GERTRUDE KASEBIER (1852-1934) was not only an esteemed portrait photographer in New York City at the turn of the century, she was also influential in international art circles. A colleague of the dynamic photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and a founding member of the period's major photography association, the Photo-Secession, Kasebier exhibited widely in the United States and Europe.
How is it, then, that her images and her prominence were all but forgotten until the 1970s, when the women's movement rediscovered them? There is no simple answer. It may be that her style exhausted itself through familiarity. Then, too, rumbles of war in Europe reoriented Americans away from the tranquil, meditative pictures she made. Certainly her reputation diminished in the post-World War I period, when photography became associated with derring-do.
Barbara Michael's new study, Gertrude Kasebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs (Harry N. Abrams, 208 pp., 120 photographs, $45), the first book ever written on Kasebier, analyzes the ebb and flow of the photographer's career from multiple perspectives. Kasebier emerges as the epitome of the era's "new woman" - cerebral, ambitious, successful.
Though women had been involved in photography from its beginning, the period from about 1880 to World War I favored the medium as a vocation for women. Almost every sizeable community had women who photographed for pleasure or for profit. What is unusual about Kasebier is not that she made photographs, but that she achieved prominence in photography's highest circles.
Kasebier practiced a photography known to its admirers as pictorialism and to its detractors as "phuzzygraphy." These soft-focus, lyrical images frequently featured women and children. The home was believed to be the special province of women, and women photographers were considered to have an intuitive knack for making domestic portraits.
Though Kasebier photographed home life, she did not elect to make merely sentimental pictures. As Michaels points out, in her portraits, women emerge as fully formed personalities, not mere angels in the house. And how ironic it is that this poet-photographer's own home life was none too happy. She married impulsively and bore three children. But she and her husband led largely solitary and estranged lives.
In 1899, Stieglitz pronounced that Kasebier was "beyond dispute, the leading portrait photographer in this country." With a deluxe studio on New York's Fifth Avenue, an enviable exhibition schedule, and a thriving business, she moved easily between the social and artistic worlds. Kasebier was not one to settle into a comfortable groove. Her drive and resourcefulness led her to Europe, where she made a celebrated series of photographs of the artist Auguste Rodin. Sensing his camera shyness, she patiently waited for the sculptor to relax. "He didn't know he had been photographed until it was all over," she maintained.
She eventually departed from Stieglitz's circle. Their differences had been simmering for a decade. He deplored her commercialism; she rankled at his cavalier attitude toward management and his increasing tendency to see women artists as "touchy."
Kasebier's delicately nuanced style and the sensibility that begot it gradually fell out of fashion. But her advice to the young remained constant: "The key to artistic photography," she asserted, "is to work out your own thoughts, by yourself."