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Stephen Petersen and Janis A. Tomlinson, eds. Gertrude Käsebier: The Complexity of Light and Shade (Photographs and Papers of Gertrude Käsebier in the University of Delaware Collections). Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Rowman & Littlefield/ U of Delaware P, 2013. 129 pp., ISBN 978-0-615-73545-0-52995, pbk. $24.95.

Reviewed by Joellen Masters

Born in 1852 to Joseph Stanton, a successful sawmill owner, photographer Gertrude Käsebier grew up in American’s western territories, before moving with her family after her father’s death to Brooklyn.  At twenty-four she married Edward Käsebier, a prominent Brooklyn businessman; at thirty-seven, she enrolled at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute to study painting, a pursuit that sent her abroad in 1894 for a year with several other women students to refine their studies.  Käsebier took her two daughters and packed her camera so she could photograph the pleasurable experience abroad.  However, as she explained in her 1898 address to the Photographic Society of Philadelphia:

Hitherto, I had looked upon photography as a pastime only, and had given to in-door portraiture no attention whatever.  But one day [in France] when it was too rainy to go into the fields to paint, I made a time exposure in the house, simply as an experiment.   The result was so surprising to me that from that moment I knew I had found my vocation. 1

By 1898, Käsebier was one of the most celebrated photographers in America with her own portrait studio on New York City’s Fifth Avenue.  A powerful presence in her own time, Käsebier’s fame and influence declined rapidly after the 1920s, and not until the 1970s when feminist art criticism asked “why” there were no great women artists and photographers did Käsebier find her way back into the critical and exhibition arenas.

“Gertrude Käsebier:  The Complexity of Light and Shade,” curated by Stephen Petersen at the University of Delaware’s Old College Main Gallery, February through June 2013, paid lavish tribute to this formidable figure in American photographic history.  As Jane Tomlinson, the University of Delaware’s Museums’ director states in her introduction to the exhibit catalog, the show was the “first comprehensive review since the early 1990s” (5) and put on display more than fifty of Käsebier’s photographic prints, some for the first time, letters and documents, all drawn from the University Museums’ superb collection.  Tomlinson and Petersen’s co-edited exhibition catalog is a valuable resource with its comprehensive bibliography and informative sections about the University’s archives.  Readers may turn first to Petersen’s lucid introduction to the plates, particularly as the essays omit discussing Käsebier’s society portraits or photographs from her 1912 trip to Newfoundland.  “Käsebier in Her Own Words” compiles her opinions about her life, friendships and family as well as her commissions and exhibits.  Appearing as they do at the end of the collection, these selected anecdotes and remarks make a delightfully vibrant postscript for the catalog’s three scrupulously researched and finely argued scholarly articles.

Petersen’s comprehensive title essay surveys in detail Käsebier’s work and her professional success, with meticulous attention to her prominent role in the period’s debates about the medium as a high art form.  For Käsebier, photography was “no less than painting, poetry, or music a means to the expression of thought and feeling” (8).  Petersen traces what he describes as the “unconventional” (7) position Käsebier occupied throughout her career.  As a society portrait photographer, Käsebier rejected prescribed stylistic approaches, making her “neither a proper fine artist nor a proper professional photographer” (7).  Petersen observes that “the notion that aesthetic value and commercial success were irreconcilable struck her as absurdly restrictive” (10), an assessment he supports with Käsebier’s fervent words about her resolve to follow her own artistic vision.  Petersen claims the “new malleability” in photographic techniques that facilitated publication’s mass reproduction (11) emblematised a modern professionalism with many women writers and artists, Kasebier most notably, among the most active in this thriving print culture.  The Ladies Home Journal mentioned Kasebier in an 1897 article “What A Woman Can do with a Camera” and again four years later in “The Foremost Women Photographers of America” (12).  The New York Times and Harper’s Bazaar regularly featured her work between 1898 and 1905; the Monthly Illustrator, John Wanamaker’s Everybody’s Magazine published her illustrated essays, as did World’s Work (11).

Käsebier, thus, aimed her work at an American middle-class female readership while she simultaneously cultivated the specialized audience for journals like American Amateur Photographer, The Photographic Times, and the elite Camera Notes.  Petersen discusses with ease Käsebier’s close association with the male photographers prominent in the American Pictorial movement (1885-1915) which rejected the camera as an “automatic” means to record reality and played with printing processes and negatives to achieve painterly and sensual effects (14).  Although Alfred Stieglitz scorned Käsebier’s commercial bent (23), he made her a founding member of his 1902 Photo-Secession, and devoted the first issue of his journal Camera Work (1903) exclusively to her work (14).  Käsebier, who would later champion a women’s section within the Photographic Association of America (25), was, he said, “’beyond dispute, the leading portrait photographer in the country’” (qtd. 12).  Nonetheless, it was a fractious relationship: as Käsebier reminisced “I was perfectly devoted to him . . . [but] When I saw he was only hot air, I quit” the friendship (“Material” 125).   Peterson delves into Pictorialism with scrupulous attention to its champions and detractors, recreating the fraught debate about Pictorialism with vivid quotations from the period’s artists and critics.  Käsebier was determined in her “pursuit of photography as a means of expressing the inner life of the mind and the emotions” (17).  The Heritage of Motherhood (1904) shows a grieving mother isolated on a rocky shoreline;

Heritage of Motherhood

it was an image Käsebier modified for over twenty years as she explored the subtle poignancies she could create.  Her many portraits of her friend the sculptor Auguste Rodin show that she “sacrificed considerable detail and narrative context [to gain] an ethereal effect” (17).

Petersen concludes with the reminder that “family photographs play a critical and unique role in Käsebier’s work” (23).  Untitled prints of her daughter and grandchildren drinking tea or feeding ducks, alone on a beach or on a summer porch align Käsebier with an evocative maternal aesthetic.  In the meltingly tender Blossom Day (1905), a young woman in a long white gown holds her young child in an orchard field that shimmers with light.  This image of Käsebier’s daughter Hermione and grandson Mason was enshrined in the family photograph album and Stieglitz chose it for both his select Little Galleries and his personal collection (23).  A 1909 photograph shows Hermione, her daughter Mina, and Mason on a city rooftop.  Mason holds a Kodak camera as his mother bends protectively over him, seeming to guide him in the act of photographing his little sister who sits dutifully on the left.  George Eastman’s company awarded Käsebier third prize for this picture in its annual Advertising Contest confirming that even at the height of her fame as a Pictorialist celebrity, Käsebier remained true to her belief that the female amateur’s love for picture-taking was as keen an artistic impulse as that motivating the male professional (24).

Margaret Stetz’s, “Gertrude Käsebier in Context:  The Feminist Politics of Modernity and Maternity,” advances what Barbara Michaels claims is too often overlooked: Käsebier’s role in the debates for women’s rights (43).  As an early twentieth-century proto-feminist, Käsebier supported dress reform; she believed in equality in marriage, saying later “I could never please my husband . . .  Finally I decided to live my own life.  I never neglected my home duties, but I went on with my work.  He did not like it. He wanted me to keep boarders (“Material” 123).  Stetz regards Käsebier as a model of female autonomy during a time when women’s struggles for a “separate self” dominated the political, social, and cultural arena.  Professional women in the lucrative print media trade understood reproduction and mass circulation served for wide dissemination of their political views (43). Käsebier’s photography, for instance, “left on the American scene the impress of her progressive thinking about a variety of hot-button issues, including race” with her portraits of Booker T. Washington and of Native Americans (43; the catalog’s sole acknowledgement to this significant subject matter in Käsebier’s oeuvre).  Like Petersen, Stetz describes cultural attitudes that regarded photography an acceptable hobby for women, suitable for recording daily domestic family routines determined as inherently female.  Käsebier later recounted that “when I first had my camera my children were little.  That was all I was interested in, to get pictures of them” (“Material” 124).  In a skilled analysis, Stetz investigates a woman’s evolution from documenting domestic angel to photographer artist who used her camera as “an artistic tool as delicate as the brush” (43).

