Claire Yaffa: Thoughts of Photographers for Poets and Dreamers – Ladies Who Photograph, Chapter 11

Claire Yaffa took her first photograph 45 years ago when her son was 18 months old and it was the beginning of her journey, first as a mother, then as a photographer. She has worked extensively for The New York Times and Associated Press. Her photographs have appeared in countless influential publications and have been exhibited at major venues in the US and around the world.

Leica Notebook, Chapter 11

The ladies examined here who photographed were pioneers. They were not accepted into the masculine monopoly of photography. These women photographers, even if they were exceptional in their abilities and talent, worked hard to crack open the small light of opportunity, which widened for them with each photograph they were able to create. With passion and dedication, women photographers were able to contribute memorable images. The women who photograph today and yesterday have learned from the masters who have educated us. They have created images that resonate and remain with us even if some of them are no longer here.

Some of the photographers remembered in this chapter of my Leica Notebook are a part of my “Master Series of Photographers”. I am focusing on some of the masters who are no longer here and two women who photograph today.  I will include other contemporary photographers in the next chapters of my Leica Notebook. Lisl Steiner, a photojournalist, is 85 years young and still engaged in life’s process with photographs, capturing the joy of life. Jane Evelyn Atwood’s photographs have called attention to her concerns for humanity with her courage and dedication. The ladies who photograph have given us a legacy, which teaches and provides examples of their passionate commitment to express their ideas and vision to us all.  We hear and see their voices, remember them and thank them for enriching our lives with their vision. These ladies are the teachers for the next generation of artists. May we continue to learn from them and always remember the gift they have given us.


Inge Morath, 1923-2002

Inge Morath did not begin her career as a photographer. She wanted to be a writer and editor. Born in Austria, she studied languages and in Paris, after the war, she joined a group of young photographers, all men, who later founded Magnum Photos. She began her career as an editor and took some photographs for fun in Spain. After this, she began using her camera to photograph her passions. The results were a series of books beginning in the 1950s with War on Sadness and From Persia to Iran. She loved to photograph people whose work she admired making hundreds of portraits of artists. She was fluent in German, French, English and Spanish and learned the languages where she travelled like Mandarin and Russian.

She began photographing in 1951 and has said, “As I continued to photograph I became quite joyous. I knew I could express the things I wanted to say by giving them form through my eyes”.  After showing some of her photographs to Robert Capa, he invited her to join Magnum as a photographer, not editor. She worked with Henri- Cartier Bresson as a researcher and assistant and became a full member of Magnum soon after.  With Eve Arnold, they were among the first women members of Magnum Photos.  She traveled extensively for Magnum and also worked as a still photographer on many motion picture sets.

Her marriage to Arthur Miller in 1962 resulted in collaborations together and two children, Rebecca and Daniel. They lived in Connecticut, but also had a small apartment in New York where I photographed her. She welcomed me and seemed to enjoy our meeting and my photographing her. She invited me to come along with her to Magnum as she wanted to look at some of her recent contact sheets. After she introduced me to everyone, she forgot about me as I watched her at work. She was lovely to look at, warm and friendly and full of exuberance and joy, full of life, not exhibiting any signs of the illness which eventually caused her death. She said,”Photography is a strange phenomenon….You must trust your eye and cannot help bare your soul”. (Camera Austria, 1985)

 Barbara Morgan, 1900-1992

The subjects and techniques that Barbara Morgan photographed were nature, people, light drawings and photomontage, but her biggest love and commitment was to the art of the dance. She visualized the movement and beauty of dance and saw it as “the life force in action”. Her famous photograph of Martha Graham was taken in 1935 and she continued to photograph for more than five decades.

Born in Kansas, she grew up on a Southern California peach ranch.  Studying art at UCLA she read from the Chinese Six Canons of painting, about “rhythmic vitality” or the essence of life force. Her father’s influence that all things are made of “dancing atoms” was her philosophy as an artist.  Her husband Willard D. Morgan was a writer who illustrated his articles with his own photographs, owning two Model A Leicas. He was offered a job at E.Leitz, Inc. publicizing the new 35mm camera and the couple moved to New York. Giving birth to two boys one in 1932 and the other in 1935, she tried to find a way to be both a mother and an artist. Giving up painting, she opened her own studio with a darkroom doing her developing and printing at night, when the boys were asleep. In addition to her photographic projects of photographing the art of the dance, she photographed children at summer camp resulting in a treasured book, Summer’s Children. She experimented with light drawing and photomontage and was a founder of Aperture Magazine.

