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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. Anne Brigman is best known for her treks through the wilderness of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains with her knapsack and camera, in search of the perfect tree to feature in her pictorial photographs.
Born in Nu’uanu Pali, Hawaii in 1869, Anne Brigman moved to Los Gatos, California at the age of 16. She was married to sea captain, Martin Brigman, in 1894. Although she spent some time at sea with her husband, she soon made her permanent home on land, and was introduced to California’s free-spirited, bohemian community.
Although she had been trained in painting, Brigman began to explore photography as a mode of creative expression. After just two years, she was celebrated as a master photographer by her East Coast contemporaries.
Her most popular photographs focused on the nude female body situated as part of nature, among rocks, trees, and water. One doesn’t get the feeling the bodies are objectified or sexualized. The women in her photographs are viewed as a trees and other natural objects are viewed and admired.
“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
During a time when women were expected to stay home, wear dresses, and find their solace in motherhood, Anne Brigman found hers hiking the mountains of Northern California in pants, with a tent, a camera and her warm coat.
“Then came the storm weather and with it, the joy of working – light on a dark mountain lake, glories of sunrise, cloud masses, and 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
Anne Brigman is well known for the extensive post-processing of her photographs and she would often make use of paint and pencils to alter her images. It is these unique finishing touches that lend the feel of a surreal charcoal drawing to some of her photographs. The magical feeling of her art would leave one unsurprised if a fairy or elf were to appear from behind a tree or rock.
During the time Anne Brigman was active in photography, most of the serious photography in the world was taking place in Europe. There was but a small enclave of photographers on the East Coast, known as the Photo Secession Movement, a movement dedicated to the treatment of photography as a fine art.
In 1909 Anne Brigman was honored as the only woman and the only person west of the Mississippi to be named a Fellow of the Photo Secessionist Movement. The head of the Photo Secession Movement, Alfred Stieglitz, had her photographs exhibited many times, including several features in his magazine Camera Work. She won several prizes including a gold metal 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.
Anne Brigman worked as a freelance photographer until 1930, when she was forced to 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.
The romance and freedom of nature which inform Anne Brigman’s early photography remain relevant to much of today’s free-spirited, bohemian photography and art.
If you love Anne Brigman’s work, here are some other photographers to check out:
1. Alexandra Valenti creates surreal landscapes by painting on her images, much as Anne Brigman did in the early 1900s. For more of her photography, visit Alexandra Valenti’s website.
2. Having been a model herself, Shae Detar is able to capture the female form in beautiful ways. She also makes use of extensive post processing using paints. For more of her photography, visit Shae Detar’s website.
3. Clarence H. White was involved in the Photo Secession Movement along with Anne Brigman and, like Brigman, often focused his eye on women in nature. You can read more about him here.