Press "Enter" to skip to content

Herb Petermann: Hidden Figures In Feminist Photography

Special To Topanga Journal

The fleeting capture of a woman’s body as she passes across the photographic lens. She’s an impressionistic figure in this photo. Topangans know this photographer best for his landscapes, earth toned captures of our Santa Monica Mountains. Herb Petermann’s photographs are ephemeral and feminist. In this interview, Petermann takes us on a personal and historical journey of photography.

Kriss Perras headshot by Alan Weissman

By Kriss Perras

Petermann said in the 1980’s he frequently worked in the field of photography. He had a lab in Santa Monica in an office building. The landlord there cut off the hot water, something he needed to develop the color cibachrome prints he was working with.

“With black and white it wouldn’t have been a problem, but this was color,” said Petermann. “The landlord said the pipes are leaking, and he was going to spend a lot of money on plumbing. I said what about the other people that are there. They need hot water to wash their hands. He was stuck on getting rid of hot water.”

“Cibachrome was a long lasting supposedly a very stable process. We still have the photos to prove it because, I processed those prints in 1979. Now it’s 40 years later. The colors are still there. They’re still very vibrant colors.” Herb Petermann

Petermann started woking out of his Santa Monica apartment developing big prints in a tube. He was processing 30 x 40 prints in his small bathroom he remade into a dark room. He processed the large prints in a drum about 32 inches big. This form of color processing has been discontinued because it was expensive and environmentally a disaster, explained Petermann. Developing cibachromes was a toxic process. Ventilation was important in a closed space. Even working with the neutralizer, the cibachrome development process tended to erode metal pipes.

“I was worried the plumbing in the apartment would go bad,” said Petermann. “Cibachrome was a long lasting supposedly a very stable process. We still have the photos to prove it because, I processed those prints in 1979. Now it’s 40 years later. The colors are still there. They’re still very vibrant colors. They’re still very stable.”

Petermann today processes prints that will last over 100 years. He uses a pigment printer for his photographs today. 

“Epson makes a pigment printer,” said Petermann. “These are also very stable colors in the process. It lays down layers of pigment that will last 150 years. It works pretty good. I have some prints up. They’ve been up for five or ten years.”

A pigment printer uses strictly pigments rather than dyes. According to experts, this is a far superior printed image than other printing processes, including the traditional gelatin silver printing process. Pigment printing has a longevity that dye based and other forms of printing do not. The end result is an exceptional archival print. Archival means the material is permanent, chemically stable and safe for preservation purposes. There are no standards though for how long an archival material will last.

When we stepped further back into photography’s history with Petermann, he talked about old Daguerre photographs, Cyanotypes and the processes of printing from when color was first introduced into the development process. He gave an expert perspective on photography’s history.

“There’s Cyanotype printing and a number of other types of printing,” said Petermann. “Cyanotype has a bluish color. They’re pretty stable. Color didn’t come in until Kodak came out with Kodachrome and Ektachrome. Kodachrome is a very stable transparency. One nice thing is if you printed from Kodachrome to cibachrome you could see what you’d get. In black and white you didn’t know what you were getting, because you were looking at a reverse image. You almost had to think in reverse when you worked in black and white. Sometimes you had to make a number of prints before you got it right.”

Like the male pioneers who developed these processes Petermann refers to, there were female photographers who broke ground on the annals of photography’s history too. Let’ build a small timeline of the development of the first photographic processes, then uncover some of the hidden female figures behind the lens, and the men, who used those processes Petermann refers to here.

To start at the beginning, there are so many contributors to the beginnings of photography it is difficult to give credit to just a single person for inventing this art and science. In general history credits one person as the inventor of photography, but there were too many advances in the creation of this art and science for this journalist to be so liberal in credit. We’ll start with three of the main male figures whose processes our hidden female figures utilized.

Let’s begin with Sir John Herschel (1792 – 1871) He is largely credited as the inventor of the cyanotype process, or the blueprint. He was an astronomer searching for a method of copying his notes, so the story goes. He experimented with silver and salts and discovered hyposulphite of soda dissolved silver salts, according to the Getty Museum. As such he was able to create the first cyanotype image on paper in 1839. Using iron salt coated paper, exposing it to sunlight and then washing it in water, this process created a white image against a blue background. This is how it gets its name: blueprint. Sir Herschel also gave us the words photography, negative, positive and snapshot in relation to the camera. 

Using hyposulphite of soda in the cyanotype process would later became very significant with the work of Nicéphore Niépce (1765 – 1833), William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 – 1877) and Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787 – 1851). Niépce worked with the Camera Obscura, which is known to have existed at least as far back as the 13 – 14th Centuries. He took the device one step further than just being a drawing aid. He put paper coated with silver salts known to blacken with daylight in the back of the camera. It was in May of 1816 that Niépce created the first image using this method. He called these images retinas. He is also largely credited as the inventor of photography. 

