Lesbian Photographers Throughout History

From the late 19th century queer female photographers have clicked: native Americans, Nazis, gender-benders, the glitterati... Here are some lesbian photographers throughout history you should know about.

Male Artists   |   Sapphic Artists   |   Sapphic Sculptors   |   Sapphic Photographers

Lesbian Photographers

I have a particular affinity to lesbian photographers as I wanted to be a photographer when I was growing up. Historically, the new medium of photography, offered new opportunities to women and lesbian photographers as there were no traditional restrictions, and no established training (akin to website coding & design).

I salute the pioneering work of documentary lesbian photographers: Emma Jean Gay, gender-bending Berg & Høeg, particularly Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, who risked their lives in Jersey against the German occupiers and to those who photographed the lesbian community and gay and lesbian photographers still risking their lives in the 2020's, when being gay is not only accepted but, is sometimes still illegal.

Growing up I wanted to follow in Mummy's photography footsteps ...

and be not just a photographer but a cinematographer. At high school war photographer Don McCullin was my hero (I was also moved by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen poetry - I had no idea about lesbian photographers). Pish! This did not fair me well at London interviews - the only time at an interview I have cried: London Polytechnic, Photography Department (a key UK photography school at the time) were interviewing me and asked me: "you are sitting outside a bar, sipping cappuccio, you hear shots and some one in front of you is shoot... do you take a photograph or do you try help them? I was shocked at the question (I was 17 at the time and no one gets (bullit) shot in Edinburgh)... I hesitated and replied I wouldn't take the photographic shot. By their expressions I knew I had failed and at such a young age could not argue my case... by their blank expressions I knew the interview was finished. What did I do... I cried! X years on, I still would not take the photographic shot but try and help the person - that was not the the photographer I wished to be nor the person I am.

Though I did not pursue a career in photography and became disheartened by my failure to get in, which put me off photography, I so admire photographers and historical photographs. Not only is photography for art, it is a documentation of a moment in time. It despairs me to see historical photographs in German Flohmarkets being sold and across the world being thrown out during inheritance clear-outs and some not being archived.

Special Shout OUT to... slick photographer Annie Leibovitz who appeared at her opening during an Edinburgh International Festival. She autographed a beautiful postcard of her slick pic of Olympic Diver, Greg Louganis, for me. Of course I was too tongue-tied to say how awesome I thought her work was (had no idea she was cake!). Oops, she spelt my name wrong (it is Germanised) so she wrote a v sweet and treasured, sorry amendment. Blown-up, it is displayed in my flat so hugely & proudly. Thank you Annie Leibovitz - you so rock!

Sapphic Photographers: Emma Jean Gay

Emma Jean Gay

Some art historians identify Emma Jane Gay as the first American lesbian photographer. Emma Jane Gay is known for her photographs of the Nez Perce, who were... more

American Photographer: 1830 - 1919

Sapphic Photographers: Edith Watson

Edith Watson

Edith Watson was a travel photographer who spent over 30 years photographing the everyday life of rural communities, across North America... more

American Travel Photographer: 1861 - 1943

Sapphic Photographers: Frances Benjamin Johnston

Frances Benjamin Johnston

Frances Benjamin Johnston was one of the earliest American female photographers. She is well known for her work as a photojournalist, celebrity and White House... more

American Photographer: 1864 - 1952

Sapphic Photographers: Marie Høeg

Marie Høeg

Mary Høeg was a Norwegian photographer and with her life long partner and collaborator Bolette Berg, they produced a portfolio comprising commercial and queer private... more

Norwegian Photographer: 1866 – 1949

Sapphic Photographers: Alice Austen

Alice Austen

Alice Austen produced over 7,000 photographs of a rapidly changing New York City, making significant contributions to photographic history, documenting... more

American Photographer: 1866 - 1952

Sapphic Photographers: Mattie Edwards Hewitt

Mattie Edwards Hewitt

Mattie Edwards Hewitt was an American photographer most known for her architecture and landscape photography. She became... more

American Architecture/Landscape Photographer: 1869 - 1956

Sapphic Photographers: Bolette Berg

Bolette Berg

Bolette Berg was a Norwegian photographer and with her life long partner and collaborator Mary Høeg, they produced a portfolio which included a gender-breaking... more

Norwegian Photographer: 1872-1944

Sapphic Photographers: Clara Sipprell

Clara Sipprell

Clara Sipprell is one of America's most important pictorial photographers of the early 20th century. Her photograph New York City, Old and New was the first artwork by a female artist acquired for the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1935... more

Canadian Born American Photographer: 1885 – 1975

Sapphic Photographers: Laura Gilpin

Laura Gilpin

Laura Gilpin was an award-wining American photographer - described as the “grand dame of American photography”. She was known for her photographs of Native Americans, particularly the Navajo and Pueblo, and, her American Southwest landscapes... more

