Women, Photography, Beauty, and the Gaze in Argentina. The Case of María Carmen Portela and Annemarie Heinrich

19 December 2022 - no responses

In Argentina, many herstories are yet to be written, particularly those of women artists active before the 1960s. In this vein, the work of German-born Argentine Annemarie Heinrich (1912–2005), a prolific professional photographer, has only recently begun to attract interest from art historians, largely because of the opening of her personal archive to some researchers. At the same time, current feminist movements are asking awkward questions regarding women’s presence in photography, as the fuerzas fotográficas feministas campaign has showed [Figure 1].

fuerzas fotográficas feministas [feminist photographic forces], social media interventions, 2017

Figure 1. fuerzas fotográficas feministas [feminist photographic forces], social media interventions, 2017.


This text focuses on Annemarie Heinrich’s photographs of women from the 1930s, a decade of great activity for the artist and for the visual production of a modern feminine identity. In the first part, I will briefly explore the role of women in the early history of photography in Argentina. Secondly, I will present some characteristics of recent scholarly work on Heinrich. Finally, I will offer a reading of a selection of Heinrich’s photographs from the 1930s.

It has often been pointed out that women engaged with photography from very early dates. As a matter of fact, from the mid-nineteenth century, there were a significant number of female photographers in Europe and the United States. Men had not appropriated the field of photography, either socially nor professionally, making it an open territory for women. Women photographers were exempted from following a long training in an academy and from facing specific exams, which could have been true obstacles for them. In Argentina and in the rest of Latin America, the situation seems to have been similar to the Euro-American scenario, although in Argentina very little is still known about the very origins of the female presence in the development of the medium. The information we have so far is fragmentary and limited to isolated episodes and figures. For example, in 1877 “the wife of the photographer Monzón” offered portraits “of children and ladies”. The field of specialization of this photographer speaks clearly of a dominant gender ideology that postulated the convenience of ladies and children being portrayed by women.

Moving forward, end-of-century advertising seems to already have women as an important clientele for photographic products, such as the camera El fotógrafo, suggesting an elegant pastime for upper-class women [Figure 2]. We do not know how far-reaching this model of a female amateur photographer was, but it seems to have been widespread. Moving forward, in the 1920s the association between women from the middle and upper classes was reinforced with the arrival in Argentina of portable cameras, which disseminated the concept of the family snapshot. This model of the female photographer was in the tradition of women of preserving family memory in sketches or albums.

Figure 2: Advertisement for the camera El fotógrafo [The Photographer], Buenos Aires, 1895

Some years later, forgotten figures, such as that of Rosa Kardos (1883-1976) in the late 1920s, paved the way for better-known photographers such as Annemarie Heinrich. Rosa Kardos’s photographs of the emerging local star system and of ladies of  high society were highly appreciated and circulated widely in the press. She also had solo exhibitions of her photographs.

Annemarie Heinrich was largely a self-taught artist, although she had some informal training at the photographic studios she worked at: Melitta Lang’s, Rosa Kardos’s, Rita Branger’s. In 1930, when she was eighteen, she opened her first studio. This decade was mainly devoted to the commissioned portraits of high society and members of the blossoming movie industry.

The work of Heinrich has been the subject of some recent exhibitions, including the one that took place in 2015 in the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. Her work, as often happens with women artists, was presented outside history. Sgustín Pérez Rubio’s, one of the curators of the show, wrote that the exhibition aimed to explore Heinrich as “a visionary in relationship to women’s liberation”. A world without feminism, where Heinrich shines as a rarity, has been invented. Instead of offering a reading of the work in the context of feminism, blossoming in Buenos Aires since the last decades of the 19th century, the catalogue insists upon the so-called visionary qualities of her work.

However, the rather confusing approach upheld by the curators of the show fails to render visible the links between Heinrich and the many women artists who also contributed to the visual construction of a “new woman”. Heinrich contributed decisively to this endeavor, but she was by no means an exception or an anomaly. In Buenos Aires, there were many images and texts that rendered visible the transformations of the roles assigned to women during the first half of the century, ranging from critical, tolerant or optimistic positions.

I will now turn to a group of Heinrich’s photographs to reinscribe them in the visual development of modern femininism in Argentina. This group of women shared a desire to occupy increasingly important positions in the working, intellectual and artistic spheres.

Heinrich’s performance in the mass media was a key aspect of her career. In the 1930s, she was a regular contributor to a women’s weekly magazine. She began exploring the visual construction of modern women in these spaces. The female figures she constructed were as innovative as beautiful. Take, for example, the photographs Heinrich took of the famed Mercedes Quintana (1910-1996) [Figure 3].

Figure 3. Annemarie Heinrich, photos for “Una delicada figura coreográfica” [“A delicate choreographic figure”], Buenos Aires, 1935.

The photographer had focused on the portraits of the figures of the prestigious Teatro Colón since the beginning of her career. Text and image appear in perfect harmony: the dancer executes the steps with great elegance, captured with an impeccable aesthetic by Heinrich. Quintana seems simply to float. The delicate coloration of the backgrounds is added to the classic frames to give a harmonious image. In this way, Heinrich visually negotiates the entrance to the theatrical sphere of a woman of the Buenos Aires’ high society, such as Mercedes Quintana. Her public appearance was carefully shaped by Heinrich.