I met Barbara Morgan at her home and studio in Scarsdale, New York. She liked the fact I was photographing children, which was a special subject of hers.  She told me, “It is difficult to photograph tragic topics, but more difficult to photograph the celebration of life” She explained, “I ‘m not just a photographer or painter, she said, but a visually aware human being searching out ways to communicate the intensities and joy of life.”

Martine Franck, 1938-2012

Martine Franck became a photographer before she married Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1970. She was educated in Europe and studied history of Art at Madrid University and the Ecole du Louvre in Paris. She began photographing in 1963 when she went to China, taking her cousin’s Leica camera with her. She traveled to different countries and bought her first camera, a Leica, preferring black and white film. She used Leica during her photographic career. She worked as a photographic assistant at Time-Life.  She also learned from the masters and was said to be influenced by Julia Margaret Cameron for portraiture and by the photography of Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange. Martine Franck’s photographs appeared in many publications and she became the official photographer of the Theatre du Soleil. She married Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1970 and was thirty years younger than he was. They had a daughter, Melanie in 1972. She joined Magnum in 1980 and became a full member in 1983. She was quoted as saying,”Henri was both critical and inspirational as well as warmly supportive of me as a photographer.” Two years before Henri’s death she established The Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in 2002, receiving France’s highest honor, a chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur.

I was in a taxi, approaching the home of Martine Franck and Henri Cartier-Bresson on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. Helen Wright, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s representative, had asked Martine to arrange for me to photograph Henri. I had not planned to photograph Martine Franck. When I arrived, I was greeted warmly by Martine, a beautiful, elegant woman. She introduced me to her husband, warning me, “No flash, he hates it” and she then proceeded to convince him to let me photograph him. When I photographed them together, he seemed to enjoy it because she was lovingly there. The love shone in his eyes when he looked at her. With his wife there anything seemed possible, and I was able to photograph Henri Cartier-Bresson because she told him he had to let me do it! I also had the gift of photographing and meeting a remarkable, kind and forever remembered person, a lady who photographed, Martine Franck.

Lisette Model, 1901-1983

Lisette Model’s most famous photographs, taken on the Promenade des Anglais, were taken early in her career as a photographer. She was born in Vienna, educated by private tutors and at the age of nineteen went to Paris to study voice. Influenced by Arnold Schonberg, her interests changed when she met her future husband Evsa Model who was a painter. She married him in 1937 after giving up music in 1932 and beginning a study of visual art.  First as a painter, then as a photographer, she was taught by her younger sister, who was also a photographer. She worked for PM magazine and was published many times in Harper’s Bazaar. She began her career as a teacher at the San Francisco Institute of Fine Art and then in 1951 at The New School for Social Research in New York. She became a member of the photographic organization Photo League and was influenced with her studies  of photography by Sid Grossman.

I was fortunate to take a class with Lisette Model in the early 70s. Lisette, always dressed in black and sometimes wearing a bright green scarf, was very critical of her students often causing distress and sometimes tears. However, she was worshiped and respected even though there was a sting to her comments. A good remark was rare. She tried to get the most from her students and she often did. Diane Arbus, one of her most famous students said of her, “only the teacher who has himself been fulfilled through his medium is capable of putting another student in contact with himself “. Her comment to me was “dahling, you have such a long way to go”. She challenged you, trying to make you more aware, to work harder and reach deep into yourself before you pushed the shutter. Her famous quote stayed with me, “never take a picture unless it hits you in the pit of your stomach”. She became a treasured friend who reluctantly agreed to being photographed. She did not like her portrait! She thought, “The only purpose of art is to be creative. If a picture is good, it is creative; if it is bad, it’s not creative”.

Nell Dorr, 1895-1988

The work of Nell Dorr remains out of the mainstream of photographic history. She admired the photography of Gertrude Kasebier and Anne Brigman. Stieglitz encouraged her and influenced her as did Steichen who selected some of her photographs to end his exhibition “Family of Man” at The Museum of Modern Art.  Margaretta Mitchel in 1981 said of Dorr, “She is a story teller. The photography of Nell Dorr is an impressionistic journal of a woman’s inner journey, of her many aspects and archetypes: child, maiden, bride, mother, matriarch, and muse. She does not confront her subject with her camera; she reveals it. Her pictures are windows onto a world of dreams and memories.  For Nell Dorr, life itself is the work of art, photography, the means of revealing Life.” She describes herself as drawn to light. Her work is very subjective and has said,  “I am a baker of bread. I want to nourish people with my pictures. I use photography like language, to say things. I speak from my life”.

