FEATURE: F-stop Fatales

By on September 28, 2016

Meet some of the female photographers turning heads in their backyard and beyond.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – It’s almost 7 a.m. on the belay ridge. The wind is blowing sideways, soaking Savannah Cummins’ camera and layers of neoprene and down. The photographer’s lithe frame is loaded down with heavy camera equipment, climbing and safety gear, food, water, back up layers and a medical kit. Her fixed ropes, which she rigged above the shoot with an anchor well before daybreak, are already frozen. This makes it challenging to ascend in the icy dawn to get the shot she wants. She has already hiked for three hours and the shoot has not even started. Now Cummins is logging jumping jacks to stay warm before sunup. She is careful not to knock ice down on the athletes as she fights to keep her hands and feet from going numb.

An adventure photographer, Cummins is among the growing number of women entering a field historically dominated by males. “Shooting adventure photography is really physically demanding. I’m usually hauling heavy gear and on heavy ropes,” she said. “I put my camera through dust and mud, ice and driving snow. The weather can be tough. I’m often hiking for the shoot before the sun rises and going to bed after the sun sets.”

Only two years into her career, Cummins already has contracts with Patagonia, La Sportiva, 5.10, Arc’teryx and Prana. The “insatiable adventurista,” as Prana calls her, also serves as an ambassador for the brand. The adept climber is now trying her hand at video work too after attending the 5Point Film Festival last year. “There wasn’t a single female called on stage,” she said. “I realized it was the perfect opportunity for me to step into filmmaking.”

In the 1890s less than 300 American female photographers were in the known circuit. But over the last several decades the field of professional photography has shifted. In 1983, 20 percent of photographers were female. Today the gender balance on the job is about equal, according to a 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

The ambitious cadre of female photographers in Jackson Hole, many of them in their 20s and 30s, serves as testament to these new statistics. Women here are transcending traditional notions of their roles in the photographic field. More and more of their work is gracing the pages of major magazines, capturing feats of athleticism traditionally shot by men, and carving a fresh feminine style into the field.

Early female shutterbugs

Constance Talbot (1811-1880) and Anna Atkins (1799-1871), an English botanist, were the first female photographers. The women originally shot under the tutelage of photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot. They developed the earliest photographic methods, according to Dawn Oosterhoff, co-author of Women In Photography: A Story Still Being Written.

In 1897, a trend was spreading. The Ladies’ Home Journal published an article What a Woman Can Do with a Camera.” Frances Benjamin Johnston, whose photographs of the White House, along with elite social events and celebrity portraits, were also featured in the magazine and in Harper’s Weekly. She eventually assembled and displayed the work of 28 women from across the United States at the seminal 1900 International Photographic Congress in Paris. That year more than 7,000 female photographers were shooting professionally, according to British and American censuses. Home portraiture—predominantly featuring mothers and children—became an accepted social medium, and a profitable enterprise for female photographers near the end of the 19th century.

Women ultimately overcame the significant gender-based limitations at the turn of the 20th century, according to Oxford Art Online, and began to make their mark in the photography industry.

Anything for the shot

Fast forward to the 21st century to the likes of Cummins, who enjoys shooting most from the perspective of hanging off a rope. “I have to push myself, whether I am on top of a frozen waterfall or hanging off a cliff,” she said. “Shooting on the ground is relatively easy compared to this.” Born out of a climbing background, at the age of 24, Cummins is a rising star in the adventure photography circuit, meshing her two passions: climbing and shooting.

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A string of injuries prompted Cummins to begin looking at life through a lens. First it was a SLAP tear (superior labrum anterior and posterior) in her left shoulder. The injury forced her to pull the plug on an internship for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, and an opportunity to be on Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s summer athlete team. Instead she did six weeks in a sling and six weeks of physical therapy.

