For over three decades, Anne-Katrin Purkiss has been photographing people in creative professions, either as part of her regular freelance work for museums, galleries and government agencies or due to personal interest.

In this blog, Anne explores the motivations behind her ongoing project and why this work is important both in the wider context of modern-day feminism and, more specifically, within the arts and sciences sectors.

Exhibition view of Great Mind by Anne-Katrin Purkiss

I have always been interested in photographing and documenting people who inspire others through their work, and those who make a creative contribution to society. It is also important for me to show my subjects in relation to their environment. The artists’ studios, the scientists’ laboratories, even office desks with computers are not only part of the space that somebody has chosen or designed for themselves, but they are also documents of our time.

The prospect of mounting an exhibition that features only women working in fields such as natural science or sculpture, which were in the past associated predominantly with men, provided an interesting challenge. A few decades ago, people wouldn’t have found it unusual to see only one or two portraits of women in an exhibition featuring artists or scientists. I found it intriguing to change that for once.

Magdalene Odundo, studio potter, 2017 © Anne-Katrin Purkiss

Until recently, I had no intention of mounting an exhibition dedicated entirely to women working in the arts or in science. This was mainly because I believe that recognition for somebody’s work is a matter of merit and because it felt wrong to replace one kind of discrimination with another. Yet, some instances have prompted me to rethink.

Taking photographs for an exhibition of portraits of Fellows of the Royal Society in 2010, almost all women scientists noted, without prompting from my side, that they did not find themselves working on ‘a level playing field’. Given that these were women who had achieved high office and acclaim for their work, I found this surprising. The resulting exhibition seemed to confirm their views: one part was devoted to Presidents of the Royal Society, they were all men; another part was dedicated to Nobel Prize winners – all men; the third part consisted of other Fellows of the Royal Society, a minority of whom were women.

Dame Jane Francis, Director, British Antarctic Survey, 2018 © Anne-Katrin Purkiss

The experience of photographing scientists was mirrored by what I experienced in the field of visual arts, working with galleries, arts organisations and individual artists.

Early in 2014, London’s Royal Academy Magazine published a discussion under the title ‘Should there be positive discrimination towards female artists?’ In it, Eileen Cooper, the first woman to be elected Keeper of the Royal Academy, caused controversy and debate with her view that “a short period of prioritisation would allow the achievements of female artists to be visible in the future”.

The article prompted me to look at my own archive of photographic portraits, taken over a period of over thirty years. The disproportionate representation of male artists and scientists was all too evident in my own collection.

Anne-Katrin Purkiss photographic archive, self-portrait, 2018 © Anne-Katrin Purkiss

In recent years, I have made a deliberate effort to address the imbalance. It was easier than I had imagined: I moved away from photographing only people whose names were well-publicised and immediately recognised, to taking a closer look at achievements and listening to what others had to say about people whose work and personality had inspired them.  

In this context, and in preparation for Great Minds, I thought of ways to go beyond my existing collection of portraits of prominent and successful women. One wall in the gallery is reserved for portraits of female visitors who would like to be photographed with an item that shows their way of being creative. I hope that the resulting portraits of local people will give the project a new dimension.

Exhibition view of Great Mind by Anne-Katrin Purkiss

Great Minds by Anne-Katrin Purkiss displays a selection of portrait photographs of leading artists, writers and scientists from the archive of the photographer. The exhibition is open in the Upper Gallery until 29 March 2020.