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Anna Dempsey

University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, USA

Women Photographers and Explorers: The Colonizing of the American Landscape and its Indigenous Peoples at the turn of the Twentieth Century

Anna M. Dempsey
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In a 2015 CAA review of Meaningful Place: Landscape Photographs in the American West (2014), Kelly Dennis contends that photography’s early history was ‘tethered’ to the ‘disruptive innovations’ wrought by new technologies and industrialization. These disruptions and innovations also democratized photography and flooded the field with numerous eager amateurs. By the late nineteenth century, photographers with their portable Kodak cameras, could travel by train to Western and Eastern wildernesses to explore and document the cultivation and industrialization of the American landscape. Many of them also sought to ‘capture’ the transformation (and disappearance) of native American life—especially for viewers who would never visit the ‘vanishing’ Western frontier.

Yet, as Dennis states, we rarely acknowledge that the photographers who shaped American cultural history and framed the Western sense of ‘place’ were women: the anonymous ‘regional photographers, whose images are held in historical societies throughout the American West.’ For this conference, I will analyze the work of two of these largely unknown, regional chroniclers—women who photographed the Western North American landscape and the indigenous peoples who inhabited it. Emma Jane Gay and Kate Cory’s photographs, I will argue, give the contemporary viewer insight into the gendered, colonialist politics that informed the triumphal domestication of the Western US landscape at the turn of the twentieth century.

Emma Jane Gay, often considered the first US lesbian photographer, went to Idaho in 1889 at age 58 (with her companion, ethnologist Alice C. Fletcher) to document the government’s land allotment work with the Nez Perce. Unlike many of her male contemporaries, who photographed Western panoramas populated by ‘vanishing’ India tribes, Gay’s amateur images evidence her struggle to reconcile colonialist values with her sympathy for the terrible impact Euro-Americans had on indigenous peoples’ lives. In part, as I will suggest, Gay’s ‘uninteresting and uncomplicated’ images are informed by her struggle with the limitations placed upon her by nineteenth century gender conventions. Gay’s efforts to break these strictures enabled her to document some of the ‘small’ resistances of the Nez Perce—even as these Indigenous peoples were compelled to adopt Euro/American dress and customs.

Some of these same conflicts are also evident in Kate Cory’s photographs. Cory, a 44-year-old Illinois native traveled to Arizona in 1905 as part of a Western holiday tour. She did not return home but decided to remain among the Hopi for seven years. Like Gay, her photographs reflect a tension between rupture and continuity, assimilation, and tradition—and especially between Euro/American racist values and her personal insight into Hopi life. This sympathy, I contend, allowed Cory to resist many of the cultural conventions associated with the cultivation of the American landscape—and especially the racist lenses through which the Hopi and other Native American peoples were often viewed.

In sum: Both Emma Jane Gay and Kate Cory, two largely unknown middle-aged photographers at the turn of the twentieth century, challenged and occasionally subverted some of the conventions associated with the colonizing white Euro/American gaze.

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