A YOUNG woman busking, with her top hat and tin whistle, while her two small children play beside her. A choral scholar sneaking a peek at the exercise book of the boy next to him. Two boys playing with their school jumpers pulled over their heads. Images made with a compassionate, perceptive eye, a sense of humour and a great deal of skill.
These pictures are the work of Markéta Luskačová, whose work from across five decades is currently on show at Stills in Edinburgh. Luskačová, born in Prague in 1944 and resident in the UK since 1975, chose the theme for the show – children – to draw together examples of her photographs, taken all over the UK and in Slovakia.
While her work has been included in exhibitions in galleries such as the Tate, V&A and National Galleries of Scotland, many visitors to Stills will be encountering her for the first time. Ben Harman, director of Stills, said: “Although she is highly regarded and well respected for her work, it is generally acknowledged that her photography has consistently been overlooked in favour of work by her male peers.
“One of the reasons I think this exhibition is important is to remind people how good her work is. They are extraordinary pictures from a technical point of view, the way she constructs compositions and the balance of tone, and then there’s the storytelling element as well. They’re not judgemental, not voyeuristic, there’s warm, genuine empathy observing people going about their lives.”
The exhibition is part of a growing trend to celebrate, and bring back into the spotlight, the work of pioneering women photographers. While there are a handful of women who did get recognition during their working lives – among them Eve Arnold, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange – it is widely recognised that they are a tiny minority.
Jenny Brownrigg, Exhibitions Director at Glasgow School of Art, and a curator and researcher looking at early 20th century women photographers and filmmakers in Scotland, said: “Whilst there were women who were known for their photography at the time, it’s fair to say that this kind of employment was not the norm and that the pervasive view was that women (photographers) were amateurs. This view pervades the history of photography also and has influenced previous surveys and assessments.
“My research suggests that there could be gender bias around who was offered official assignments, and on the film side, women were given subjects to work on like children and health, they weren’t allowed to stray into other topics.”
At least, things are now changing. Last year, Thames & Hudson published a major survey book, A World History of Women Photographers. The V&A now has a dedicated curator for women’s photography, and more work by women is being shown by galleries and museums. Last year, at Edinburgh’s City Art Centre, Jenny Brownrigg curated Glean: Early 20th century Women Filmmakers and Photographers in Scotland, bringing into the spotlight the work of 14 women, many of whom had rarely, if ever, been exhibited.
The challenges of making a living from and building a career as a woman photographer are apparent from Luskačová’s story. In 1975, the celebrated photographer Rene Burri offered to nominate her to the Magnum Agency, whose founders included Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. At the time, Magnum operated a system where new members became “nominees” and were assigned a more experienced mentor or “guru”. Only one other woman, Eve Arnold, worked for the agency.
Luskačová says: “I believe that if Eve Arnold had been my ‘guru’ I would be still with Magnum.” In fact, she never met her assigned guru, Phillip Jones Griffiths, and did only one assignment for the agency, which was never published.
“My first and last job for Magnum was on Chiswick Women’s Aid. It was the first refuge for battered women in London. It took me a long time to finish it because I thought that it was an important subject and it deserved to be done properly. Also, shortly after I became a Magnum nominee, I became pregnant and three months after that my mother died suddenly.
“The reportage for Magnum was meant to be distributed in 12 different countries so I had to print all the photographs 12 times. I finished printing them and posted them to Magnum the day before being admitted to the maternity hospital to give birth. About six months later I received a letter from the secretary in Paris saying: “Sorry, the story is out of fashion”. (The photographs were eventually published in a book in 2020)
“The challenges were many. To be a woman photographer, a freelancer, an immigrant and a single mother is not an easy ride.”
However, Markéta Luskačová continued to take photographs, taking her small son along with her. “Early on in my life, I photographed in the mountain village of Šumiac in Slovakia. There, the young mothers took their babies with them when working in the fields. That was a good thing to experience. My photographs of London street musicians were largely done while I was pushing a pram through the streets of London. When photographing people at the seaside in the North-East of England, I took my one-year-old son with me every day. I was lucky that women and children on the beach helped me to look after him.
“I’ve never perceived my photography as a career. What I value about my work is that, however difficult my life has been, I have always had enough discipline to keep taking my own photographs because I’ve wanted to say something. I’ve wanted some events and people to be remembered.”
As curator Alice Strang revealed in her ground-breaking exhibition Modern Scottish Women at the National Galleries of Scotland 2015, the careers of women artists often take a different shape to those of men because of the demands of family or caring responsibilities, and they have to compete twice as hard to be considered seriously for the same opportunities.
These factors also affected the career of Marilyn Stafford, a pioneering photographer and photojournalist. Born in the US, Stafford moved to Europe in the 1950s and worked in reportage, fashion and portraiture, for The Observer and Vogue and others, eventually settling in the UK. A friend of Capa and Cartier-Bresson, her subjects included Albert Einstein, Edith Piaf and Indira Ghandi, as well as photographing refugee camps in Tunisia (while six months pregnant).
When her marriage ended in the 1960s, she faced the challenge of trying to maintain a photography career as a single parent. Five years before her death, she set up the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage award for female photographers, telling the Guardian in 2022: “It was with the aim of letting women have a little extra money that would help them in the event that they had to care for children or pay for that care or any number of reasons they might have.”
She retired from photography in 1985, keeping her archived prints and negatives in shoe boxes under her bed. A chance encounter with documentary photographer Nina Emett a few years ago led to a revival of her work, a major retrospective, a BBC interview and a book, A Life in Photography. She died in January, aged 97.
Essential to the legacy of any photographer is the safe custodianship of their archive, rarely digitised for those who worked pre-2000, and usually held by the photographer themselves. For Glean, Jenny Brownrigg drew on the archives of 17 museums and galleries the length and breadth of Scotland, but is still piecing together the stories of some of the women she discovered.
“It is very precarious in a lot of instances. The albums of Violet Banks (who opened her own photography studio in Edinburgh in 1935) were found in the bottom of a wooden dresser in an antiques shop. They came to light completely by chance. Usually, either there needs to be a family member who champions the work, or someone makes a connection and the work becomes part of a larger archive.”
The work of Margaret Watkins came to light only when she bequeathed a trunk full of her photographs to a neighbour in Glasgow when she died. Born in Canada, Watkins trained at the Clarence H White School of Photography in New York and went on to teach there (Margaret Bourke-White was a pupil). She worked in advertising photography in New York the 1920s and, in 1928, came to Scotland to visit two elderly aunts, deciding to stay on and look after them. Though she did continue to take photographs, at least at first, travelling to London, Paris, Germany and Russia, in later life, she told no-one about her photography, leaving the trunk to her neighbour Joe Mulholland, who has championed her remarkable work since through Glasgow’s Hidden Lane Gallery. Her pictures have been shown in Scotland, Spain and Canada.
Everyone agrees there is more work to be done, both in bringing to light the work of women photographers already known, and finding those whose work is in danger of being lost altogether. It’s all the more special, however, when the woman in question is able to enjoy that recognition in her lifetime. One look at the delighted face of Markéta Luskačová, mingling with her guests at her Stills opening, is proof enough of that.
:: Markéta Luskačová at Stills runs until Oct 7; a new iteration of Glean, ‘Co roinn Glean’ (Sharing Glean) will be at Museum nan Eilean (Lionacleit) in Benbecula, Oct 5 – Dec 9, 2023