Women behind the lens at RMIT – celebrating International Women’s Day

Photography was one of the foundation disciplines of the Working Men’s College back in 1887, and women were welcome to enrol in those classes – and not just photography classes but any of the classes that were offered.

On International Women’s Day, Dr Shane Hulbert, curator of Photography 130: Behind the Lens – 130 years of RMIT photography which opens at RMIT Gallery tomorrow night at 6 pm,  looks back at women’s involvement in the RMIT University photographic course over 130 years.

Photography class, outdoor work 1904. RMIT University Archives Collection Working Men’s College Prospectus 1904, page 87 S0628

Visible presence – Women in photography class, 1904

This is an interesting historical document that reveals women were also photographers and were being trained in all aspects of photography in exactly the same way as men. Here we see multiple women, probably almost a third of the class, involved in outside work using large-format cameras which were very heavy and very technical to operate.

This image was taken in the 19th century, probably in the first decade that RMIT started teaching photography. At the time, you weren’t able to go down the street and buy film, or a camera, these things had to be constructed.

People had to purchase lenses and tripods (these are surveyor tripods) and then organise the glass plates and coat them with chemicals, make the exposure, and then process those plates and then make those prints. It’s laborious and very skilful and relies on knowledge of optics, mechanics and chemistry.

So it’s a really interesting photograph and historical document of the way that photography started at the University and its democratic process, through which people were able to learn photography.


RMIT University Archives Collection Photography Class in Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne Technical College 1947 PH3.5.034:01

Taking control – women commanding the cameras

In this photograph, female students out number the men. That ratio still plays out today in the photographic course. We still have very much an even mix if not probably more than – depending on the year, of course, sometimes it swings a bit but I think right from the beginning it seems to be quite an even balance.

One of the wonderful things about photography, is that because it’s such a new art form it doesn’t have that legacy of the ‘hero artist’, the male, the sculptor, using their strength and dexterity to create art. It’s part of photography’s legacy that right from the start, women could control the cameras themselves, strength wasn’t required, and they could seize control. It’s part of photography’s history, and part of the teaching of photography at RMIT right from the start, 130 years ago. It was very democratic right from the start.

You can see how the progression of photographic equipment helped open the medium up to even more women. We’ve gone from the very cumbersome equipment in the previous outdoor image to being outdoors with cameras you can hold by hand. No strength required.

A couple of fairly significant technological advances allow that to happen, including the miniaturisation of devices that started in the 1940s, and that eventually led to computers and microchips.

The speed of the film meant that you were able to hold a camera by hand and photograph something with the duration of a fraction of a second, rather than multiple seconds. It meant that if you could hold your hand steady enough, which is not difficult, you were able to capture a still image without the use of a support.

In this image, we can see one tripod and an instructor pointing at something, and the class all holding onto their own cameras and photographing it in different ways. It’s interesting because you can see two or three different ways of composing and viewing an image.

The man on the far right is using what looks like a twin lens camera, looking down onto the viewfinder, so his experience of framing is very much about looking into the device rather than through the device, which is what the woman kneeling down next to him is doing.

Then the third woman along is looking through the tripod – that’s another way of composing, and she no longer has that freedom of movement to be able to very quickly change her direction or change her relationship to the subject.

It’s quite a compelling image as it demonstrates the both the progression of photography and the way RMIT was teaching photography at the time.


Clare Rae, Untitled No 1 from the series Climbing the Stairs and Other Actions, 2009.

Self portrait – exploring feminist theories

This is a very interesting image by Clare Rae. Here we see the photographer inserting herself into the photo as a way of exploring themes and concepts, and it’s obviously a work by someone who has been trained in fine art photography.

Clare is not necessarily showing us how we see something, or telling a story. What’s she’s concerned about is an idea. As an artist, she’s been exploring ideas about femininity, feminist theories, gaze and balance for some time.

In this photograph, Clare herself is climbing the walls out of frustration. It’s an emotional response to things that she’s been reading about.

Clare has solved some of those inquisitive questions by experimenting with different framing devices, motion, and ways of inserting herself into the frame. This image is one of a series, several of which are the Photography 130 exhibition, in which she experiments with different poses and other people in the photographs.

The resulting works emphasise the way that she’s come to a discovery and realisation about what she wants to convey.

Read more about Photography 130 in this interview with Shane Hulbert.

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