Nell Door was born in 1893, in Ohio, learning photography from her father.  She received a pinhole camera her father made for her seventh birthday. In the 1920s she established a portrait studio in Florida. She was married and had a growing family, eventually moving to New York. Photographing children in addition to portraits of wealthy and famous patrons, her publications “Mother and Child” and “Of Night and Day”, reflect her sensitivity and love for her subjects. “Of Night and Day” is a photographic essay on man’s quest for the meaning of life. The underlying theme is always “Mother and Child”, published in 1954.  It was originally produced after the death of her daughter.

She wrote then,” That life shall have meaning, not alone our own life and death, but equally sacred, that of all mankind you have to see it. Feel it.  Somehow it will come through. Life is greater than you know.  It is yours for the taking, this picture, not for the making.  Come close to it. Love it. Give it room to be. Learn to witness and wait.  The more still, the more open, the more will come”.

I loved the photography of Nell Dorr. I went to visit her in the 70s in Washington, Connecticut where she lived. Sitting in a wheel chair, she wanted to hold my camera. It was difficult for her because of her arthritic hands, but hold it she did as tears streamed own her face. This image of her always remained in my heart.

Nell Dorr, 1895-1988

Jane Evelyn Atwood, 1947-Present

“She forces us to see what we do not want to see.  Looking can be a disturbing Experience” Michael Guerrin, Le Monde 1991

Born in New York, Jane Evelyn Atwood has lived in Paris since 1971. She began photographing in 1976, photographing street prostitutes in Paris. Her early images of a project on blind children and her other photography was recognized by being the first recipient of the coveted W. Eugene Smith Grant, newly established in 1980.

Photographing many subjects as a photographer, in the tradition of Cornell Capa’s “concerned photographer”, she also spent ten years photographing incarcerated women in 9 countries of Europe and the United States, revealing the pain and hopelessness of imprisonment, calling attention to their suffering with her book published in 2000 and also a photo essay in The New York Times.

She has published six books and her publication on landmine victims in 5 countries most ravaged by these weapons: Mozambique, Angola, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Cambodia. She has recently completed a three year project for a book on Haiti. When asked about her latest project, “I never talk about what I’m working on before I’ve almost finished it.  I want to DO it, not talk it away.”

Lisl Steiner, 1927-Present

Born in Vienna and educated in Argentina, in 1957 she began her exploration of photography. After going to Art School, she made over 50 documentaries as an assistant. She worked on long features and also made a movie in Paraguay. It was then she decided to become a photographer. She photographed the revolution in 1955 in Argentina. She photographed the president of Argentina fishing, and it was published in Life magazine. It was her first published photograph. When Louis Armstrong came to Argentina, she captured a memorable image of him in his hotel room.

She has expressed that there are several themes in her photography. This includes working people, “The Worker” where she covered all of Latin America.  She photographed children at a garbage dump where they earned 50 cents for the day. She also took many of dramatic photographs of bones, transformed into soap, a revolution in Chile, the dead and her long term project of children around the world. Her photographs of Chimney Sweeps will be made into a national stamp for Vienna. There are many concerns in her world of photography and she has documented them saying, “You have to be self taught. I am in a trance when I photograph. There is something inside of me that says, this is going to be good and I don’t care, I just do it!I don’t plan the composition. Sometimes it is there and sometimes it is not .I let it happen”.

As early as 1949, Lisl Steiner began a large-scale photographic project of recording the artists, politicians and personalities of our time. Many of these portraits were photographs, but also her artist sketches.  She photographed the rich and famous including Castro, Malcolm X, Nikita Khrushchev and many world figures at the White House and around the world. Her image of people in Times Square, the day Kennedy was shot, remains an iconic memory of our history. Lisl Steiner, 85 years young, continues to photograph life and the world around her with joy, energy, and passion.

- Claire Yaffa

You can also see more of Claire’s work on her website, www.claireyaffa.com.