Less than a year later, before she had gained full range of motion in her left shoulder, Cummins tore the labrum in her right shoulder while climbing in the Red River Gorge. “At the first bolt my shoulder popped out and my belayer and I both heard a nasty tearing sound,” she recalled.

Then this past summer, she tore the labrum in her right hip. “I’m so thankful to have found photography,” she said, “it’s opened up so many doors for me and kept me sane throughout all of my injuries.”

Cummins’ heart is rooted deep in the climbing community. She recently co-launched the GoFundMe campaign for Scott Adamson and Kyle Dempster, who disappeared on the Ogre II face in northern Pakistan in the end of August. According to National Geographic Magazine, nearly $200,000 was raised to “cover search costs … and execute an order to go forward with a risky, high-altitude helicopter search.” Cummins dropped everything to participate in the Crowdfund.

Seemingly boundless creativity marks her ambition and style. Slated for movie houses in early December is Cummins’ Mixtress, a documentary film about women in North America pushing the standards of mixed climbing, a combination of ice climbing and rock climbing.  Athlete Dawn Glanc asked Cummins to assemble a team for the film, an all-female project.

Anne Banister, producer of Mixtress, told Outside Magazine, “On top of the fact that it’s a weird burly sport that not a lot of people do, here’s a group of women who are keeping up with the men.”

Jackson-based international outdoor adventure photographer, Greg von Doersten, who has mentored both Cummins and photographer Heather Erson, says it will be a film to remember. “Cummins produced, directed and shot the whole video on an all-female team. The project exemplifies that women can do whatever men can do in the world of adventure photography.” Documenting how women are pushing the limits in mixed climbing, Cummins explained, “It was interesting pitching to sponsors. We weren’t a production company. We were five women making it happen.”

Into the jungle

Lina Collado, 35, is a self-taught shutterfly on 35 MM film. The photographer, photojournalist and film producer has a true humanitarian focus. She fell in love with the art in high school, and the trilingual photographer later completed a BFA in visual communications and graphic design, as well as an MA in film at Columbia University in New York. “My work aims to give voice to new cultures, remote spaces and conservation,” she said.

In April, the Puerto Rican born photojournalist and film producer spent a month deep in the Peruvian Amazon documenting the Matsigenka people, an indigenous culture of the Amazonian basin in Southeastern Peru. With independent journalist Shelby Johnson, Jackson-based Collado had GoPro, Mountain Khaki and LifeStraw sponsoring her trip.

Collado has worked with the Jackson Wildlife Film Festival; and for the last five summers, she has led student photography expeditions for National Geographic.

Alongside four men and only one other woman, she was the sole female photographer and program director working to document the lives and struggles of a relatively unknown culture in 10 separate communities. She focused on how their connection with the jungle is being lost through a shift toward modernity, and why the youth are abandoning the jungle and their culture.

Most of the communities have already lost their native language, Collado explained. “They can no longer live without money; they are some of the poorest people in Peru, and feel they have no way to improve their fate.”  The conundrum, Collado says, is exposing their story to offer them upward mobility, while at the same time maintaining their precious and unique culture, discovered by the outside world only 25 years ago.

Collado and Johnson were compelled to capture the struggle of the Matsigenka people, “to share the stories of the Amazon, and give the people an international voice.”

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Although National Geographic rejected their application for an Explorer Grant, the two women forged ahead. “We decided to continue and do it independently,” Collado said. “We held a Kickstarter campaign to make the project happen.”

Collado explained that female photographers have to be ready for anything and everything to be a part of the team. “It is definitely a man’s world—exploration and photojournalism,” Collado said. “In a world like the Peruvian Amazon, it was unnerving at the beginning.”

The females on the project had to find ways to navigate the male-dominated culture in remote jungle lands and they had to be careful to respect social mores. But despite the many challenging encounters she faced as a woman in the Amazon, Collado says she was not discouraged. In fact, being a female opened a door for her there.

