6. This accessible volume from the People to Know series follows Bourke-White’s professional and personal life.


Ewald, Wendy. The Best Part of Me: Children Talk about Their Bodies in Pictures and Words. 2001. 32p. Little, Brown, $16.95 (0-316-70306-0).

Gr. 1–3. Wendy Ewald asked children a compelling question: What is the best part of you? An outgrowth of the Literacy through Photography program Ewald originated at Duke University, this is an example of how photography and writing can be combined to encourage kids, particularly girls, to think more positively about their own bodies.

Grossman, Mendel, and Frank Dabba Smith. My Secret Camera: Life in the Lodz Ghetto. 2000. 32p. Harcourt/Gulliver, $16 (0-15-202306-2).

Gr. 4–8. Black-and-white images tell the story of loving, vivacious people who were reduced to subsistence living conditions in the Lodz ghetto in 1940s Poland. The text, by Smith, is minimal; Grossman’s photos—evocative and sad but not traumatic—say it all.

Haslam, Andrew. Photography. 2000. 48p. Two-Can, $12.95 (1-58728-372-7); paper, $6.95 (1-58728-358-1).

Gr. 4–6. Haslam’s book covers 18 topics related to photography, with hands-on projects for each. Glossy, brightly colored photographs and clear, concise steps mark the text, which is accompanied by a glossary of boldfaced terms, in this title from the Make It Work! Science series.

Hubbard, Jim. Shooting Back from the Reservation: A Photographic View of Life from Native American Youth. 1994. 112p. New Press, paper, $17 (1-56584-206-5).

Gr. 5–8. Shooting Back, an organization founded by Jim Hubbard in 1989, is dedicated to empowering America’s disenfranchised children by teaching them photography techniques. An earlier photo-essay by Hubbard, Shooting Back: A Photographic View of Life by Homeless Children (Chronicle, 1991), was based on the lives of homeless children in Washington, D.C. This book is a collection of black-and-white photos, essays, and poems by Native American children and teens in the Midwest and Southwest.

Johnson, Neil. National Geographic Photography Guide for Kids. 2001. 80p. National Geographic, paper, $12.95 (0-7922-6370-7).

Gr. 4–6. Superb, glossy color photos accompany such topics as composing a photograph and digital photography. The section on Judi Cobb, who was one of the first photojournalists allowed to photograph women in Saudi Arabia, is a jewel.

Oxlade, Chris. Cameras. 2000. 64p. Southwater, paper, $6.95 (1-84215-118-5).

Gr. 4–6. Large, glossy color photographs illustrate this compendium of photography how-tos, experiments, and projects. Ideas for developing film, making a pinhole camera, and photography tricks are some of the activities featured.

Sandler, Martin W. Photography: An Illustrated History. 2002. 160p. Oxford, $29.95 (0-19-512608-4).

Gr. 6–up. Sandler presents the history of photography, from the daguerreotypes of the mid-1800s to acceptance as an art form.

Varriale, Jim. Take a Look Around: Photography Activities for Young People. 1999. 32p. Millbrook, $23.90 (0-7613-1265-X).

Gr. 5–8. Students who shared 35mm point-and-shoot cameras took all the black-and-white images that appear in this book. A definite find for aspiring photographers, the book’s wide format and emphasis on the art of shooting photos distinguish it from other books on photography for children.

Wallace, Joseph. Turning Point Inventions: The Camera. 2000. 80p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $17.95 (0-689-82813-6).

Gr. 4–7. Through lively and fascinating pictures, Wallace explores the impact of the camera by showing us the world before its invention, how inventors worked toward its development, how the world has been changed by it, and its future. Contains a special full-color foldout showing in detail how a camera works.


Byars, Betsy. Keeper of the Doves. 2002. 112p. Viking, $14.99 (0-670-03576-9).

Gr. 3–6. Amen McBee, born in 1891, comes of age with the guidance of her parents and Grandmama, who helps Amen and her sisters reveal their unique natures by giving them new Brownie cameras and encouraging them to find subjects to photograph. This leads to another revelation—the nature of Mr. Tominski, the “dove magician,” who lives in the old chapel behind their house.

