Anne Brigman was an American photographer born in Hawaii on the 3rd of December 1869. At the age of sixteen, her family moved to Los Gatos, California, and nothing is known about why they moved or what they did after arriving in California.
In 1894 she married a sea captain, Martin Brigman. She accompanied her husband on several voyages to the South Seas, returning to Hawaii at least once. Imogen Cunningham recounts a story supposedly told to her firsthand that on one of the voyages Brigman fell and injured herself so badly that one breast was removed. This story was never confirmed by Brigman or anyone else, but by 1900 Brigman stopped traveling with her husband and resided in Oakland, California.
Perhaps seeking her own artistic outlet, she began photographing in 1901. Soon she was exhibiting and within two years she had developed a reputation as a master of pictorial photography. The first public display of her work came in January 1902 with other members of the California Camera Club at San Francisco’s Second Photographic Salon in the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art. Her Portrait of Mr. Morrow was singled out in the press and was reproduced in the popular monthly Camera Craft. That journal praised her photos at the Los Angeles Salon of 1902 and over the next decade reproduced over a dozen of her prints. She used a shared darkroom (a converted barn) on Oakland’s Brockhurst Street.
Brigman’s career quickly accelerated at home. After her success at San Francisco’s Third Photographic Salon (1903), she opened a teaching studio in Berkeley which attracted many University co-eds. Soon her allegorical studies appeared in Photograms of the Year and her portraits of California celebrities, such as the rakish Herman Whitaker, were featured in two issues of Sunset magazine.
Her popularity with the public was slightly tarnished when her famous study of an undraped female nude, The Soul of the Blasted Pine, was criticised, sidelined and then removed from the 1908 Idora Park Exposition for being a vulgar photograph of a “scrawny dame.” Brigman angrily withdrew the image from the display.
To objectify her own nude body as the subject of her photographs at the turn of the twentieth century was groundbreaking; to do so outdoors in a near-desolate wilderness setting was revolutionary. Although the term feminist art was not coined until nearly seventy years after Brigman made her first photographs, the suggestion that her camera gave her the power to redefine her place as a woman in society establishes her as an important forerunner in the field.
Although her popularity was tarnished in California, her popularity grew outside spanning both coasts: in Northern California, where she lived.
In late 1902, she came across a copy of Camera Work and was captivated by the images and the writings of Alfred Stieglitz. She wrote Stieglitz praising him for the journal, and Stieglitz in turn soon became captivated with Brigman’s photography. In 1903 she was listed as an Associate of his famous Photo-Secession and two years later he listed her as an official Member. In 1908 she became a Fellow of the Photo-Secession. Because of Stieglitz’s notoriously high standards and because of her distance from the other members in New York, this recognition is a significant indicator of her artistic status. She was the only photographer west of the Mississippi to be honoured.
From 1903 to 1908, Stieglitz exhibited Brigman’s photos many times, and her photos were printed in three issues of Stieglitz’s journal Camera Work. During this same period she often exhibited and corresponded under the name “Annie Brigman,” but in 1911 she dropped the “i” and was known from then on as “Anne.” In 1908 the Secession Club held a special exhibit for her photographs in New York.
Admiration of her talents quickly spread. The Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. staged in 1904 one-person exhibitions of her work. In 1905 her photo entitled The Vigil was shown at the London Salon.
In California, she became revered by West Coast photographers, and her photography influenced many of her contemporaries. In addition, she was also known as an actress and in 1908 she played Sybil of Nepenthe in two performances of a play by Charles Keeler presented by the Studio Club of Berkeley in the Hillside Clubhouse; Brigman even served as a “judge” in a baby beauty contest. She was known as a poet, a critic, a proponent of the Arts & Crafts philosophy, and a member of the Pictorialist photography movement. On the East Coast, her work was promoted by Alfred Stieglitz, who elected her as a fellow of the prestigious Photo-Secession. From 1903 to 1944 Anne Brigman maintained ongoing correspondence with Alfred Stieglitz, exchanging nearly 100 letters during this time. Brigman is also noted for her honest art criticism and opinioned voice on cultural and fine art topics, and as a published poet.