Gertrude Käsebier

Gertrude Käsebier


Inductee Sponsor: Joyce Wilson


Gertrude Käsebier was born Gertrude Stanton on May 18, 1852, in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, now known as Des Moines. Her father, John W. Stanton, in 1859, opened a sawmill in Eureka Gulch, in Colorado Territory, with hopes to prosper from the gold rush. He did.


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Käsebier’s portrait style became increasingly popular and her studio was a great success. She had a sense about revealing the subject; she also she used very few props and simple backgrounds. One of the most difficult things to learn in painting is what to leave out. How to keep things simple enough. The same applies to photography. The value of composition cannot be overestimated; upon it depends the harmony and sentiment. Käsebier photographed some of New York’s most recognized people, but she also had an interest in photographing Native American Indians. In fact, some of these portraits became her most famous. While a young girl in Colorado, she was one of the few white children. Most of her friends consisted of American Indian children. This instilled an appreciation for the people who would eventually be chased from their homes in America. Käsebier rarely photographed her American Indian friends in costume. I want a real raw Indian for a change…the kind I used to see when I was a child. She was not the first to begin an extensive photographic documentation of American Indians, but hers were more artistically motivated.

As Käsebier’s portraiture came more into the light of the art world, she soon sought a friendship with Alfred Stieglitz. Near the turn of century, Käsebier contacted Stieglitz: to further he success by mingling with the art photographers, to further her knowledge and to give herself news directions in her life. The two befriended quickly. They agreed that photography was a form of artistic expression and worked with similar processes in order to achieve an artistic photographic print. Within a short period of time, Stieglitz was promoting Käsebier ’s work through his publication, Camera Notes, and organizing solo exhibitions of her work, one of which was the Camera Club of New York, which Käsebier soon became a member. The most important and now historic exhibit of this period was the first Philadelphia Photographic Salon of 1898. Of the 1200 entries, only 259 were selected. Ten of Käsebier ’s images were chosen to exhibit; this extremely high honor placed her in the ranks of Stieglitz and other contemporaries. The judges of the exhibit, such as William Merritt Chase stated that Käsebier ’s work was as fine as anything that VanDyck has ever done. Charles H. Caffin was taken by Käsebier ’s individuality…the force and distinctiveness of her style. The following year, Käsebier was a judge on the Philadelphia Photographic Salon. About that same time, her print The Manger sold for $100, which was the most paid for a photograph at that time. Käsebier began to socialize with F. Holland Day, Clarence White and became one of photography’s most influential photographers due to her unique style and consistently good work.

These events set forth a new direction for Käsebier. By 1901, Käsebier had been exhibited in the Frances Benjamin Johnston’s exhibit of women photographers, which was organized for the Paris Exposition, and she also showed in F. Holland Day’s new School of American Photography, opening in London and traveling to Paris. She was also the first female elected to The Linked Ring. This was a group organized in 1892, with original members of George Davison, Alfred Horsley Hinton, Maskell, Lydell Sawyer, and Henry Peach Robinson. Members were by invitation only and sought to pursue the development of the highest form of Art of which Photography was capable. Käsebier also began lecturing and publishing her work in other magazines such as Everybody’s Magazine, The World’s Work, The Ladies Home Journal and The Craftsmen.

In 1901, Käsebier took some time away from the American scene and traveled to Paris with Edward Steichen. There she took numerous photographs of Auguste Rodin. This same year, Käsebier was the subject of a chapter in Charles H. Caffin’s Photography as Fine Art. With all of her close associations, particularly with Stieglitz, Käsebier also became one of the founding members of the Photo-Secession group. Stieglitz was the leader of the group, but he was able to form this group with the support of people such as Käsebier , Edward Steichen, Clarence White, and others. Stieglitz’s direction allowed the group to open the 291 gallery and begin the publication Camera Work. The first issue, released in late 1902, had six illustrations and two articles by Gertrude Käsebier . By 1905, Käsebier ’s health began to falter. Tensions between her and Stieglitz about Camera Work began to grow and Eduard Käsebier had decided to move, he abruptly sold the house and relocated in Oceanside, Long Island.

Although Käsebier remained in association with the Photo-Secession for several years thereafter, by 1908, the friendship with Stieglitz was finally dissolved. Also by this time, she had resigned from The Linked Ring. Her husband, Eduard Käsebier , died on December 17, 1909. Käsebier continued to participate in the Photo-Secession group exhibits and had some prints published in Camera Work. She continued teaching and her professional portrait photography, and participating in other exhibits such as the International Exhibit of Pictorial Photography, and teaching. By 1912, Käsebier officially resigned from the Photo-Secession group.

Käsebier combined home and studio, by 1914, to an apartment on West 71st Street in New York. Throughout her career she was primarily interested in portraiture and creating photographic images with motherhood as an overwhelming theme. During her later years, she began to take her camera outdoors, although never leaving behind her portraiture. In 1916, she was a founding member of Pictorial Photographers of America and continued exhibiting her work. About 1925, Käsebier ’s sight began to fail her and, by 1929, she had to close the studio. By this time she was also almost completely deaf. As a young girl she lost her hearing in one ear, and the other ear had finally weakened from so many years of straining. She died of “old age” on October 13, 1934.

In 1979, Gertrude Käsebier was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum. In street clothes, about 1900, she would have looked like other upper middle-class matrons: corseted, hatted and gloved. In a fur-trimmed gown in the family portrait or in silvery gray silk and lace with diamond ornaments at her daughter’s wedding in 1899, she might even have been called elegant. But her hands told another story. Not her palms, but her fingertips, which bore the marks of nonconformism: stains from photographic chemicals, and, in later years, tinges of nicotine from the little “in between acts” cigars that so embarrassed her pre-adolescent granddaughter. A motion picture of Käsebier made early in her career would have shown an energetic woman carrying herself erectly, moving quickly, and frequently brushing a stray strand of graying hair from her brow.

By Lori Oden For IPHF