The photographer would perform a similar job with the images of Gloria Alcorta Mansilla (1915-2012) [Figure 4]. Although currently remembered as a writer, Alcorta Mansilla also devoted herself to sculpture during her youth. Shortly after her return to Argentina from France, where she had been born and lived for many years, Alcorta Mansilla was introduced to the readers. The brief text that accompanied the photographic report pointed out the two passions of the young woman: writing and sculpture. But the images did not clearly reveal any of these occupations.

Figure 4. Annemarie Heinrich, photos for “El espíritu del arte en nuestro gran mundo” [“The spirit of art in our high society”], Buenos Aires, 1935.

The three photographs showed her as “a singular beauty”, according to the article that accompanied them. The pictures, which show the artists detached, absent-minded and mysterious, gave an account of the requirement that women engaged in creative activity should always meet: they had to be beautiful and elegant, as well as extremely talented.

In this sense, Heinrich’s style can be usefully linked to that of a figure, now obliterated from the histories of photography in Argentina: the society photographer Rita Branger. In effect, Heinrich had also trained with Branger, from whom she learned the lesson of how to visually construct an elegant and sophisticated femininity, with some hints of modernity, such as the more relaxed pose [Figure 5]. Branger’s photographs were highly appreciated in the Argentine media: high society women paraded in front of her camera, and their images circulated in various media in the 1920s.

Figure 5. Rita Branger, Raquel Cárdenas de Guerrico, Buenos Aires, 1929.

Many journalists and intellectuals from the 1920s pointed out the so-called danger of the “masculinization” of the new women. Short hair and ambiguous clothing combined to frighten the most conservative sectors. The cigarette was another debate.  Heinrich’s untitled photograph is one example of the artists’ involvement with the creation of a modern feminine iconography [Figure 6]. The “elegant vice” of smoking, in the words of an Argentine female writer of the period, is shown against the background of the city lights. Far from being visionary, Heinrich’s work is rooted in her time, a period of modernization of women’s roles in the country.

Figure 6. Annemarie Heinrich, Sin título [Untitled] circa 1935, gelatin silver print, 23 x 17 cm, private collection.

A very delicate female hand is shown superimposed on the lights of a big city. I have not been able to find out if the image was exhibited or if it circulated in the press. Most likely, it was one of the many photographic experiments Heinrich executed throughout the years. It seems to be a test of visual experiment on a typical attitude of the so-called “new woman”: the act of smoking. There is another layer to analyze regarding this image: it is a testimony of the long-lasting friendship between Heinrich and the artist María Carmen Portela (1896-1984).

The friendship and close collaboration with the sculptor and engraver, to whom Heinrich portrayed from the 1930s, has left an enormous collection of images, where the coexistence of femininity and art were visually negotiated in performative terms, for these images were also acts of self-representation.

Portela’s earliest portraits, such as Melitta Lang’s, show an elegant woman in the typical posture of a high-class woman [Figure 7]. In contrast, Heinrich’s images often show Portela in her workshop, surrounded by her works. Other images resort to tropes that were in Argentina usually connected to female writers, whose inner worlds were often emphasized [Figure 8].

The physical, often demanding, act of sculpting was also rendered visible in some photographs. However, this way of representing Portela was not simple or straight-forward: sometimes the images Heinrich created stressed her friend’s femininity and gracefulness. These images, which appeared in the Brazilian press, attempt to convey an effortless concurrence of beauty, womanhood, and art [Figure 9].

Figure 9. Annemarie Heinrich, María Carmen Portela, 1934.

The modern woman proposed by Heinrich, and particularly the woman artist, could not abdicate the duty of being beautiful: her participation in the public sphere, her new activities, and her innovative roles had to be combined with a strict subjection to the codes of a normative femininity.

The elegant and impeccable manicured hand suggests that women who entered the public space were also visual spectacles. Heinrich’s photographs are situated in that space of negotiation that the new women of the 1930s went through. There were moments of tension between the ideas of a more traditional femininity, closely associated with a domestic ideal, and the figure of the new woman.

However, the imperative of beauty and elegance was embedded in these two seemingly dissimilar models. Heinrich created beautiful images of modern women, in an attempt to design the visual characteristics of the new Argentine woman. Far from being a visionary or an anomalous subject (and therefore far from the problems of her time), Heinrich devoted her efforts to the formulation of a femininity as novel as it was acceptable, as innovative as possible.

The discursive construction of a “Great Female Artist” is partially understandable in the Argentine context, where the debates raised by the feminist critique in art history have been dealt with only very recently. Research on women artists of this period has been dominated by an interest in a rather small group of creators, such as Raquel Forner and Norah Borges. This almost obsessive fixation on a few names has successfully obliterated the efforts of those art historians committed to writing a fairer art history.

In this vein, in this text I have tried to highlight not Heinrich’s unicity but rather her involvement with her own times. Neither a visionary nor a rebel, but a smart photographer of her own time, Heinrich’s remarkable oeuvre demonstrate the complexities involved in the shaping of a modern visual identity for women. Women were becoming visible literally and figuratively speaking in modern Buenos Aires, but the terms of this visibility were a disputed field. Heinrich’s images were both framed by and helped to break traditional representations of women.


By: Georgina G. Gluzman

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The maximum upload file size: 15 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop files here

scroll up