Gregory, Kristiana. Earthquake at Dawn. 1992. 192p. Harcourt/Gulliver, paper, $6 (0-15-

Gr. 5–9. This is a fictionalized version of the exploits of 22-year-old photographer Edith Irvine, whose images of the 1906 California earthquake revealed pervasive damage that belied government attempts to minimize its extent. Unfortunately, the photographic reproductions here are small and blurry.

Ingold, Jeanette. Pictures, 1918. 1998. 160p. Harcourt, $16 (0-15-201809-3); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (0-14-130695-5).

Gr. 6–9. Fifteen-year-old Asia McKinna, living in rural Texas during World War I, discovers a passion for photography. Ultimately, she finds her pursuit of this interest helps her deal with her feelings about the war, a series of unsolved arsons in her town, and her changing emotions about her long-time friend, Nick.

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. Rain Is Not My Indian Name. 2001. 144p. HarperCollins, $15.95

Gr. 5–7. Fourteen-year-old Cassidy has isolated herself since the death of her best friend. When controversy arises over her aunt Georgia’s Indian Camp, she is asked to take photographs for the town newspaper. Eventually she has to decide just how involved to get with her intertribal community.

Discussion Questions

  • If a picture is worth a thousand words, how might those words be different if spoken by a woman narrator? Were early women photographers restricted in their ability to experiment with the new invention of the camera? Students can read about photographic pioneers Julia Cameron and Imogen Cunningham to draw their conclusions.
  • Photography has always been valued for its ability to show the truth. Whose truth is being depicted? Does the truth come from the subject of the photo or the person who makes the choice of what to photograph and what to leave out?
  • What kind of impact do current technological advances (such as laser photography, digital computer imaging, and holograms) have on the science and art of photography?
  • How do photographs of social or historical events affect us differently than paintings of the same events? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Students may refer to the photographic work of Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange to make comparisons with pictures of paintings from books or magazines.
  • What is the difference between a snapshot of a person and a photographic portrait? To help explore the distinction, students may observe the photographic work of Elsa Dorfman in En famille (Granary, 1999), a book that features many family portraits. The entire contents may be found online at
  • How are we to define the work of modern photographers who use a combination of media? For example, Sandy Skoglund constructs scenes for her camera rather than looking for something to photograph. Carrie Mae Weems combines her love of folklore, storytelling, and photography by writing beneath her images to expand our understanding of the moment.


  • Sponsor a women’s photography exhibition with a reception, gallery talks, and a catalog made by students. Invite visitors to take the gender challenge posed by author Cathy Newman by displaying a dozen photographs, six taken by women and six taken by men. Have gallery visitors record their guesses as to the gender of each photographer.
  • Using magazines and newspapers as sources, ask students to collect portraits, representing many cultures, that depict a theme such as “Family.” In an accompanying chart, list the cultures or countries the images represent.In three additional columns answer the following questions: How do you feel when looking at the photograph? What do you see that makes you feel that way? What else do you see? These three questions will elicit specific and detailed observations with the photograph always the primary reference point.
  • Have students collect snapshots and/or photo images to assemble a photomontage depicting the theme “Generations.” The black-and-white photography of Lola Alvarez Bravo can be used to model the technique. As they choose images to depict the theme, ask students what age ranges and genders they need to represent. Encourage students to arrange and rearrange the various elements until they are satisfied, paying particular attention to balance and composition. The addition of sketching, painting, and words can be optional. Display photomontages so groups can observe how others represented the theme, and encourage discussion.
  • Teachers can help students create personal photomontages. Begin by having students take photographs of themselves in school; then have them add photos and artwork representative of other areas in their lives to create a biographical collage. Use Lowry’s Looking Back as a starting point for this activity.
  • Link historical literature with photographs from the same era. The home front and war front photographs of Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White, respectively, span such topics as WWII, the Great Depression, Japanese American internment, and the Holocaust. Young adult selections such as Autumn Street (Houghton, 1980) and Number the Stars (Houghton, 1989), both by Lois Lowry, Journey to Topaz (Creative Arts, 1971) and Journey Home (Simon & Schuster, 1978), both by Yoshiko Uchida, and Out of the Dust (Scholastic, 1997) by Karen Hesse parallel these major events. Picture-book comparisons are also informative; for example, in The Bracelet (Philomel, 1993) by Yoshiko Uchida, one can see the visual echoes of actual documentary photographs taken by Lange.

Pat Joel is a reading teacher who recently completed an online certificate program in youth literature and technology from Rutgers University.