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'The work of women has long been overlooked; too many have been overshadowed or even forgotten,' says Lebart.isabel munoz /Handout

You’d be forgiven if upon hearing of a new definitive book on pre-eminent photographers throughout history, you picture intrepid white men and their work. After all, history has effectively erased women’s contributions to the practice – especially outside of Western countries.

So for Luce Lebart, women’s remarkable work in the field was just waiting to be rediscovered. The historian of photography and exhibition curator has, along with Marie Robert, co-authored A World History of Women Photographers, an encyclopedic collection of images that goes back to the beginning of the medium, in the 1800s. It also contains biographies written by some of the most pre-eminent women art historians, photographers, curators and gallerists working today.

Award-winning Canadian photojournalist Amber Bracken spoke with Lebart, who was director of the Canadian Photography Institute from 2016 to 2018, about the book and the importance of highlighting women’s works.

It seems you are often drawn to forgotten photographs, and even to an archivist’s worst nightmare: mould-ravaged photographs, abused and abandoned to their fate. What draws you to overlooked, neglected images?

Working with an archive is always an adventure. An archive is about links between documents, producers and their dreams. It’s a bit like a family: The same image or group of images can one day be seen as a document and later as art and then archive again. And in the end photography is all of that at the same time.

Beauty is everywhere, even in mould photographs, even though mould is the archivist’s number one enemy. We tend to just get rid of it and avoid it. When you move a bit and look at these mould photos in another way, their aesthetic and their vitality strikes you.

'In giving women more visibility, we are simply showing how many women photographers there are and always have been,' says Lebart.Zanele Muholi/Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York

How does a book on women photographers fit in?

The work of women has long been overlooked; too many have been overshadowed or even forgotten. This first struck me while I was working on a book in 2016 on the great photographers of the 20th century. I tried to include as many female photographers as male, but it was complicated. The fame of the male photographers superseded that of the female ones. The works of women photographers have rarely reached posterity.

One of the solutions was to create a book devoted exclusively to female photographers. For decades, work focusing on women photographers or artists has been carried out by women, so the concept flowed naturally. The idea of our book is as much to highlight women photographers as women authors.

With women so forgotten in photography history, how did you begin to find their work? Were you ever worried you might not find what you were looking for?

Our research relied on a network of international specialists, both men and women. The making of this book relied on an organic network, a kind of mycelium that spread and spread. Word of mouth is so magical.

Each time we were desperately looking for women photographers, we would find hundreds. The more we advanced, the more we discovered new photographers.

Courtesy of Thames & Hudson/Handout

I can’t help but notice Canada shows up strongly in the book.

My stay in Canada certainly influenced the project. I will always remember my wonderful colleague from the ROM, the Asian curator Deepali Dewan. Deepali challenged me to have a radical approach and to include as few as possible women from Europe and the U.S.

We were also helped by many Canadian historians and photographers, who gave strong advice and helped to balance representation across provinces. They also helped to include Canadian women from 19th century. My favourites are Hannah Maynard and Géraldine Moodie.

The works of women photographers have rarely reached posterity. Lebart wanted to change that.Sigriður Zoëga/The National Museum of Iceland

So how did you go about taking up Deepali’s advice?

By working with experts from all over the world. It was fascinating to realize that the history of photography is not approached in the same way from one continent or country to another. For example, in Africa and India, the authors needed a lot of time because they had to meet the photographers and their families before writing about them. It was unthinkable to write without having a connection.

After spending so much time with women’s photographs, do you think being a woman has a material impact on photographic practice?

When one flips through this book or others and looks at the pictures, it is often impossible to know whether the picture was taken by a man or a woman. There are exceptions. I am thinking, for example, of the self-portrait of Abigail Heyman, who photographed her own abortion. However, by discovering the careers of these women photographers, we realize from the first pages of the book that the fact of being a woman has often had a negative impact on their career. In Spain in the 19th century, women were not officially authorized to practise. In other countries, women did not have access to photographic societies. While working on the project, I was struck by the commitment of the artists, and by how much photography has been a tool of emancipation for many women.

As you point out, the existing pantheon of photographers is largely male, largely western – is there any part of this project that’s attempting to revise the past?

No. In giving women more visibility, we are simply showing how many women photographers there are and always have been, since the origin of photography and throughout the world. We are arguing that a more balanced and fair history was possible. There is still a lot of work to do. And many, many historians, researchers, photographers and journalists to get down to it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.