American Photographer: 1891 – 1979

Sapphic Photographers: Florence Henri

Florence Henri

Florence Henri was a surrealist artist best known for her photography and was a student of the legendary Bauhaus art school ... more

French German Bauhaus Photographer: 1893 – 1982

Sapphic Photographers: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore

Claude Cahun

Claude Cahun was a groundbreaking French surrealist photographer and artist who dared to disregard gender roles. She is quoted: "Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine?... more

French Jew Photographer: 1894 – 1954

Sapphic Photographers: Germaine Krull

Germaine Krull

By 1928, Germaine Krull was considered one of the best photographers in Paris, alongside Man Ray and André Kertész. She is best known for being a portrait, fashion... more

Prussian-born Photographer: 1897 - 1985

Sapphic Photographers: Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott is most known for capturing the ever-changing face of New York City, in the 1930s, when it was undergoing rapid change and for her photographic portraits of cultural figures of... more

American Photographer: 1898 – 1991

Sapphic Photographers: Ruth Bernhard

Ruth Bernhard

Ruth Bernhard is well-known for her black-and-white still-life photography and female nudes of which Ansel Adams described her as being "the greatest photographer of the nude"... more

German-American Photographer: 1905 - 2006

Sapphic Photographers: Gisèle Freund

Gisèle Freund

Gisèle Freund is best known for her portraits, captured in bohemian France, after fleeing from Nazi Germany in 1933, of renowned writers and artists such as André Malraux, Colette... more

German Jew Photojournalist & Portrait Photographer: 1908 – 2000

Sapphic Photographers: Annemarie Schwarzenbach

Annemarie Schwarzenbach

Annemarie Schwarzenbach was a Swiss author and photojournalist. Besides her books and articles, between 1933 and 1942, Schwarzenbach produced... more

Swiss Photojournalist & Author: 1908 - 1942

Sapphic Photographers: Marianne Breslauer

Marianne Breslauer

During the Weimar Republic Marianne Breslauer was a German photographer, street photographer and photojournalist. She was briefly a pupil of Man Ray, in Paris but he... more

German Jew Photographer: 1909 - 2001

Sapphic Photographers: Kay Tobin

Kay Tobin

Katherine Lahusen / Kay Tobin was the first openly lesbian American photojournalist and a pioneering gay rights activist.... more

American Documentary Photographer: 1930 – 2021

Sapphic Photographers: Joan E. Biren (JEB)

Joan E. Biren (JEB)

From the early 1970s to the 1990s JEB's photographic and film work has chronicled the lives of American lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. JEB: "Wherever lesbians gathered, where I could take pictures, I would be there."

American Documentary Photographer: 1944

Sapphic Photographers: Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz

The Library of Congress declared Annie Leibovitz as a Living Legend and in 2009 she was a recipient of The Royal Photographic Society's Centenary Medal and... more

American Portrait Photographer: 1949

Sapphic Photographers: Deborah Bright

Deborah Bright

Central themes in Deborah Bright's work include the roles of gender in photography and society. For her series Dream Girls (1989-90) Bright inserted herself into film stills of old Hollywood movies that captivated her attention as a child.

American Photographer: 1950

Sapphic Photographers: Libuše Jarcovjáková

Libuše Jarcovjáková

Libuše Jarcovjáková is a Czech photographer who is renowned for photographing the clientele of a clandestine gay bar in 1980s Prague, when the Communist state was institutionally homophobic.... more

Czech Photographer: 1952

Sapphic Photographers: Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie

Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie

Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie began her career as a painter, but turned to photography and often hand-tints her photographs or uses them in collage. Her work "plays upon her own autobiography and what it means to be a Native American."

Seminole-Muscogee-Navajo Photographer: 1954

Sapphic Photographers: C. Moore Hardy

C. Moore Hardy

Since the late 1970s, C. Moore Hardy has been documenting the Sydney queer scene, in particular minority groups within the LGBT community and covered the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Australian Documentary Photographer: 1955

Sapphic Photographers: Donna Gottschalk

Donna Gottschalk

For over forty years Donna Gottschalk has documented her family, friends, lovers and activists in the queer communities: the Gay Liberation Front, the Radicalesbians...

American Documentary Photographer: ?

Sapphic Photographers: Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi

Muholi’s self-proclaimed mission is "to re-write a black queer and trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in SA and beyond."

South African Photographer: 1972

Sapphic Photographers: Emmie America

Emmie America

Emmie America studied at Parsons School of Design in New York and has worked as a fashion photographer for Vogue Russia and fashion's rule-breaking biannual magazine "King Kong".

Russian Photographer: ?