Gertrude Käsebier – Pioneering Pictorialist

Day 159 of Colourisation Project – October 13

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Today’s subject, pioneering photographer, Gertrude Käsebier was one of the most recognized and influential American photographers around the turn of the early 20th century. Käsebier, who died this day, October 13, 1934, was a role model and inspiration for generations of female photographers who came after her, including me.

Dubbed by Alfred Stieglitz , “the leading artistic portrait photographer of the day, beyond dispute,” Käsebier is best known for her evocative images of women and depictions of motherhood and domesticity as well as her portrait work, including her powerful portraits of Native Americans and luminaries such as Mark Twain and the reclusive sculptor, Auguste Rodin.

In middle age, with three grown children, she took up painting and photography. By 1898 at the age of 46, she had set up a portrait studio on New York’s Fifth Avenue and embarked on a career in photography, becoming one of the finest and best-known portraitists and photographic artists of her day.

She built a reputation for her mother and child motifs with her work reflecting a symbolic, yet intimate view of her subjects. Non conformist in style, she dispensed with scenic backdrops and fancy furniture and before long found her style being widely emulated.

Gertrude Käsebier

Photographer Gertrude Käsebier: Gertrude Elizabeth Käsebier Jnr – 1894 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

She was also very creative in the printing process. Using a variety of printing techniques, including platinum, gum bichromate and silver emulsions, she would often use brushwork to manipulate the backgrounds of her portraits to achieve a painterly effect. Click on this link to an earlier post for her portrait of Alfred Stieglitz, where you can clearly see this effect.

Since painting had for centuries been established as a fine art, Käsebier was interested in promoting the medium of photography as a fine art. In 1902 as part of this effort, she along with Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence H. White and Edward Steichen co-founded the Photo-Secession. Pictorialists thus used a painterly approach in their photography, frequently using soft-focus and manipulating their images and their film negatives by hand to elevate their images beyond the photographic representations of the physical world. Stieglitz was a great admirer of Käsebier’s work as an example of fine art and in 1903 devoted the first issue of of the influential Camera Work to her photography.

Käsebier manipulated her photographs to fit her artistic intentions. She frequently altered her photographs by retouching a negative or by rephotographing an altered print. She did not, however, retouch the subjects of the photographs, because she felt that would destroy the evidence of human character, making people “look like peeled onions.”

By 1916 she and Stieglitz parted ways as they had differing opinion on the commercial aspects of photography. Käsebier co-founded the Pictorial Photographers of America with White. She was also a member of the ‘Professional Photographers of New York.’

Käsebier, who as an independent though married woman with children, attained great success and fame, was always a strong advocate for photography as a career path for women. As such she became a model for others, including Imogen Cunningham, Clara Sipprell, Consuelo Kanaga and Laura Gilpin. She was a co-founder of the Women’s Federation of the Photographers’ Association of America.

Käsebier continued to photograph, exhibit and teach until 1925 when she started to lose her sight. She died in 1934 at the age of 82 and was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1979.

Today’s evocative image from an 8×10 glass negative features Käsebier’s daughter, Gertrude Elizabeth taken at Crecy en Brie, France, in 1894.


“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.”   –  Gertrude Käsebier

This entry was posted in Art, Colorization, Colourisation, Mother & Child, Photography, Uncategorized, Women, Women Photographers and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s