You may not recognize her name, but you’ve probably seen one of Anne Brigman’s photos before. She photographed people — including herself — nude, in dramatic poses against wild, natural backdrops, often in the High Sierras. Her photographs have become textbook examples of “Pictorialism,” a phase in photographic history which flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — a time when photographers tried to justify their worth in a world more fond of painting. Pictorialist photographers manipulated their images to make them look more like “artistic creations” than mere realistic snaps of a subject.
“Photography was a new medium then,” says Marianne McGrath, curator at New Museum Los Gatos, which is showing In the Heart of the Wild: Anne Brigman and her Circle. “Artists wanted to elevate photography to the level of other fields and be taken seriously.”
Brigman wanted to be taken seriously. A mere year after she took up photography in 1901, she wrote a letter to Alfred Stieglitz, the godfather of art photography of her day. Stieglitz rewarded Brigman’s moxie and talent by inducting her into the Photo-Secession movement. Photo-Secessionists championed the idea that a photograph need not be slavishly dedicated to the depiction of reality, but instead composed and even manipulated to deliver a compelling subjective vision.
Brigman was one of only a handful of west coast photographers to be accepted by the Photo-Secessionists . Stieglitz also published her photos in Camera Work, his taste-making quarterly. “That was the publication that brought Anne Brigman to the forefront nationally and then internationally,” says McGrath.
Brigman won awards here and abroad. Her work was exhibited all over the Bay Area, as well as in Chicago, New York, Tokyo and Madrid, to name just a few places. She helped photographer Francis Bruguière organize an exhibition of pictorial photographs for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, at which she won the grand prize.
A pagan child of missionaries
This was not the life Brigman’s parents had in mind for their daughter. The child and grandchild of Christian missionaries, Brigman was born in Honolulu and moved to Los Gatos at age 16 with her parents. When she married a sea captain a few years later, she seemed to be heading towards a conventional life.
Brigman had dabbled in painting landscapes, along with many women of the day, but she also immersed herself in the Bay Area’s thriving bohemian artistic community. She developed friendships with artists like painter William Keith and author Jack London. She also wrote and acted in theatrical productions.
Advancing technology made photography more accessible and popular as the century turned, and Brigman adopted it with a passion. She created her first serious portrait — of her husband — in 1900, and quickly moved into the public sphere. She first exhibited her photographs in early 1902 at the San Francisco Photographic Salon. By May of that year, she won a prize in the First Los Angeles Photographic Salon, and saw some of her images published in Camera Craft.
Brigman started taking multi-day hikes in the Sierra Nevada with her camera kit in tow. It was not the sort of thing many women did back then. “People didn’t have the equipment that we have today,” McGrath says. “There was no REI. She toted a heavy camera and a wooden tripod and enough supplies for these long ventures into the Sierras.”
Brigman’s models were family members, close friends, and often, herself. Her work hinted at a wild world full of fairies and nymphs, Greco-Roman mythology and also the pantheistic tales Brigman picked up during her childhood in Hawaii.
Brigman wasn’t the only female Pictorialist on the west coast, and she wasn’t the only Pictorialist doing nudes. Nevertheless, the effect of her images on the public was shocking.
“The style of nudes she did –- out in the open air, in high elevations in the Sierras with the bristle cone pines and the granite and so forth –- a lot of the photographic establishment was very critical of that,” says Drew Johnson, curator of photography and visual culture at the Oakland Museum of California. (Oakland has one of two top-tier collections of Brigman’s work in the U.S., alongside the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.) “They would say things like ‘She takes these scrawny, skinny California women, and just sticks them in a tree or something.’ Of course, from her point of view, she was exalting the athletic Western woman.”
In 1910, Brigman separated from her husband. The reasons for the split are hazy. “He had his way of looking at things and I had mine,” Brigman told a reporter for the San Francisco Call in 1913. “We developed along different lines,” Brigman is quoted saying in an article titled “Fear Retards Woman, Avers Mrs. Brigman.” After a pilgrimage to New York to meet with Stieglitz and others, she returned to Oakland and set up a new home, and was a grande dame of the local arts scene. Her studio became a gathering place for Northern California’s finest photographers, like Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and Louise Dahl-Wolfe.
Why Brigman disappeared from view
Avant-garde artists began to back away from Pictorialism in the 1920s, although its lamp continued to flicker all the way to World War II. Johnson says the very aesthetic that helped to push photography as a serious artistic medium became an embarrassing, drippy reminder of the craft’s infancy. “It was almost written out of the history books,” Johnson says. “It was in such low critical repute for most of the second half of the 20th century.” Some of the very same photographers — like Adams, Cunningham and Weston — with whom Brigman had celebrated Romanticism, joined a different group dedicated to the modern aesthetic, called Group f/64.
But Brigman couldn’t move on as decisively as many of her compatriots. When she moved south to Long Beach in 1929 to be near family, the photographer expanded her creative output to include drawings, prints, etchings and poetry. She created mock-ups for three books combining poems with photographs and her poems, one of which was published — Songs of a Pagan, in 1949.
Her legacy today
Anne Brigman many not be a household name now. “Anne Brigman is very well known to photography historians,” McGrath says. “But not that well known to your average person.” However, her influence lingers, and can be seen in the work of artists like Spencer Tunick. In the Heart of the Wild offers a couple of examples, including this one from Bay Area-based artist Judy Dater.
McGrath herself might not have known much more about Brigman than a few bullet points if she hadn’t been looking for a prominent artist with Los Gatos connections to profile. Now, after months of research and exploration, McGrath has grown fond of her. “Her enthusiasm, her passion for what she did, her love for the environment, and the fact she was always herself and true to what she wanted in her life,” McGrath says by way of explaining why this artists still resonates today. “She’s just delightful.”
In the Heart of the Wild: Anne Brigman and her Circle continues through Jan. 8, 2017. For more information, head here.