Consuelo Kanaga was an American photographer whose work often goes overlooked or forgotten due to her lack of care for self promotion, wealth and fame. Though not well known, she truly was a pioneer in the history of women photographers as she contained a beautiful belief that photography was a trust between the subject and the photographer, making her portraits of African Americans to be full of great understanding and raw emotion.
Kanaga was born May 15th, 1894 in Astoria, Oregon to a district attorney father and a real estate broker mother. In 1911, the family moved over to Larkspur, California and in 1915 Kanaga became a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. This led to Consuelo admiring the newspaper’s photographers and eventually taking a job in the darkroom, becoming a staff photographer herself. She later happened upon Alfred Stieglitz’s magazine, Camera Work, and became inspired with the notion that photography could be seen as a fine art rather than just a realistic documentation or reportage. Kanaga started her photographic career with a fine blend of society portraiture and photojournalism as she moved to New York in 1922. Around this time, her passion for social issues came to rise as she started to photograph poverty-stricken families for The New York American. Upon meeting and creating a lifelong friendship with Stieglitz, her work was further transformed as he pushed her to focus more and more on her art. This blossomed into Kanaga photographing these strangers with immense compassion and sympathy, in comparison to just representations or an anonymous portrait in the paper.
Kanaga describes her approach as, “I would sacrifice resemblance any day to get the inner feeling of a person...It seems so much more of one than our face which is so often just a mask...The great alchemy is your attitude, who you are, what you are. When you make a photograph, it is very much a picture of your own self. That is the important thing. Most people try to be striking to catch the eye. I think the thing is not to catch the eye but the spirit. " (p.32 and 17, Consuelo Kanaga: An American Photographer by Barbara Head Millstein and Sarah M. Lowe,1992)
These beliefs she held were clearly shown in her 1930’s work in which she photographed Eluard Luchell McDaniel, a drifter her family had hired as a chauffeur and houseboy. Kanaga, who was white, then began to produce more and more compelling portraits of African-American people in America. She photographed them in the most lovely ways as she sympathized with their struggles of discrimination, but also was so purely attracted to their faces and how the light would perfectly grace their skin. Kanaga had a way of using light that created drastic emotional and visual value to her portraits. Notably, in 1932 she contributed four prints to the first Group f/64 exhibition in San Francisco at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, yet she was not a part of the famously realism driven group. Kanaga herself even said "I was in that f/64 show with Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke and Ansel Adams, but I wasn't in a group, nor did I belong to anything ever. I wasn't a belonger." (pp. 158–160, Margaretta K. Mitchell (1979). Recollections: Ten Women of Photography. NY: Viking Press.)
Though Kanaga is famous for her portraits, she also experimented in multiple styles and subject matter including cityscapes and still lifes. It is said that despite her multitudes, her consistent theme is an “abiding interest in, and engagement with, the American scene.” (pp. 21–40, Millstein and Lowe) Amongst her thorough skills in the darkroom, she also had a special skill of celebrating human life in each of her images. Throughout her personal life she had married and engaged quite a few men before marrying Wallace Putnam, a painter whom she spent the remainder of her life with. This great admiration she held for people and the romanticism in her life was translated effortlessly to her images. Her tremendous love for humans led to her need to be involved in the civil rights movement at the time, even once getting arrested at a 1963 demonstration in Albany, Georgia.
Kanaga’s work is seen as transcendent, because the viewer can so clearly feel her presence in her photographs, no matter the subject. One of her best known photographs, “She Is a Tree of Life to Them,” is a beautiful example of this as she photographs a migrant worker in Florida gathering her children against the stark white wall. This gesture sincerely showcases the mother’s relationship to her children and her tender care for them. Photographer and friend Edward Steichen gave the photograph it’s name as it was included in his “Family of Man” exhibition in 1955.
Despite illnesses, Kanaga continued to photograph and exhibit, including her first small retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 1976, until her death on February 28th, 1978. Her photos live on through 2,500 negatives and 375 prints her husband Wallace left to the Brooklyn Museum, which were featured in the 1982 retrospective, Consuelo Kanaga: An American Photographer.
To perfectly sum up her work, Kanaga once said, “I could have done lots more, put in much more work and developed more pictures, but I had also a desire to say what I felt about life. Simple things like a little picture in the window or the corner of the studio or an old stove in the kitchen have always been fascinating to me. They are very much alive, these flowers and grasses with the dew on them. Stieglitz always said, ‘What have you got to say?’ I think in a few small cases I've said a few things, expressed how I felt, trying to show the horror of poverty or the beauty of black people. I think that in photography what you've done is what you've had to say. In everything this has been the message of my life. A simple supper, being with someone you love, seeing a deer come around to eat or drink at the barn - I like things like that. If I could make one true, quiet photograph, I would much prefer it to having a lot of answers.” (pp. 158–160, Mitchell)
Written by Emilee Prado
Copyright of Thumbnail: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © Alma Lavenson Archive
Copyright of Images in Article: Consuelo Kanaga and International Center of Photography (ICP)
Consuelo Kanaga: An American Photographer by Barbara Head Millstein and Sarah M. Lowe is published by the Brooklyn Museum in association with the University of Washington Press. 1992
Margaretta K. Mitchell (1979). Recollections: Ten Women of Photography. NY: Viking Press.