Talbot invented the positive-negative photographic process in 1839, as it is still practiced today. This is the Calotype process using silver nitrate. Calotypes are negatives made using silver chloride coated paper. When exposed to light in a camera obscura those areas hit by light became dark in tone, creating a negative image.

Daguerre partnered with Niépce in 1829, according to the International Photography Hall of Fame. Daguerre experimented with Niépce’s heliographic process he had developed, and Niépce with Daguerre’s camera obscura. By the time the experimenting was done, Niépce had passed away leaving his share of the partnership to his son. Daguerre kept experimenting after Niépce’s death, finally producing his first image in 1837 using silver iodide, copper plates, warm mercury and fumes formed over an amalgam with the silver creating a clear direct positive the image. The plate was washed with a saline solution to prevent further exposure. Daguerre allowed the plate to remain in the partnership, but it would be called a daguerreotype. 

Constance Talbot (1811 – 1880), wife of Talbot, is credited by many sources as the first woman to take a photograph. Being the wife of Talbot himself, she learned from him. She took a hazy image of a short verse by Thomas Moore, the Irish poet. That photograph is still printable today, according to the Metropolitan Museum Of Art’s book, Impressed By Light: British Photographs From Paper Negatives. 

Anna Atkins (1799 – 1871) is largely credited as one of the first female photographers. She created a book of over 300 images that currently resides in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is titled Photographs of British Algae. They’re beautiful blueprint, or cyanotype, images of seaweed and aquatic microorganisms captured between 1843 – 1853. There are now only 20 existing copies of this book left, the Rijksmuseum copy being the best known preserved.

Geneviève Élisabeth Disdéri (1817 – 1878) was an early French photographer who first learned from her husband, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri. She was his partner in their Brest, France Daguerre studio for the late 1840’s. He is a daguerreotypist credited with inventing a unique nine by six centimeter carte de visit, or small photographic images mounted on a card. Geneviève is known for her 28 daguerreotypes of Brest, two of which are Ruins of St Mathieu and Cimitière de Plougastel. She used the collodion technique some sources say she learned from her famous Parisian husband. This process dispensed with the expensive silver plate and instead used a glass covered in an emulsion layer of collodion mixed with silver nitrate. This created a negative that when placed on a black background showed a positive image. Outdoor photographs at this time were very rare. Geneviève became famous for taking such photographs.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 – 1879) was a British female photographer who wanted to make photography an art. She began when she was 48 years old, in 1863. She was a portraitist. Her works were of celebrities and children. One such photograph she took of a celebrity was of Sir Herschel, someone she considered a dear friend and mentor. She used soft focus and formed the basis of what is now known as Pictorialism, or projecting emotional intent into the viewers imagination. She was however widely criticized during her time as technically deficient for using this technique.

Jumping forward in time to World War I, Harriet Chalmers Adams was the first female photojournalist to visit the trenches. She was a correspondent for Harper’s Magazine in Europe. That wasn’t her first byline though. She had previously spent three years traveling Latin America where she took 3,000 photos. She presented those photos to National Geographic. In 1907 they published her work. After, she would receive twenty more published works in that respected publication in her lifetime. She was just one of a few women to be included in National Geographic at that time. 

At the Smithsonian, is housed the earliest known surviving black and white photographic negative. It’s a seminal portrayal of poverty by Dorothea Lange during the Depression Era. It’s of a Migrant Mother in Nipomo, California in 1936. It’s a very famous photo, and perhaps an image the has come to symbolize the American Depression. Lange helped define the direction of 20th Century documentary photography. She was employed by the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA). According to governmental archives, there were nearly 80,000 photos taken by FSA photographers of Depression Era scenes between 1935 and 1943, the largest documentary photography project ever undertaken.  The FSA was created in 1937, redeveloped out of an earlier New Deal project called the Resettlement Administration (RA). The archival records show the FSA resettled poor farmers on more productive land, promoted soil conservation, provided emergency relief and loaned money to help femurs buy and improve farms. It also built experimental rural communities, suburbs “Greenbelt towns’ and sanitary camps for migrant farm workers. Lange documented with her lens such resettlements, and the poverty associated with the Depression Era farmers and also the Japanese Internment camps. 

Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971). Another woman who learned photography from her husband, Allan Arbus. At first her worked converged with his in the world of fashion. She soon breached out on her own into the streets of New York. There she found her own trailblazing work where she documented the city’s streets. She took dark images in sometimes seedy or morbid places like the morgue. She photographed places on the edge, Brooklyn and Manhattan’s tenements, and the taboo, Hubert’s Freak Museum in Times Square, Coney Island and gay nightclubs. Tragically suffering from depression, she committed suicide in 1971. The words “last supper” were the last entry written in her journal. 


Subscribe to our newsletter

Topanga Journal
This site uses cookies. Close