A lens of her own: The photography of Harriet Chalmers Adams

Harriet Chalmers Adams is almost always included in round-ups of American female adventurers, and rightfully so. She was an obsessive traveler, and from what I’ve read so far, Jessie Ackermann appears to be the only American woman to have technically covered more ground in the early 20th century. Kathryn Davis, who is probably the foremost scholar on Adams, put together a handy table of her travels:

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From The California Geographer, 49, 2009

In the early 1900s, Adams cultivated a public image as a female adventurer in order to garner interest in the public talks she gave to raise money for her trips. And she certainly wasn’t shy about posing for camera — her husband took several photos of her during their first major journey, to South America in 1904, which were published by the New York Times and elsewhere upon their return and launched her into the public eye. The Library of Congress also has images of her doing grip and grins with figures like Amelia Earhart and male reporters and politicians of her day.

But an unfortunate historical side effect of this is that we usually only see only pictures of Adams, but not pictures by her. And that means we’re missing half the story, because over the years, Adams evolved into an accomplished photographer.

Here are the original National Geographic prints of Adams’s best work from the South American journey. She and her husband spent three years on the continent, crossing the Andes by horseback and visiting villages in every country. There are definitely some gems here, but you can tell the emphasis was more on straight documentation rather than art.

That shifted during WWI, when Adams became only female war reporter allowed to cover the French trenches in 1916. Her credential was through Harper’s, but National Geographic used some of her images, as did other publications. Because of that, her WWI images are under less of a copyright lockdown than her earlier work. I’ve put together a Flickr album of images of or by Adams, which includes images from Wikipedia Commons, various blog posts on Adams, and Pinterest.

Don’t have time to browse? Here’s a quick collage of my favorites from her WWI work. All of these have shown up in various places around the Internet, so I think it’s fair use to repost them here. All of these were taken in France.

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Like many of her contemporary female war photographers and journalists, Adams focused on the mundane life of soldiers and civilians in war zones. But unlike the others, she captured many light-hearted moments, like men pouring wine in the trenches and nurses smiling as they prep meals. There are poignant moments, like her spying over the shoulder of a soldier as he writes a letter home, but for the most part, her images offer unexpected moments of levity in the decidedly macabre setting of the French trenches.

WWI was the one and only time that Adams covered conflict, but her perspective was a unique one. This larger-than-life explorer had an eye for some surprisingly small and intimate moments with her subjects.

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