Back in the early 1900s, there weren't a lot of women photographers. Or a lot of women backpacking through the rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada. And, there certainly weren't a whole lot of women trekking through said terrain, laden with their own heavy camera equipment, only to strip off their clothes (or those of their friends) and lie supine on some high, open-air precipice to snap a titillating self-portrait. Anne Brigman did all that, and at a time when most women were sipping tea at home, constrained in Edwardian corsets.
Brigman was born in Hawaii in 1869 to Christian missionary parents who doubtless could never have imagined the risk-taking, trailblazing dame she'd become. Had they, perhaps they wouldn't have moved 16-year-old Anne to Los Gatos, where she would be forever imprinted by the Bay Area's forward-thinking arts scene. She ran in circles where she befriended the likes of Jack London and tried her hand at painting, but it wasn't until her 31st year, in 1900, that she photographed her first portrait.
Brigman's star rose quickly from there—she showed in her first exhibit in San Francisco in 1902, won a photography prize from a Los Angeles salon, and was published later that year in an SF-based magazine called Camera Craft.
It was shortly thereafter, reports Rachel Myrow for KQED Arts, that Brigman began her life-changing forays into the Sierra Nevada, hiking in for several days to shoot the Pictorialist nudes, set against rugged Northern Californian backdrops, that would become her calling card. Brigman's works of this period are reminiscent of Greco-Roman mythology, with an echo of classical painting—just the kind of creative departure from realist photography that would land her a membership as one of the few West Coast photographers in Alfred Stieglitz's New York-based Photo-Secessionist movement.
In the Heart of the Wild: Anne Brigman and Her Circle, now open at the New Museum of Los Gatos (NUMU), displays the photography (and poetry—she published her own volume, Songs of a Pagan, in1949) of Brigman alongside that of her contemporaries of the time, including Edward Weston, Imogene Cunningham, and Judy Dater. The exhibition is a must-see for photography buffs and feminists alike. In the meantime, for more on Brigman's life in the Bay Area and her artistic legacy, we suggest reading Myrow's lovely KQED piece here. // Through Jan. 8, 2017; NUMU, 106 E. Main St. (Los Gatos), numulosgatos.org
Anne Brigman's "Female Nude Standing on Large Rock Over a Lake," 1923. (Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum)