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Anne Brigman: Reviewed by Chelsea Weathers

Book Review Anne Brigman The Photographer of Enchantment Reviewed by Chelsea Weathers In the first book devoted to Anne Brigman (1869–1950), Kathleen Pyne traces the groundbreaking photographer’s life from Hawai‘i to the Sierra and elsewhere in California, revealing how her photographs emerged from her experience of local place and cultural politics.
Anne Brigman:
The Photographer of Enchantment
Text by Kathleen Pyne

Yale University Press, New Haven, 2020. 
248 pp., 60 color + 96 b/w illustrations, 8½x11".

In 1906, in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake and following fires that left the city in smoldering ruins, photographer Anne Brigman escaped to a camp in the Sierra Nevada, accompanied by her sister and a group of female friends. 
High above the treeline and the post-apocalyptic scene below, Brigman composed a series of “mountain photographs” — nudes set against twisted cedars, nymph-like figures gathered on the shores of foaming brooks. As Kathleen Pyne, in her new monograph about Brigmans’s life and work points out, Brigman had begun her mountain photographs a year earlier, but with the jarring trauma of the earthquake and fires, “the awful moment of catastrophe had also given her the ‘power with the camera’ to project her vision onto the world.”

Brigman’s soft-focus photography, with its hazy contrasts and sepia tones, has a romantic, pictorial quality akin to experiments by women photographers generally more well-known, such as Julia Margaret Cameron or Gertrude K√§sebier. Pyne’s exhaustive research of the history of San Francisco and Berkeley — the latter of which was Brigman’s home for much of her life, where she lived in a guest house that doubled as her witchy, bohemian studio, replete with curios, elaborate flower arrangements and orientalist accoutrements — paints a portrait of the artist as insulated and privileged, and never attaining the critical reception for her work that she deserved. Indeed, Brigman’s contributions to American photography of the early twentieth century are significant for her adventurous forays into the harsh western terrain.

A generation earlier, male photographers such as Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson worked to represent westward expansion into pristine, supposedly uninhabited land, their photos often adopted by the US government to champion both the conservation and exploitation of these dramatic landscapes. Brigman’s photographs depart from this tradition by activating the landscape as a space for human interaction and self-discovery. Her images are mythic, even as her women appear liberated from the trappings of social constraints through their earthly communion with the natural world. Pyne’s readings of Brigman’s photographs in the context of Brigman’s childhood in Hawaii, her coming-of-age in progressive San Francisco, and Alfred Stieglitz’s New York milieu are meticulous and work to restore Brigman’s rightful place in the canon of American modernist photography.

There is also an underlying element of play and intimacy in Brigman’s photographs, which, for me, are their most contemporary qualities. Many of her mountain photographs look as if they could have been shot much more recently than over a century ago. Brigman’s portrayals of her nude f
riends, who entrusted her to both photograph them respectfully and guard their identities in the prudish, pseudo-Victorian context of white, upper-class San Francisco and Berkeley, are tender and frank.

One disappointing aspect of Pyne’s book is that she honored such retrospective prudishness in her interpretation of Brigman’s work, although her audience is now much less inhibited. The stark modernity of Brigman’s photographs, in Pyne’s telling, seem almost preserved in amber, and the relationships among the women of that camping trip, as they all sought to escape a collective trauma and make a world for themselves in the mountains, remain a mystery. Readers who are looking for a deeper understanding of the female intimacy, and perhaps even queerness, to which Brigman’s photos seem to attest will have to await another, perhaps less academic, study of Brigman’s work.

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Chelsea Weathers is the managing editor of Radius Books in Santa Fe, NM. Her art writing has appeared in Artforum, Art Papers, Criticism, Gulf Coast, Hyperallergic, Photograph, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in art history from the University of Texas at Austin.