One approach that helped Collado find her way into the Matsigenka community was by printing Polaroid photos of mothers with their children. “These photos connected us,” she said. “The women had never seen printed photos before. It was a gift for them. We wanted them to see us as trying to help, not trying to take from them.”

But getting to the shot was not always easy. “Women are property in Matsigenka culture. I faced moments when women could not talk to us because men speak for them.” So Collado found ways to earn the community’s trust. She brought beads and face paint, enabling her to sit with the women and girls and talk to them. These authentic experiences, Collado says, led her into their world, their lives and their love of the jungle.

Although she was the only member of the crew who spoke Spanish, she was not allowed to be alone with a man from the community. “I had to find strategies to work around this, and find ways they would talk to me.” With help from Glenn Shepard, ethno botanist and anthropologist who has been studying the culture for the past 12 years, she was able to bring CD recordings of elders chanting to nature who had passed away. These were incredibly significant to the community, along with the CD players she brought into the schools. It gave them their history in a form they could listen to over and over again.

Her passion for their culture and creative rapport with the community earned the shutterfly the trust of the people. “One morning, I traced a jaguar track in the Amazon to a river before 6 a.m. for a shot,” she said. “I knew I was totally in the hands of the locals, with no real idea where I was. They trusted me enough to take me deep. I focused on maintaining this trust, amidst the challenge of keeping my camera dry, and protecting it from the choking humidity. I had to get the shot, but the trust was more important.” Collado’s work during the expedition arrives via “The Manú Project: The Trees Don’t Talk Anymore,” slated for a December release. The trailer premieres 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29 at the Ordway Auditorium in Teton County Library.

Collado is pitching the full documentary to The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Outdoor Journal and Matador Network, but Jackson is the first place it will be shown and discussed publicly.

The multimedia project will later be available online and free for educational purposes and Collado wants to bring the project full circle. She will return to the Amazon in May to give the Matsigenka people what they gave her. “The photo book and photo story will go back to the communities, so they can pass it down through the generations and keep their culture alive.”

Family affairs

Kelly (Kali) Collado, 29, (no relation to Lina Collado), alongside partner Noah Waldron, shoots time-lapse photography and motion control cinematography independently for their company, The Night Skies. “I work with my partner at times, and together we are a more powerful team,” Kelly said. “Since he is male and I am female, we strike a balance. Motion controlled photos can get very technical. We each bring a different dynamic.”

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They sell their shots to production companies such as Brain Farm and Sheets Studios. Some of their recent work is featured in the new Travis Rice/ Brain Farm film, The Fourth Phase, by Red Bull Media. It’s the first snowboard movie in history filmed exclusively in 4K Ultra high definition, the most technologically advanced action sports video capability software. (Most action sports video is 1080, so 4K equates to four times the number of pixels, allowing for stunning visuals.)

Ansel Adams who “waited for the perfect moment of light and captured it in a stunning way” inspired Kelly. Later, it was the iconic Annie Leibovitz’s music portraits that led her on a path to photographing concerts and live events.

Like Kelly, photographer Heather Erson was inspired by Leibovitz and interned for the famous shutterfly widely known for her stunning images—and photographing John Lennon on the day he died.

Erson also works alongside her life partner and right hand man, husband Drew McElwee. He was originally her assistant. “Drew began helping me as a photo assistant in 2007,” Erson said. “After we got married in 2013, Drew became involved in every aspect of the business, and now we are a true photography team.”

In 2008 Erson released “Revealed,” a collection of 30 black and white portraits of professional mountaineers, skiers and snowboarders. The candid, stylistic shots uncovered subliminal and private sides of the athletes. Leibovitz, she says, inspired this defining moment in her career. “I felt I had developed my style.”

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Erson was later asked by Skiing Magazine to photograph the top female skiers in the US and Canada. In 2010, her images of female athletes graced the pages of the Jackson Hole Women’s Hockey Calendar. The exposé revealed the sculpted, stripped down bodies of female athletes in prototypical Erson style: authentic and unmasked.

