Gertrude Käsebier


Conchita Fernandes traces the career of Gertrude Käsebier, whose life extended far beyond the domain allotted to the women of her time.

Hermine (Käsebier) Turner and her son in a garden in Oceanside, Long Island (1905).

(1852-1934) Photograph by Adolf de Meyer

Photographic history tends to relegate certain timelines into oblivion. For instance, if you think about the most prolific female photographers, names like Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Berenice Abbott and Imogen Cunningham, to name a few, come to mind immediately. A commonality that links them is that they all created work in the 20th century. But we tend to gloss over the contribution of women photographers preceding this time. Julia Margaret Cameron, possibly the first female portraitist, is one such example. Her work is perhaps far better known than someone like Frances Benjamin Johnston, who created work in the latter half of the 19th century, and is as vital a name in the history of portraiture. There is a third name, someone who was closely linked to Johnston, and equally skilled as her and Cameron. This is the story of Gertrude Käsebier, the largely unknown but highly successful portraitist of her time.

Following Her True Calling

Gertrude took to photography a little later in life (in her early 40s). At the age of twenty-two she married Eduard Käsebier, a wealthy businessman of German descent, who found success as a shellac importer in New York. Together they had three children. The marriage provided financial stability but apart from that Gertrude The Manger (1901). remained socially and emotionally distant from her husband. Domestic life did not suit her. As a child, she showed astute propensity towards the visual arts, reveling in the family’s paintings at home, and refused any attempt made by her parents to get her to learn the piano and become a musician. This defiance manifested in her impatience towards household chores and her eventual estrangement from her husband. It is not that she did not enjoy or appreciate motherhood, she simply did not want to succumb to a life of domesticity. Gertrude knew she was destined for bigger things and insisted on becoming an artist.

“To accomplish artistic work of any individual worth, nature must be seen through the medium of the artist’s intellectual emotions.”

Heritage of motherhood, posed by Mrs. Francis Lee of Boston, Massachusetts (1904).

The Beginnings of an Artist

Gertrude and Eduard never met eye-toeye. Her biographer Barbara Michaels commented on their relationship as… “Where Eduard was traditional and reserved, Gertrude was original and vivacious.” Despite their differences, he supported her artistic endeavours.

In 1893, Gertrude enrolled herself at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn where she studied fine art. In 1894, while still a student at Pratt, a photograph of hers was published in the Quarterly Illustrator, for which she was admonished for by her teachers, as photography was not yet considered a legitimate form of art. She felt so bad that she gave away her prize money.

The Manger (1901).

Later that same year, she embarked on a year-long trip to Europe to broaden her study of photography and painting, initially focusing on cityscapes and landscapes. It was during an extended stay at France that her focus began to shift towards portraiture. “Hitherto I had given to indoor portraiture no attention whatsoever. But one day 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,” she said. Her time in Europe greatly contributed to her development as an artist. It ended though when she received news of her husband’s ill health. She immediately returned to New York. To substitute the family’s income and to further her career in photography, Gertrude took to portraiture.

In 1896, the year of her apprenticeship, she created 150 portraits of young Brooklyn socialites. Eduard recovered soon after but this didn’t stop Gertrude from pursuing photography. If anything, she worked towards laying the foundation for her career, both photographically and financially. In 1898, she opened her studio on Fifth Avenue in New York.

Evelyn Nesbit about 1900 at a time when she was brought to the studio by Stanford White (1900).

Her Meteoric Rise

At the time that Gertrude’s career was gaining momentum, the world of photography was dominated by pictorialism, with Alfred Stieglitz as its staunch proponent in the U.S. In the year that she opened her studio, Gertrude introduced herself to Stieglitz. Together they forged a relationship that rested on mutual respect for one another’s craft. She became the principal member of the Photo- Secession movement, founded by Stieglitz in 1902, that promoted photography as fine art, particularly pictorialism. At the cusp of the 20th century, Gertrude was widely published and exhibited. As her career continued to ascend, both photographically and financially, her relationship with Stieglitz began to sour. He began dissociating with her owing to her open desire to earn a living. And so, in 1912, she formally left the group. For the same reason, Stieglitz was also unhappy with Frances Benjamin Johnston. He felt that her work was compromised by her client’s desires and hence interfered with artistic integrity. Such slights were common then in the highly male dominated sphere of photography.

Harmony, a study of the Brundigee family (father, mother and child) and their musical instruments, made in the photographer’s New York City studio (1900).

There is no denying the extraordinariness of Gertrude’s meteoric rise as one of the definitive voices in pictorialism and portraiture, that too in a span of three years. Arthur Dow, her teacher at Pratt, who she maintained a close working relationship with, had this to say, “Mrs. Käsebier is answering the question whether the camera can be substituted for the palette. She looks for some special evidence of personality in the sitter, some line, some silhouette, some expression or movement; she searches for character and beauty in the sitter. Then she endeavours to give the best presentations by the pose, the lighting and the focusing, the developing, the printing— all the processes and manipulation of her art which she knows so well. She is not dependent upon an elaborate outfit, but she gets her effects with a common tripod camera, in a plain room, with ordinary light and quiet furnishing.” In 1899, before the curdling of their relationship, Stieglitz had noted, “Beyond dispute, the leading portrait photographer in the country,” in Camera Notes of which he was the Editor.

“From the first days of dawning individuality, I have longed unceasingly to make pictures of people… to make likenesses that are biographies, to bring out in each photo the essential temperament that is called soul, humanity.”

