Photograph by Eliza Scidmore
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Pearl divers in Ise, Japan, circa 1917.

Photograph by Eliza Scidmore

How These Photographers Broke Barriers at NatGeo

In the early days of National Geographic, a handful of women photojournalists paved the way for future generations.

Fifteen years ago I was asked to write a book entitled Women Photographers at National Geographic and happened to mention the project to a colleague, a well-known male photographer then on the magazine staff.

“Women photographers? It’ll be a short book,” he said, flicking the notion away as if it were a bit of stray lint on his jacket sleeve.

He was wrong. The book was substantial in size (271 pages) and in the number of women photographers featured in its pages (more than 40).

To be fair, he might be forgiven for thinking the way he did. The tally of women photographers at National Geographic, as at other magazines, has always trailed that of men. Fortunately, the gap has narrowed since the first woman, Kathleen Revis, was put on the photographic staff in 1953 (more about her later.)

Unsurprisingly, parity was slow in coming. After Revis it would be 21 years until the next woman, Bianca Lavies, made her appearance on staff, followed three years later by Jodi Cobb.

In fact, the work of women photographers had appeared in fits and starts in the magazine long before Revis, through over-the-transom solicitations. There was, for example, Dorothy Hosmer, who had quit her job as a secretary, paid $89 for a third-class steamer ticket, and set off for a trip around the world. In 1937 Hosmer wrote the editors of the magazine from Florence—she was 26 years old at the time—and asked if they would be interested in publishing an “account of her trip with illustrative photographs.”

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Gypsy women and children, Transylvania, circa 1937.

They were interested, and the account of her trip was published in 1938 with the breathless title: “An American Girl Cycles Across Romania: Two-wheel Pilgrim Pedals the Land of Castles and Gypsies, Where Roman Empire Traces Mingle With Remnants of Oriental Migrations,” despite the misgivings of the infamously intolerant John Oliver La Gorce, an associate editor of the magazine. “I should imagine …” La Gorce wrote Editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor in a dissenting opinion, that a certain percentage of readers “wouldn’t want their daughters to read this story fearing that it might give them the idea that it was all right to travel the world on one’s own if such an account appeared in the Geographic.”

Grosvenor ignored him, and published a second story by Hosmer. In case readers were curious what the intrepid young freelancer looked like, the piece featured a picture of Hosmer crossing the border of Poland. She stands by her bicycle, wearing a short-sleeve checked blouse and ankle-length divided skirt while a customs officer examines her passport and rucksack.

Franklin Fisher, then chief of illustrations, suggested Hosmer be paid $500 each for two articles and their photographs. La Gorce, true to his pinched nature, undercut him, saying: “I certainly wouldn’t offer more than $300.”

Two decades before Hosmer, the magazine published “Young Japan,” by Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore in the July 1914 issue, making her probably the first woman to have photographs in the Geographic. Scidmore was a friend of Gilbert H. Grosvenor. She was also the only woman on the Society’s Board of Managers from 1896 to 1907, and her photographs are distinguished by grace and wit, which Grosvenor, no doubt, appreciated. “Women,” Grosvenor once wrote, “often see things about the life and ways of people which a man would not notice …”

In addition to her keen eye, Scidmore understood the value of using color in the otherwise monochromatic magazine, then in its infancy. With a self-confidence devoid of arrogance, she gently prodded GHG to publish more color. At that time “color photographs” were actually hand-colored black-and-white plates. Autochrome, an early color process, would not be in regular use for another decade.

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French WWI soldiers warm by a fire in Lorraine, France, circa 1917.

Scidmore hand-tinted her own plates and pronounced herself satisfied with the results. “Herewith 31 pictures of women and children, mostly children, as you see …” she wrote Grosvenor. “I have had them made uniform in size and strongly colored, so that you can cover yourself all over with glory with another number in color.”

There were other women in those early years. The remarkable Harriet Chalmers Adams had 21 stories published in the magazine from 1907 to 1935, and although she is listed as an author in the National Geographic Index, an examination of her work shows that she took photographs as well. Adams, one of the first and few women correspondents of World War I, was an adventurer and explorer in the tradition of the intrepid 19th-century journalist Nellie Bly. Before her death in 1937, she retraced the trail of Columbus, crossed Haiti on horseback, and according to the New York Times, “reached twenty frontiers previously unknown to white women … including every linguistic branch of the Indian tribes from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego …” This may be why a Washington Post obituary remembered her as a “confidant of savage head hunters.”

In 1953, the magazine hired its first woman staff photographer, Kathleen Revis, a quiet self-effacing woman who loved the outdoors, taught herself how to shoot pictures, and just happened to be the sister-in-law of the Editor, Melville Bell Grosvenor.

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Schoolgirls climb Gold Hill past old abbey walls in Shaftesbury, England, in 1955.

“Melville Grosvenor wanted to bring women to National Geographic,” says Mary Smith, the picture editor who handled most of Revis’s stories. “He wasn’t a bit afraid of smart women; he liked and respected them and as far as he was concerned, the smarter the better.” Let others grouse about favoritism. MBG pushed criticism aside. “It seems the boys thought it was some joke or I was nepotizing,” he wrote Revis, in response to the baritone-pitched grumbling. “My only comment was, ‘Well, boys, when you see a natural photographer, encourage him or her all you can!’ Kathleen, you are a natural photographer. You not only have a feel for a picture but you love it, study it, and live with it … Keep on taking pictures. Try to tell a story in them.”

And that is exactly what every woman photographer hired by National Geographic has done since then.