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Long before modern bohemianism took hold of the collective imagination, photographer Anne Brigman shirked traditional feminine roles to pursue photography as an art form. History remembers Brigman for her treks through the wilderness of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains with her knapsack and camera, her goal – to find the perfect tree to feature in her pictorial photographs.
Born in Nu-uanu Pali, Hawaii, in 1869, Brigman moved to Los Gatos, California at sixteen. She married a sea captain, Martin Brigman, in 1894. Although Brigman spent some time at sea with her husband, she eventually made her permanent home in California, where she mixed with the state’s free-spirited bohemian community.
“In all of my years of work with the lens (since 1906) I’ve dreamed of and loved to work with the human figure – to embody it in rocks and trees, to make it part of the elements, not apart from them…”Anne Brigman, Camera Craft, 1926
Brigman’s most famous photographs focus on nude female bodies amongst rocks, trees, and water; however, one does not feel the body is objectified or sexualized. The women in her photographs belong to the natural world, along with the trees and other natural objects. During a time when society expected women to stay home, wear dresses, and find their solace in motherhood, Brigman found herself hiking the mountains of Northern California in pants, with a tent, a camera, and her warm coat.
Brigman is well-known for the extensive post-processing of her photographs. She often made use of paint and pencils to alter her images. The unique finishing touches lend the feel of surreal charcoal drawings to some of her photographs. The magical feeling of her art would leave one unsurprised if a fairy or elf appeared from behind a tree or rock.
“Then came the storm weather and with it, the joy of working – light on a dark mountain lake, glories of sunrise, cloud masses, and a strange trees. One day on one of my wanderings I found a juniper – the most wonderful juniper that I’ve met in my eighteen years of friendship among them.”Anne Brigman, Camera Craft, 1926
When Anne Brigman first picked up a camera, most of the world’s serious photography was created in Europe. However, there was a small enclave of art photographers on the East Coast known as the Photo-Secession Movement. After a mere two years behind the lens, her East Coast contemporaries discovered her work and proclaimed her a master photographer. In 1909, the East Coast group named Brigman a Fellow of the Photo-Secession Movement. She was among a few women and the only person west of the Mississippi to hold the honor.
The head of the Photo-Secession Movement, Alfred Stieglitz, had Brigman’s photographs exhibited many times, including several features in his magazine Camera Work. She won several prizes, including a gold medal at the Alaska-Yukon Exposition and prizes at various shows in Europe and the United States. In 1915, she contributed to the Panama Pacific International Exposition photography exhibit.
Brigman worked as a freelance photographer until 1930, when she quit due to her declining vision. She continued to pursue photography in nature as a personal passion. Following a move to Southern California, her work became centered around abstract images of beach sand. However, the natural romance that informs Brigman’s early work remains as relevant as it was at its creation, as it has found a home in the hearts of today’s nature lovers and bohemians.
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