Although Käsebier’s husband frowned on her decision to study painting in France, her camera “cemented familial bonds by bridging geographic distance [that] extended outward, into a means of linking her to other women as colleagues, in a semi-professional setting” (45).  This “mother work,” as Stetz niftily labels it, became her self-determined production of images that were singularly hers, keeping Käsebier outside “the usual narrative of dependence on masculine approval and the accepted vision of how women moved, at the close of the nineteenth century, from amateur to professional status” (44-45).  Consequently, Stetz’s focus on Käsebier’s widely distributed photographs of mothers and children becomes particularly challenging and her explications especially complex.  Käsebier “participated in the transatlantic conversation . . .  over the place of motherhood not only in individual women’s lives but in the realm of the cultural and political imaginary” (45).  Stetz argues that Käsebier’s compositions show that a woman’s naturally sheltering embrace reveals a formal “plasticity.”  More than maternal icons, these figures are “the human equivalent of picture frames” (46).  Working with her intimate female community, Käsebier photographed “mothers of the children whom they offered up to the camera as beautiful objects and as evidence of their own creativity . . . a hall of mirrors, in which Käsebier frames an image that represents her form of aesthetic labor, even as it depicts a woman literally framing with her head and torso the child that she displays, both proudly and protectively, as her own artistic achievement” (46).  This dizzying declaration risks an essentialist approach to women’s art and the subject matter social mores dictated appropriate for the female artist.  However, Stetz’s keen close-reading of women’s hands in the photographs justifies that for Käsebier the camera was a “political weapon as forceful as the pen” (43).  They hold and touch children, but they “clutch at, grip, and also support, in the most literal sense, the bodies of children” (47).  Stetz finds this “muscular tension in the wrists and fingers” compelling as it “undercut[s] notions of ideal motherhood” (47).Rose O'Neill Käsebier poses artistic women – the illustrator Rose O’Neill, for instance – with “dynamic hands” and in “uncomfortable positions [so that] the muscles of their bare forearms” and their “splayed” fingers indicate “activity and effort rather than languid grace” (47).  Such images, Stetz asserts, distinguish Käsebier’s from the blandly sentimental representations that prevailed and depict women as commanding and firm, as active as the successful male professionals she also photographed.  The essay convincingly shows that while Käsebier had appreciated and benefited from her male colleagues’ support, from the start she had constructed “her own aesthetic and [brought] the results to light on her own” (45).

“Käsebier’s Photographic Printing Methods and Their Long-Term Preservation,” derives from research Debra Hess Norris, Jennifer Jae Gutierrez, and Greta Glaser conducted for their 2011 independent study graduate-level project in the University’s Program of Art Conservation.  Their involving essay blends aesthetic critique with technical analysis; its organized details explain the various developing processes Käsebier manipulated for Pictorialism’s fleeting and evocative effects.  Prints of the same negative made with different development processes illustrate the creative curiosity and technical mastery that made Käsebier “pioneering” in her work’s experimental daring and range (31), as with three images from a single negative of The Portrait of John Sloan that showcase Käsebier’s imaginative dexterity.  Precise explanations ensure even a general reader can understand, for instance, Käsebier’s preferred technique, the platinum process so popular in the 1890s due to its “rich, velvetlike surface character” (35) and “soft luminous tonal range” (32) or the more time-consuming gum bichromate printing that allowed control and artistic flexibility.  However, most interesting is the window into the conservation scientists’ methods the essay offers.  Simple visual analysis let them catalog the diversity in “cream-colored [printing] papers” with different surface textures, leading them to conclude that Käsebier preferred a “lightweight, long-fibered Japanese paper mounted to a secondary support” (33).  Precise microscopic examination uncovered brushstrokes in “the margins of uncropped prints” to prove “hand-coating offered Käsebier the ability to modify sensitizing solutions and paper types in significant ways” (32).  Computerised data from X-ray fluorescence revealed platinum, mercury, copper, iron, zinc in a specific number of Käsebier’s prints, findings they present in two figures that illustrate the spectrums’ span.  Norris, Gutierrez, and Glaser thus prove their opening claim that Käsebier’s work is “a lexicon of photographic print technologies that were available from 1890 to 1930 and a superb resource for the study of photographic print materials, their stability, and their preservation” (31).  They confidently explicate that lexicon, and, most impressive, highlight the deliberate and delicate skill the University of Delaware’s graduate program teaches those committed to guarantee preservation and archival documentation of the photographic medium.

Although greater editorial discipline with repetitive content might have tamed the book’s zealous earnestness, the catalog offers much for all who study women artists and photography history.  As Käsieber said, “The key to artistic photography is to work out your own thoughts, by yourselves . . . I earnestly advise women of artistic tastes to train for the unworked field of modern photography” (“Studies” 272).  In precise discussion, the book succeeds in illustrating her heartfelt words and life’s work. 

Joellen Masters is a Senior Lecturer in Humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies and co-editor of The Latchkey.  Her article, “Haunted Gender in Rhoda Broughton’s Supernatural and Mystery Tales,” is forthcoming from JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory.

1 “Studies in Photography,” 269.  Other quotations by Käsebier come from the catalog’s section, “From ‘Material Taken Down by a Woman Who Wanted to Write Granny’s Life . . .’,” by her granddaughter Mina and will appear parenthetically in the text with “Material” accompanying the page number.  In addition, unless otherwise noted, all in-text citations to the catalog’s essays will be noted by page number only.

Works Cited

Käsebier, Gertrude.  The Heritage of Motherhood.  1904.  Gum bichromate. Web. 21 Oct. 2014. 

---.  Rose O’Neill.  1907.  Platinum.  Web. 9 Oct. 2014.

---.  “Studies in Photography.”  Photographic Times 30 June (1898): 269-272.