During an era that forbade women to wear pants, Anne Brigman took off all her clothes for the sake of art. And the real catch: there were no men in sight. Anne photographed herself, her sister, and friends using California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to backdrop a liberated woman decades ahead of her time.
Anne was born in 1869 in Honolulu, Hawaii to English missionary parents. Her childhood was one of freedom, to the extent that she fondly remembered herself as being a “young savage” during those days. Growing up amid mango trees, guava, papaya, and bougainvillea, Anne knew nothing of the restraining hold that American society had on most women of the early twentieth century.
At the age of 16, Anne moved with her family to Los Gatos, California. By 25 she married a sea captain named Martin Brigman and traveled with him to such foreign shores as China, the Pacific islands, and Australia. When she settled in Oakland, California, Brigman kept company with writers and artists like Jack London, Charles Keeler, and William Keith. However, much more attention has been focused on her friendship with the man who piloted Anne’s career: Alfred Stieglitz.
I would love to tell the story of how Anne first picked up a camera: what she first photographed, from whom she borrowed the equipment, and how she fell in love with the art of taking pictures. But these details can only be invented in our imaginations. What we do know is that Anne began as a painter, but by 1901 the camera served as her primary mode of expression.
Anne was an adventurous woman who found refuge in the solitary Sierra Nevada Mountains. Carrying her heavy camera equipment into this remote natural landscape, Anne would set the stage for her photographs.
During one milestone trip that Brigman made with her friends in 1906, she had an epiphany. In an instant, Anne saw the form of a woman emerging from the mountain surface. She recalled,
“One day during the gathering of a thunder storm, when the air was hot and still and a strange yellow light was over everything, something happened almost too deep for me to be able to relate. New dimensions revealed themselves in the visualization of the human form as part of tree and rock rhythms and I turned full force to the medium at hand and the beloved Thing gave to me a power and abandon that I could not have had otherwise.”
By posing herself and her friends in the nude, Anne harnessed the raw wilderness and feminine spirit together in one image. This woman unleashed herself to become part of the juniper, pine, or boulder on which she reclined. She let herself melt into a landscape scarred by the violence of nature. She allowed herself to be free.
Although she worked in an isolated setting, Brigman’s photographs caught the attention of prominent artists in California and New York. Seventy-five years after the first photograph was ever taken, photography still struggled to be recognized as fine art; yet one man was on the brink of changing this. Anne reached out to that photographer, and he reached back.
Alfred Stieglitz published the journal, Camera Works, and owned an art gallery called 291. When Anne first showed Stieglitz her photography, he immediately took her under his wing and proceeded to exhibit her work from 1904 to 1910. He published her work three times in Camera Works during 1909, 1912, and 1913 among other pictorialist photographers. Thus Anne’s entrance into the man’s world of photography was sealed, and she became one of the only West Coast members to join Stieglitz’ guarded collective, the Photo-Secession.
At a time when feminism, sexuality, and modernism were all in question, Anne came on the scene with clear intent and an unwavering will. Stieglitz promoted many women artists of the time: most notably Georgia O’keefe, Gertrude Kasebier, Pamela Colman Smith, and Katherine Nash Rhoades. Yet he presented these women as naïve, childish, and innocent creators. While Anne’s contemporaries used the nude body to symbolize sexual desire, Brigman used it as a tool for empowerment. She introduced the nude as a symbol of woman’s creative force, taking ownership over traditional voyeuristic views of the female body.
As Anne’s career gained momentum and she became entranced in her work, she made a bold public display of independence. In 1910, she divorced her husband. Brigman recalled, “He had his way of thinking and I had mine and we developed along different lines. So now I am here, working out my own destiny.” Living alone in an Oakland studio, Anne focused on her craft, wrote poetry, participated in theatre productions, and traveled to New York to interact with fellow Photo-Secession artists.
Being the free spirit that she was, Anne didn’t exactly fit into the modernist art movement. At Gallery 291, she was introduced to modernist painters like Rodin, Matisse, and Cezanne. Yet she didn’t see eye to eye with their erotic portrayals of the human body, and Anne preferred to carry on with her photography in solitude.
Working as a woman artist and living alone, outside the expectations of domesticity, Anne was anything but conventional. She recognized that many women were afraid to step into their own:
“Fear is the great chain which binds women and prevents their development, and fear is the one apparently big thing which has no real foundation in life. Cast fear out of the lives of women and they can and will take their place in the scheme of mankind and in the plan of the universe as the absolute equal of man.”
Taking her own advice to heart, Brigman was liberated as a woman of her time could be. As she put it herself,
“My pictures tell of my freedom of soul, of my emancipation from fear.”
It was this bold ideology that soaked Anne’s photographs in raw emotion. With a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass tucked under her arm, Anne set out to discover the wilderness in all its physical and spiritual capacity.
When Anne reached the age of 60, she decided to move south to Long Beach, California. Throughout the 1920s and 1903s, her photography became less aggressive and more reflective. She focused her lens on the sand erosion of her new home, finding beauty in the subtleties of composition and light.
Brigman died in 1950, leaving behind her a legacy of dramatic, free spirited women. One hundred years after her first treks into the High Sierras, this artist’s work still speak to the contemporary woman. And this is why, a year after Anne’s photography first impacted me from the walls of the San Diego Museum of Art, I present her to you in today’s art HERstory.
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