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How the 'New Woman' Blazed a Trail of Empowerment

The "New Woman" was first referred to in the literature and journalism of the late 19th Century. Free spirited and well-educated, she challenged patriarchal conventions of womanhood and sought to make her own way in the world. The global spread of this feminist ideal in the early decades of the 20th Century coincided with a dramatic expansion in the medium of photography, and many women found the camera to be a means of independence as they sought to radically redefine their position in society. Lightweight, easy to use cameras made them accessible to the masses while improved technology allowed for high-quality reproduction in the burgeoning print media. The tumultuous period from the 1920s to the 1950s – which saw war, economic depression and the rise of Fascism – proved to be rife with opportunity for women to bring their own perspectives to fashion and commercial work, studio portraiture, artistic experimentation and photojournalism, with many women smashing not only gender but racial and class barriers in the process.

Isle Bing was one of the greatest talents of the era. "She really did exemplify the New Woman photographer in terms of her life and career," explains Mia Fineman, who organised the presentation of The New Woman Behind the Camera at the Met in New York. Brought up in an affluent Jewish family in Frankfurt, Bing abandoned a promising academic career to take up photography. Moving to Paris where she mingled with other artists, "she became known as the Queen of the Leica because she was so talented at street photography," Fineman tells BBC Culture. Her work spanned Surrealist experimentation to fashion photography, and both her pride in her career and compositional talent is evident in Self Portrait With Leica, in which her face, largely obscured by the camera, is revealed in profile in a mirror to her side.

Germany and Austria offered access to photographic training denied women in most other European countries, and young middle-class women – many of them from liberal Jewish families like Bing's  – were attracted to the potential for economic freedom and creative challenge. Interwar Berlin with its thriving fashion industry and the largest, most modern print media in Europe proved particularly fertile ground for female photographers  to flourish. "The rise of fashion magazines in the 1920s provided an unprecedented opportunity for women to embrace photography as a career," says Fineman. Images within these magazines and portraiture in general were also "tremendously important in creating and popularising the idea of the New Woman," she says.

Madame d'Ora's portrait of the painter and illustrator Mariette Pachhofer has become a particularly iconic image of the androgynous and sexually liberated New Woman. Dressed in masculine trench coat, breeches and tightly laced knee-high boots, the subject gazes insouciantly up at the lens from underneath a Fedora. The Viennese-born d'Ora had been a pioneer in the field even before World War One, and her unique approach to fashion photography – which focused on dramatic lighting, minimal settings and heavy retouching – saw her gain an international reputation that few could rival.  

The Nazi rise to power forced many Jewish photographers to flee, curtailing promising careers. After a period in a concentration camp, Bing manged to escape to New York but struggled to get a foothold there and abandoned her career. D'Ora was more fortunate. Having survived the war in hiding in the South of France, she was able to remain a major presence in the fashion press until the 1950s.

Read entire article at BBC