Erson studied under many accomplished photographers, including famed Everest photographer David Brashears, who she assisted on a shoot in Nepal early in her career.

Today, when she photographs weddings, she is able to draw from her sundry experience. “In my photos, I like the contrast between the delicate details of a wedding and the rugged details of nature,” she said.

Top dogs in the industry

Even with the rising number of female photographers, only six of the 15 most widely recognized photographers are women, including Leibovitz, Kait Robinson, Janae Shields, and Anne Geddes, according to Webneel. Still, some of these top dogs, such as Leibovitz, have left a lasting mark on the field and bred a new crop of female talent.

Today women are rising up in the National Geographic circuit in growing numbers. Nikon ambassador and Nat Geo photographer Ami Vitale inspired Hannah Hardaway, former U.S. Ski Team athlete turned professional photographer.  Hardaway says Vitale’s images, shot in more than 90 countries, embody “living the story,” exactly what Hardaway aims to capture in her images.

Hardaway realized in 2002 that she “didn’t want to just be remembered as an athlete.” Her heart was in art; at age 22, she began to transition out of competitive skiing amidst a series of five knee surgeries. “I had a worldview beyond mogul skiing,” she said.

Wedding photographer by trade, Hardaway’s passion also lies in photo documentary travel work. “The photos that are really special to me are when I have an authentic connection with the subject. There needs to be some sort of spark,” she said.

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Two of her favorite photos are from the floating slums of Belén, Columbia. She fondly recalls two little boys who ran out of their shanties, waving and smiling, before jumping off the dock to swim up to her boat. Hardaway believes that photographs and video have an incredible way of showing the viewer people, places, and things that might be foreign or unfamiliar to them in a visceral way that makes them feel a connection to the subject.

This spring, her travels took her to France and Corsica, where she toted only one camera, one lens, and one type of film, Kodak Porta 400. “There was no decision-making involved because there were no lens choices. It made me move more … I am drawn to the intensity of getting the shot, just like I was drawn to competitive skiing,” Hardaway said.

Photos and memory

Up-and-coming travel, portrait, event and food photographer Jay Nel-McIntosh was deeply inspired by Annie Griffith, another of National Geographic’s female photographers, and one of their first. Griffith wrote A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel, a book about her travels around the world with her two children. “Originally for women, it was about trying to break the stigma,” Nel-McIntosh explained. “Photography doesn’t have to be a male-dominated field.”

At Griffith University in Australia, the Canadian born Nel-McIntosh completed a photo-documentary of refugees and asylum seekers from around the world. Across all nationalities and ethnic differences, she noted that all her subjects carried physical photographs. “The refugees I photographed all had an original printed photo of family members they that they took with them when they fled their various homes,” Nel-McIntosh said. For the refugees, the photos held memories of a place that many would never be able to return to and family members they would never see again.

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Nel-McIntosh was especially moved by the idea of purity and origin in these photographs. “One that I remember standing out was Khalifa, a 21-year-old Somalian refugee who carried a photo of his family taken the day they entered a refugee camp for the first time. He told me this photo was one of his most important possessions because it reminded him of when he was a young innocent child, something he never felt he could truly go back to.”

Once a news photographer for the Gold Coast Bulletin in Australia, where she lived for seven years, Nel-McIntosh eventually found that the niche limited her creativity. She also experienced sexism in the field. “The only time I have ever felt undermined as a female photographer has been shooting on the sideline at major sporting events, where I have had other male photographers verbally question my ability to be there. In my experience, sports shooting is still a bit of boys club that gives off the subliminal impression of ‘no girls allowed,’” she said.  Still, that didn’t stop Nel-McIntosh. Her first published photo depicted a boxer punching his opponent with blood spraying through the air. “I think I might have even got blood on me during that fight.”

