I chose today’s topic because her work keeps popping up for me. Gertrude Käsebier photographed Evelyn Nesbit, who I’m fascinated by; her photos have been used on book jackets, stamps… a lot of things. She was a portrait photographer and a co-founder of the Photo-Secession movement. A lot of her work focused on domestic images of women. Despite knowing all this now, I still don’t feel like I really know her. I think I understand her art a bit better, and the changes in photography, but not really what she was doing. Maybe writing this and rereading it will help me know her better in the future.
Gertrude Stanton was born on May 18, 1852 in Fort Des Moines (now just Des Moines), Iowa in a log cabin. Her parents were John W. and Gertrude Muncy Shaw Stanton, and she had a younger brother. In 1859, John moved to Eureka Gulch and opened a sawmill hoping to make some money from the gold rush happening in Colorado; the following year the family followed. The family moved around a lot, John trying to find gold where he could. Eventually the family moved to Golden, the capital of the Colorado Territory; John was elected the first mayor of Golden. The family’s new wealth and status meant they wanted bigger and better things for their children now, and so Gertrude was pushed towards music. She resisted though, always more interested in art and pictures than anything else.
When the Civil War broke out, the Stantons moved to Brooklyn, New York. At the time of their move, John may have been dead already. Some sources said that he died, and that caused the family to move; another source said that he moved with them and worked processing minerals in New York. However it all exactly happened, the family moved to New York and Gertrude’s mother rented out rooms in their home to make money.
From 1866 (or 1868) to 1870, Gertrude went to the Bethlehem Female Seminary (later Moravian College) in Bethlehem, PA, living with her maternal grandmother while she went to school. She would return home to New York on occasion though, and on one of these occasions Gertrude met her future husband. Eduard Käsebier was a German businessman, working to import shellac into the United States. Eduard rented a room at the Stantons home on some of his trips.
Gertrude and Eduard married on Gertrude’s twenty-second birthday, May 18, 1874. This marriage gave Gertrude a home and family and financial stability, but not much else. Gertrude didn’t have patience for housework and was still interested in art. Eduard wanted a normal wife and family. Neither person would budge and the marriage collapsed. The couple had three children – Frederick William in 1875, Gertrude Elizabeth in 1878, and Hermine Mathilde in 1880 – but once the last child was born, the couple separated. Gertrude once said, “If my husband has gone to Heaven, I want to go to Hell” (1).
Despite their separation, Eduard continued to support Gertrude financially. This support allowed Gertrude to go to art school. Once her youngest child was grown enough, Gertrude enrolled in the Pratt Institute in 1889. Originally she studied painting, but quickly fell in love with photography. In 1894 she won places in two photography competitions: The Quarterly Illustrator for best photograph, winning $50, and runner up in the New York Herald’s contest.
In 1894 Gertrude took a yearlong trip to Europe to further study art and broaden her knowledge. She was still taking typical art photographs at this time, focusing on cityscapes and landscapes. While she was in France, though, the weather was too bad to take pictures outside, and so Gertrude shifted to portraiture. Also while in France, Gertrude was publishing photos and essays in French magazines. In addition to studying in France, Gertrude studied in Germany under Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, who had also worked with Alfred Stieglitz.
At this same time, Eduard fell ill and Gertrude returned home. Eduard was only given one year to live, but ultimately lived another twelve. Moving back to New York, Gertrude had to find a way to bring in an income. She worked as an assistant to Samuel H. Lifshey, learning how to run a studio and work as a professional photographer. In 1896 Gertrude opened her own studio in her home, moving shortly after to “the emerging upscale shopping district known as the ‘Ladies Mile’ developing rapidly along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan” (2). This is when Gertrude’s portraits took off; she took over 150 photos of New York socialites at this time. Her photos are reminiscent of classically painted portraits, but she always denied this comparison.
In1896, Gertrude had her first solo show at the Boston Camera Club; this was to drum up business without being seen as commercial. Many of her other early photographs are of friends and family and highlight the theme of motherhood. (While Gertrude never had anything positive to say about marriage, she always showed motherhood in a positive, but realistic, light.) Gertrude’s style became popular; she used few props and only simple backgrounds.
Gertrude also took a number of photos of Native Americans. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was very popular and was touring the country; on their stop in New York, Gertrude took their photographs. Having grown up out West, Gertrude wanted to show the Native Americans as she saw them as they were, nothing romantic; her photos were completely different from those of Edward Curtis, who was known for his photos of Native Americans.