Cornelia Montgomery, full face, holding flowers, square-necked gown, a portrait made in the photographer’s New York City studio (1900).

A Look at Her Craft

Gertrude’s ascension to becoming one of the definitive voices of pictorialism and portraiture was in part because of her heartfelt and allegorical depictions of childhood and motherhood, subjects that drew her to photography in the first place. “After my babies came I was determined 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… 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,” she said.

Her photographs are also emblematic of her strong belief in educational theories based on adults fostering the intellectual growth and independence of children right from infancy. In her pictures, mothers are always depicted as loving and nurturing. Her image, titled The Manger (1899), reminiscent of the nativity scene from the Bible, is rich in such emotions as well as tonality, and bears the soft focus that was reminiscent with pictorialism. Stieglitz was so impressed by it that he published it in Camera Notes and later Camera Work, thus strengthening Gertrude’s reputation as a photographer. In fact, the image fetched USD 100, the highest price paid for a photograph at the time.

Boy with dog, a study made at Oceanside, Long Island (1904).

Although Kodak introduced the first hand-held camera in 1888, pictorialists were resolute in their picture-making process that included using bulky wooden view cameras on tripods. It was a time consuming and expensive process—factors that did not deter its wealthy users, including Gertrude. Her exposures were made on glass plate negatives that were 61/2 x 81/2 inches, sometimes even larger.

She never adhered to per-conceived notions of what a portrait should look like. “The key to artistic photography is to work out your own thoughts, by yourselves. Imitation leads to certain disaster,” she had said. At the time, photographic journals suggested fixing the camera lens to the level of the sitter’s mouth and chin. Instead, Gertrude experimented with different formats—bust portraits, half-length, three-quarter and full length, standing and seated. She worked with her subjects as a painter would, often photographing them for hours. Influenced by European old masters sans the elaborate poses and accessories, she resorted to natural light and tones to bring out the true qualities of her subjects. If you compare her original glass plate negatives to the prints she made, you will notice the evocation of the pictorialist style with the emphasis placed on the human figure, the intense dramatisation of the weather while simultaneously demonstrating the beauty of the landscape. “Käsebier’s pictures fascinate in part because they do defy precise explanation. Because she aimed to excite emotions through nuanced, evocative images, her pictures often remain ambiguous, dreamlike, timeless,” Barbara Michaels said.

The Turner garden at Waban, Massachusetts (1910).

Her Humanised Portraits of Sioux Indians

In 1899, Gertrude embarked on a project that would go on for nearly a decade— her portraits of Sioux Indians that first appeared in the periodical Everybody’s Magazine in 1901. Having grown up in the Great Plains around Native American children, Gertrude was taken in by the view she saw from her studio of Dakota Sioux performers who toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. After seeking permission, she invited a select few from the group to sit for her portraits.

“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 with gratifying and profitable success.”

Michelle Delaney, the author of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Warriors, describes one such session. “Preparing for a visit to her studio, the Sioux at the Wild West camp met to distribute their finest clothing and accessories to those chosen to be photographed. The photographer admired their efforts, but desired to, in her own words, photograph “a real ‘raw’ Indian”, “the kind I used to see when I was a child.” She selected one Indian, Chief Iron Tail, to approach for a photograph without regalia. He did not object. The resulting photograph was exactly what Käsebier had envisioned: a relaxed, intimate, quiet and beautiful portrait of the man, devoid of decoration and finery, presenting himself to her and the camera without barriers. Several days later, however, when presented with the photograph, Iron Tail immediately tore up the image, stating it was too dark. Käsebier photographed him once again, this time in his full feather headdress, much to his satisfaction.”

Pastoral, a view including W. Mason Turner and Hermine Käsebier, Newport, Rhode Island (1902).

A few years prior, Edward Curtis had begun a large scale documentation of Native Americans. Notwithstanding the nobility of his pursuit, his portraits were romanticised depictions. In contrast, Gertrude’s portraits were soft, intimate and dignified. She did not solely stick to conventional poses, sometimes photographing the Native Americans at ease, with their family, even smiling— traits that humanised them. She forged a relationship with them that continued until many years later. The portraits were never made for commercial use and never were they used for that purpose, with the exception of one titled The Red Man, which was submitted to exhibitions owing to its artistic caliber.

Her Indomitable Legacy

Gertrude was fiercely independent at a time when it was uncommon for women to venture out of their life of domesticity. An excerpt from the Library of Congress’ website states, “At a time when a salesman challenged women’s right to purchase high quality photographic equipment, she encouraged women to enter the professional world. She befriended and supported Frances Benjamin Johnston, whose ambition and need to earn an income may have surpassed her own.” There was never a need for Gertrude to earn a living, but her resolve to do so was as much psychological as it was financial. “I earn my own money. I pay my own bills. I carry my own license.”

Lollipops, a study of Mina Turner and her cousin Elizabeth posed in Waban, Massachusetts (1910).

Towards the end of her life, especially after the demise of her husband (1909) and her mother (1910), Gertrude became homebound (her mother ran the household). In the mid 1920’s, she handed over the studio to one of her daughters. But until her death in 1934, she was a force to reckon with. Although photography had turned towards modernism, Gertrude continued to command respect, and enjoyed visits from and correspondences with established names in the field. Having lived a lifetime where photography was constantly deligtimised, she mightily held on to the notion, “Why should not the camera as a medium for the interpretation of art as understood by painters, sculptors and draughtsmen, command respect?”

This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Better Photography.