With a Female Eye

Posted April 3, 2009 at 4:03pm

At the turn of the 20th century, Hungarian female photographers not only had to strive for recognition, but they had to fight for their art form as well.

While photography was a legitimate art in the United States, experts in Hungary were skeptical about photography as a true art form since it required little training.

“Picturing Progress: Hungarian Women Photographers 1900-1945— at the National Museum of Women in the Arts shows how 21 Hungarian female photographers worked to do both of those things, by capturing the feminist movement they embodied and legitimizing their art form in the process.

An influx of peasants into cities and the takeoff of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1900s opened new doors for women in Hungary. While girls were not offered college educations or art training, they were sent to schools that prepared them to take part in the new working world.

One photograph at the exhibit shows girls who are studying for sales and civil service careers. This shift in emphasis to the working world helped female artists who sought their own careers. Female photographers began with small tasks in male photographers’ studios, working their way up to establish their own.

Olga Máté was one of the leaders in photography and a participant in the feminist movement. One of her photographs in the exhibit is of Carrie Lane Chapman Catt, a leader in women’s suffrage in the U.S. and head of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. Máté was known for her photographs of women and their children, a skill she passed on to other photographers.

An example at the museum is her photograph of Valéria Dienes and her two sons. To the viewer, she simply appears to be a loving mother with her children, but the wall text states that Dienes had received a Ph.D. in mathematics, philosophy and aesthetics, among many other accomplishments. That information gives the photograph new context, proving that women do not have to pick between motherhood and accomplishment.

Máté also experimented with ways to make photography a recognized art form. In Hungary, photography was considered a “technical trade,— forcing women to go abroad in other European cities to get real art education. Máté and many artists used the bromoil process for some pictures. This was an early 20th-century technique that made the photograph have soft, paint-like qualities. For instance, one picture is of a woman sitting in a room, but only her face looks like a photograph. Her dress, the background color and the flowers on a table have brush-stroke qualities that make the photograph look like a painting.

As photography in the art world grew, so did the number of female photographers.

By World War I, particularly because of the openings created by the number of men involved in the war, a new generation of female photographers came into prominence. Kata Kálmán, Judit Kárász and Kata Sugár, up-and-coming photographers at the time, focused not only on feminist topics but also the effects of war, poverty and political agendas. Photographer Marian Reismann linked the two generations of Hungarian female photographers. Reismann learned from Máté and was a friend and teacher to Klára Langer and Sugár.

Not all of the photographs in the exhibit are about war, politics or the feminist movement. Some are of people at leisure or displaying the human body, simply showing off the photographers’ artistic abilities and other interests. Coming a long way from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, some female photographers were able to make a living strictly off photography through advertising and selling their photographs and becoming professionally recognized.

In the early 1900s, the Hungarian press and professional literature were debating whether there were “biological, physiological, and psychological differences between men and women,— according to text from the exhibit.

In one quote from around 1910, a male journalist proclaimed that photography was a perfect fit for women because it only required “instinct, a light touch and good taste.—