In 1898, Gertrude entered some pieces into the Philadelphia Photographic Salon. Out of 1200 entries, only 259 were picked; Gertrude had ten pieces in the Salon. The following year Gertrude was one of the judges in addition to showing more pieces that year and in 1900. In 1899, Gertrude showed The Manger. The piece was purchased for $100, setting a record for photographic art.
In 1898, also, Gertrude reached out to Alfred Stieglitz, ostensibly “asking for his advice on photographing outdoors, even though she had already published outdoor photographs” (3). They had similar ideas about photography, and he started promoting her works. In 1899, he printed five of her pieces in his journal, Camera Notes, saying she was “beyond dispute, the leading portrait photographer in the country” (4). In 1899 Gertrude was also praised in Everybody’s Magazine, “placing her at the top of both art photography and magazine photography” (5).
Gertrude began to be known for photographs of famous people. Between 1900 and 1902, ten of her portraits of famous people were shown in World’s Work, including Mark Twain, Arthur Twining Hadley (president of Yale), Booker T. Washington, and Jacob Riis (6). Her photos were also being used alongside fiction as illustrations. Unlike Jacob Riis, and fellow early female photographer Alice Austen, Gertrude Käsebier was not interested in photographing the lower classes.
Gertrude was one of the first two women elected to join the Linked Ring in England (the other being Anne Brigman). In 1901, Gertrude travelled to Paris with Edward Steichen and photographed sculptor Auguste Rodin. Also in 1901, in Ladies’ Home Journal, Frances Benjamin Johnson included Gertrude in a piece on “The Foremost Women Photographers of America” (7).
Gertrude’s assent in the art photography world happened very quickly. In just over three years she had reached the “highest level of accomplishment and acclaim in art photography in the United States” (8). In her art, Gertrude was trying to be symbolic, yet intimate. To give her photos this dual purpose, she would rework her photos to change the appearance. Originally Gertrude worked with platinum prints, but moved to gum-bichromate in 1901, allowing her to create a different look.
In 1902, Alfred Stieglitz formed the Photo-Secession group, including Gertrude, Clarence H. White, and Edward Steichen as founding members. This group was an offshoot of Pictorialism. Pictorialism is all about manipulating the image and elevating photography to an art form. These photographers would use different focus types, print in something other than black and white, and alter their prints with brushstrokes or other surface manipulations (9). Photo-Secessionists were artists aligned with Stieglitz’s point of view. Stieglitz dedicated the first issue of his second journal, Camera Work, to Gertrude’s pieces.
By 1908, Gertrude’s relationship with Stieglitz was over, having been strained for years. In 1906, she had joined the Professional Photographers of New York which was more about selling photographs. Gertrude had to make money to support her family due to her husband’s continuing illness, and Stieglitz was opposed to commercial art. Additionally, Gertrude also cofounded the Women’s Federation of the Photographers of America with Clarence H. White, another group Stieglitz was opposed to. Gertrude officially resigned from the Photo-Secession in 1912.
In December 1909, Eduard finally died and was followed shortly by Gertrude’s mother in August 1910. This began a decline in Gertrude’s output, though she still focused on portraiture. In 1914 she opened a new studio in New York and in 1916 became one of the founding members of the Pictorial Photographers of America. In 1925, with failing eyesight and hearing, Gertrude’s daughter Hermine joined Gertrude’s business; in 1929, though, Gertrude shut her studio. That same year, there was a retrospective of Gertrude’s work at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Gertrude Käsebier died on October 13, 1934 in Hermine’s home.
In 1979 Gertrude was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame. In the late twentieth century there was renewed interest in Gertrude’s works. In 1979 the Delaware Art Museum put on an exhibition of her work; in 1992 the Museum of Modern Art had an exhibition, which eventually travelled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 2002, Gertrude’s best-known work, Blessed Art Thou Among Women (1899), was put on a US postage stamp.
Gertrude Käsebier was not only “one of the first American women to have a successful career as a photographer, but she was one of the first photographers anywhere to focus on the family” (10). Her work still looks fresh, to me, and just so beautiful and atmospheric.
1 – Lori Oden, “Gertrude Kasebier,” International Photography Hall of Fame.
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 – Beverly W. Brannan, “Gertrude Käsebier,” Prints & Photographs Reading Room, The Library of Congress, 2013.
9, 10 – Steve Meltzer, “The Nearly Forgotten Mother of Modern American Photography, Gertrude Käsebier,” Imaging Resource, May 12, 2012.