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Female trailblazers featured in new ROM photo exhibition

Marionette by avant-garde Mexican-based photographer Tina Modotti.

How women photographers see the world

Female trailblazers featured in new ROM photo exhibition

In 1840, only a year after Louis Daguerre announced the invention of the daguerreotype – forerunner to the modern photograph – Charlotte Gelot-Sandoz set up a studio in Paris and began practicing the new art form. Working under the name Mme Gelot-Sandoz, she created some of the first daguerreotypes – making her possibly the world’s first female photographer.

One of those images is to be found in Breaking the Frame, the new exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum that sets out to explore photographic history from a more inclusive viewpoint. Although women have long played a prominent role in photography, from the great Victorian portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron to her modern, rock-star equivalent, Annie Leibovitz, their work has often been overshadowed by men.

“This is a show that bucks the historic notion of the white male genius photographer,” says Josh Basseches, ROM’s Director & CEO. “Women were involved in photography from its earliest days, even if they weren’t always given the credit they deserved.”

Some of those major women photographers are present in Breaking the Frame – including Cameron, the gritty realist Dorothea Lange and the ever-controversial Diane Arbus – but the show also highlights female artists who have been forgotten or marginalized.

“Women were a creative driving force in the history of photography,” says Phillip Prodger, the guest curator for the ROM’s presentation of the exhibition. “We haven’t fully appreciated their influence.”

Prodger, formerly the head of photographs at London’s National Portrait Gallery, has been among the photo-historians trying to correct that. His past work has included helping establish American photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller’s role as an oft-uncredited collaborator with the celebrated Surrealist, Man Ray.

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My Grandchild Archie, by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who was known for her soft-focused portrait style during the Victoria era.

Now, with Breaking the Frame, Prodger has had the opportunity to give a fuller picture of women’s contributions. Drawing upon the Solander Collection, the private archive that he and fellow historian Graham Howe have amassed – along with select pieces from the ROM’s collection – the show is a walk through the photographic past, from the early 19th century to the present, that seeks to provide a starting point from which female, non-western and BIPOC artists are given more recognition in historic narratives about the evolution of the craft.

Apart from a few prominent figures like Cameron – who took up photography as a hobby in midlife and became among the first to realize its creative potential – women played a minor role behind the camera in the 1800s. But with the dawning of the emancipated woman in the 20th century came a slew of remarkable female photographers.

“One of our first women in that century is a completely forgotten figure named Sarah Sears,” Prodger says. A wealthy Boston arts patron, Sears had a brief but noteworthy career shooting photographic portraits and still lifes. She is represented in the exhibition by a captivating picture of a solemn young woman draped in leaves, a rare image that Prodger discovered in the back of an art dealer’s shop.

Sears’s work is followed by stunning images from a string of avant-garde artists: the Paris-based Surrealists Miller and Florence Henri, the Mexico-based Tina Modotti (with a delightfully deceptive scene involving a marionette) and commercial photo team Ringl + Pit (Grete Stern and Ellen Auerbach) of Berlin’s Bauhaus school. There is also a 1930s aerial view of a racecourse by the British pioneer of colour photography, Madame Yevonde (a.k.a. Yevonde Middleton), and an unusual nature photo from the same decade by New Zealand modernist Una Garlick. “She’s one of my favourites,” Prodger says. “Not only do we not fully appreciate the influence of women, but countries like New Zealand get so quickly written out of the histories.”

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U.S. photographer Dorothea Lange, famous for her documentation of the plight of migrant sharecroppers during the Depression, shows equal grit this 1944 photograph, Argument in a Trailer Court.

Among the exhibition’s more powerful photos is one by Dorothea Lange. Famously tasked by the U.S. government with documenting California’s hungry migrant workers during the Depression, Lange later depicted, with equal sympathy, the Japanese-American citizens who were interned during the Second World War (photos that the feds suppressed at the time). The Lange image in this exhibition dates from 1944 and showcases her dramatic flare, capturing a rugged man in a dispute with a defiant-looking blond woman outside a trailer court.

Prodger finds the feminist work on display to be especially intriguing. “For one reason or another, scholars usually place this work in contemporary histories rather than photography ones,” he says. “That’s another thing we wanted to interrogate.”

Featured are provocative images from such second-wave feminist artists as Ewa Partum, Annegret Soltau and Valie Export, whose satirical 3D photomontage Expectation riffs on classical Madonna paintings, with a sad-eyed young woman (Export) cradling a vacuum cleaner.

“Their work very much tells the story of photography and its influence on society,” Prodger says.

It’s fitting that the show should end with one of the “blur” photographs of Sandra Brewster. A contemporary Black Canadian artist, Brewster operates at an intersection of race and culture as well as gender. It’s emblematic of Breaking the Frame’s desire to show how photographic art transcends all boundaries. In that respect, the show calls to mind the words of another woman – not a photographer, but cultural critic Susan Sontag, in her essay for Leibovitz’s celebrated collection Women. “One of the tasks of photography is to disclose, and shape our sense of, the variety of the world,” Sontag wrote. “There is no agenda except diversity and interestingness.”

Breaking the Frame runs from Aug. 14, 2021, to Jan. 16, 2022, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with the Royal Ontario Museum. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.