The Play of Light and Dark: Gertrude Käsebier

Gertrude Käsebier is a name I am sure a lot of you are not familiar with. I know I wasn’t until just recently. I just happened upon her work a few weeks ago and was immediately fascinated. Käsebier was one of the most influential American photographers of the early 20th century. Frances Benjamin Johnston considered her to be a genius and her work to be “at once the inspiration and despair of the growing army of pictorial photographers.” Known for her evocative images of motherhood and her “powerful” portraits of Native Americans, she was also a strong advocate for photography as a career for women.

Born in 1852 and married at the age of 22 to a businessman named Eduard Käsebier, her life seemed fairly average. She had three children and was living a normal middle-class life, although it doesn’t sound like it was a happy one. One of the few things that is known about Käsebier was that she was her marriage was not easy. She commented after her husband’s death, “If my husband has gone to heaven, I want to go to hell. He was terrible… nothing was ever good enough for him.” This relationship served as inspiration for this photograph entitled “Yoked and Muzzled – Marriage”.

Divorce was quite scandalous at that time so they spent most of their time apart, basically agreeing to disagree. At the age of 37, however, something changed. It is not clear what that something was. Maybe she got bored. Maybe she was lonely. Maybe she just wanted something different in her life. Whatever it was, she ended up going to the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in Brooklyn to study painting. And, despite their differences, her husband paid for the schooling, and, despite his objections, allowed her to move the family closer to the school.

She threw her heart and soul into studying. Although she formally studied drawing and painting, she quickly found her passion in photography. Her style was greatly influenced by the theories of Friedrich Frobel, a 19th century scholar whose ideas about learning, play and education led to the development of the first kindergarten. His concepts about the importance of motherhood affected Käsebier greatly and a lot of her photographs emphasized the bond between mother and child.

Having very little professional training she opened a studio in 1897. Her reputation spread and Käsebier’s fame came quickly. She soon had the distinction of being one of the first two women elected to Britain’s Linked Ring, an organization that was started to enhance photography as a fine art. The Linked Ring was trying to distance itself from “photography for the masses”. They were tired of the idea that anyone could press a button and take a photograph. Being invited to this group was proof that she was accepted among her peers as an artist and was a big honor.

Some of her more well-known portraits came about because she wrote a letter to William F. Cody, the organizer of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. She had gone to see the show in New York and it brought back a lot of happy memories of playing with Native American children during her childhood. She wrote to him requesting to photograph the people in his show. When she took these portraits, she did the complete opposite of Edward Curtis, another photographer famous for his portraits of Native Americans. Where he put his subjects in front of elaborate backgrounds and added props for authenticity, Käsebier took simple photographs. Her goal from the beginning was to “make likenesses that are biographies, to bring out in each photograph the essential personality.” She wanted to capture the strength and experiences behind the faces of these people.

Alfred Stieglitz soon began to take notice of Käsebier. He called her “beyond dispute, the leading artistic portrait photographer of the day.” When forming the Photo-Secession group (the American counterpart to the Linked Ring), he brought her in as a founding member. Critics praised her for having done more for artistic portraiture than any other of her time by her sense of “what to leave out.” She did what a lot of us strive to do when taking a portrait. She didn’t rely on gimmicks or props; she just saw the person and was able to capture that in the photograph.

It was said that her purpose in taking photographs was “not to inform, but to share an experience, to evoke an emotional response from the viewer.” Käsebier loved using relaxed poses in natural light. She would experiment with the play of light and dark and would have the subject fill the frame so there was little room left in the edges of the photograph.

Her talent did not end at pressing the shutter, however. She was also very creative in the printing process. She would often use brushwork to manipulate the backgrounds of her portraits to achieve an iridescent effect. She used a variety of printing techniques, including platinum, gum bichromate and silver. She did not, however, retouch the subjects of the photographs, because she felt that destroyed the evidence of human character, making people “look like peeled onions.”

While Käsebier was making a name for herself as an artist, she was also using her growing fame to influence other female photographers. She encouraged other women to take up photography as a career, saying, “I earnestly advise women of artistic tastes to train for the unworked field of modern photography. It seems to be especially adapted to them, and the few who have entered it are meeting a gratifying and profitable success.” Many young women starting out in photography actually sought her out to learn and to be inspired.

Käsebier continued to photograph, exhibit and teach until 1925 when she started to lose her sight. She died in 1934 at the age of 82 and was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1979. When we look at her portraits today, we can see the personality, the essence of her subject, and almost see them speaking through her photographs. We can see that she achieved what so few of us are able to do, to capture a true portrait of someone.

View images by Gertrude Käsebier on Pinterest

Recommended Reading

Gertrude Käsebier: The Complexity of Light and Shade
Gertrude Kasebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs

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