Gertrude Käsebier, born in 1852, was an American photographer in the early 20th century who sparked the inspirational movement of women pursuing photography as a career. She did not start photographing until much later in her life when her children reached adolescence, but she always had a love for the arts from the very beginning. Her mother would comment on the fact that Gertrude, at a young age, would admire and stare at paintings through her hands, as if making a telescope, and wonder if it would be possible for her to make a photo like that one day.
Gertrude was born in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, now known as Des Moines, and then later on moved to Colorado Territory as her father, John W. Stanton, sought to open a sawmill in Eureka Gulch. Once the Civil War started, the family was forced to move out and relocate to Brooklyn, New York in 1864.
After studying at the Bethlehem Female Seminary from 1868-1870, Gertrude married Eduard Käsebier, a businessman from Germany who later became a successful shellac importer. This marriage ended up falling through due to their personality differences, as it was stated that Gertrude was original and vivacious whereas Eduard was traditional and reserved. Since at that time divorce was not socially accepted, Gertrude and Eduard stayed together but lived apart after 1880. This divorce later inspired her photograph taken in 1915 Yoked and Muzzled - Marriage, which depicted two oxen constrained and latched together. This title and photograph made for some of Gertrude’s most striking work throughout her career, showing her true disdain for this relationship she felt imprisoned to. Despite their tensions, when Gertrude’s children were grown, Eduard supported her financially so that she could attend art school and travel abroad to pursue her passions. Going against the grain of what typical thirty-seven year olds would be doing at this time, Gertrude finally pursued drawing and painting at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute of Art and Design in 1889. Since the school did not provide photography courses, Gertrude spent a good deal of her time in the library reading over techniques and printing methods. Gertrude explained part of her pursuit of photography in a 1913 New York Times article in which she said, “After my babies came I determined to learn to use the brush. I wanted to hold their lovely little faces in some way that should be also my expression, so I went to an art school; two or three of them, in fact. But art is long and childhood is fleeting, I soon discovered, and the children were losing their baby faces before I learned to paint portraits, so I chose a quicker medium.”
19th-century scholar Friedrich Fröbel’s theories greatly influenced a good portion of Gertrude’s work as she learned of his concepts revolving around motherhood in child development. Her photographs started to delve deeper into the relationship between mother and child, as depicted in both Real Motherhood and The Manger (Ideal Motherhood). The Manger sold for $100 in 1899, which was a remarkable step in photographic history as it was the most that’s ever been paid for a photograph at that time. Gertrude’s photographs were making their mark in the photo world, while also showcasing her admiration for subtle gestures and simplistic, yet effective compositions in her portraits.
Growing up in Colorado Territory, Gertrude was one of the few white children amongst her Native American friends. She developed a personal admiration and appreciation for them that was shown later in her life as she began to photograph the Sioux after seeing them with the traveling Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Troupe. Rather than focusing on their costumes, Gertrude decided to bring attention to the details through their expressions. This set her apart from her contemporary Edward Curtis at the time, as she truly captured the individuality of the person without the necessity of including their ceremonial articles. It was clear that she wanted the viewer to understand the subject’s individuality that compliments their heritage, rather than identifying them as just their heritage and customs. What amplified her personal touch even more was that Gertrude’s images of the Native Americans was purely for her art, a labor of love and understanding.
Gertrude’s name started to arise in the photographic world as 10 of her photographs were chosen from the 1200 entries to be exhibited at the first Philadelphia Photographic Salon of 1898. With this honor, she was amongst the great contemporaries of her time, including American photographer Alfred Stieglitz. While lecturing at the Salon, Gertrude encouraged women when she said, “I earnestly advise women of artistic tastes to train for the unworked field of modern photography. It seems to be especially adapted to them, and the few who have entered it are meeting a gratifying and profitable success."
Alfred Stieglitz was incredibly impressed with Gertrude’s work in which he said, “beyond dispute, (she is) the leading artistic portrait photographer of the day.” Alfred published five of her photographs in Camera Notes, his photographic journal, in July of 1899. Her well-deserved praise and recognition continued to grow in 1900 as she was one of the first two women to be elected to Britain’s Linked Ring. The Linked Ring put an emphasis on photography being just as much a science as it was an art form by shining a light on the experimentation of new chemical processes and techniques. Gertrude continued to make headway as Stieglitz included her as a founding member of the Photo-Secession, a movement that promoted photography as a fine art. Stieglitz published quite a few of her images over the next few years in Camera Work, another photographic journal of his, and then proceeded to give her an exhibition at his Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1906. A few years later, problems seemed to arise between Stieglitz and Käsebier as she made the decision to make more commercial based photographs to support her family. Within the time period of 1908-1912, Gertrude’s life was altered as her relationship with Stieglitz dissolved, she resigned from The Linked Ring, her husband died and she officially stepped away from the Photo-Secession group.
Gertrude continued to take portraits until 1929 when her eyesight and hearing began to fail her. She left her studio to her daughter, Hermine Turner, and then had a retrospective of her work at the Brooklyn Institute. Gertrude Käsebier had a compelling career in photography and ignited the flame for many women photographers of the time to truly pursue photo, rather than believing it was just a hobby. She was beautifully individualistic and filled with great intent when it came to her work. She once said, “The key to artistic photography is to work out your own thoughts, by yourselves. Imitation leads to certain disaster. New ideas are always antagonized. Do not mind that. If a thing is good it will survive.” (source) Gertrude was a woman of confidence, a woman who pursued and challenged her own ideas not only as a photographer, but as a truly thoughtful person.
Written by Emilee Prado
Source: NY times: ("The Camera Has Opened a New Profession for Women--Some of Those Who Have Made Good," New York Times, April 20, 1913, X12.)
Images Copyright: The Getty Museum