Eventually Nel-McIntosh was discouraged by her newspaper work. She remembers assignments where she was instructed to wait on the side of the road to get a shot of a mother crying at the sight of her gunned-down son. “It overdramatizes what doesn’t need to be seen,” she said.

Lately she has been shooting products for well-known brands in the Tetons. “I love being able to do the things I am passionate about and take pictures doing it,” she said. Recently she shot for Jackson Hole Fly Fishing School, and loved the days she spent on the river amid fall colors. “Photography is such an important aspect of our memory. To have high quality photos that represent a moment in time is a beautiful gift you can give to someone, whether it is a brand or an individual.”

The most challenging part of being a professional, according to Nel-McIntosh, is having the confidence to charge what her work is worth. Male photographers earn an average of $35,500 in the U.S., while women earn a mere $16,300, on average, according to a 2008 report from the National Endowment for the Arts.

On the heels of men?

Women  (and men) entering the field of photography often play the role of assistant first. Twenty-six-year-old Camrin Dengel assisted the famed outdoor photographer Gabe Rogel before going out on her own as a lifestyle photographer. She now shoots for Teton Family Magazine, Teton Valley Magazine and Big Life.

The Alaskan-born Dengel says she is not interested in traditional notions of photographic success. “Big brands don’t appeal to me,” she said. Dengel showcases small businesses like Winter Winds Farm in Victor, Idaho, Ruby & Revolver, a metal smith in Missoula, and sibling artisans Salmon Sisters, Alaskan fisherwomen who design ocean wear.

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Dengel wants to convey the importance of homegrown foods and quality craftsmanship in a modern society. “I started out in eco-journalism with the intention of making an impact environmentally. I have come back to that in a sense, by promoting slow living, sustainability and artisanship,” she said. “Essentially, my work is an environmental statement. I would like to encourage people to consume less and be more self-sufficient.” At  first Dengel says she was challenged as a woman in the field. “I have felt hindered by being a woman,” she admitted. “My images were worth more than I was offered one time. During the negotiation phase, the company was uneasy once the reps learned that I was a young woman. I lost the project at the final stage. It was really disappointing.”

Newborn baby photographer Kisa Koenig says she too has encountered gender bias in the field in terms of her work’s monetary value. As a small business owner, she is still working to market herself and understand how to charge enough for her work. But overall, Koenig says in her specific field, she has the upper hand as a female photographer. “Throughout my shooting career, being a woman has been a massive advantage. I could never be a successful newborn photographer without being a mom and having children first. That is ultimately what separates me from the masses.”

Koenig knows she has found her niche in newborn and family photography. “I know very few male newborn photographers,” she said. “This area of the industry is significantly dominated by women, and it’s a booming genre.” Koenig highlights the access to intimate moments as a female photographer: “Men would miss many of these, like being in the dressing room with the bride.” She shoots head down, with the light down the face. “It needs to feel serene, graceful. A big part of that is the camera angle.” Soon her work will be displayed at St. John’s Hospital as a part of the Art and Healing public art program.

Dollar disparity

Today’s female trailblazers and photo business owners are forging into niches once shot only by men, and telling stories through pictures from a distinctly feminine angle.

But a big challenge still lies in being a business owner, as many independent photographers are. Today, women make only about 25 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn in personal businesses. According to the Economic Policy Institute, that’s a wider gap than the one that exists in the overall labor market, where the median earnings of women are about 83 percent of men’s.

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But there have been small gains in recent years. Close to 29 percent of America’s business owners are women, a three percent increase since 1997, according to The Atlantic. Additionally, female-owned firms have expanded 68 percent since 2007, compared to 47 percent across all business domains.

While commercial and sports photography still seem like a man’s world to Koenig, “The different genres that have been opening to women have encouraged more of us to become professional photographers.”

Kelly Collado agrees. “Women are becoming more empowered,” she said. “They are not letting anyone stop them.” PJH

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