Consuelo Kanaga (born Consuelo Delesseps Kanaga) was an American photographer and writer who became well known for her photographs of African-Americans. She is one of the pioneers of modern American photography, began her career as a photojournalist in 1915 in San Francisco. In the 1920s, Alfred Stieglitz
inspired her to develop a more aesthetic approach, and a trip to Europe in 1928 awakened her lifelong preoccupation with European modernist painting and the ways in which that work was influenced by the sculpture of Africa. Kanaga successfully combined a Pictorialist aesthetic with a realist strategy, producing handsomely composed and carefully printed images. She was one of few white American photographers in the 1930s to make artistic portraits of African Americans.
Source: The Brooklyn Museum
Kanaga was born on May 25, 1894 in Astoria, Oregon, the second child of Amos Ream Kanaga and Mathilda Carolina Hartwig. Her father was a successful lawyer and judge in Ohio. After moving to Astoria he became the district attorney for the city, and he also traveled widely, often leaving his family behind with little notice. After they moved to California in 1915 her mother became a real estate broker, a highly unusual occupation for a woman at that time. The last name "Kanaga"
is of Swiss origin, and a family genealogy traces its roots back at least 250 years. She spelled her first name "Consuela,"
at least in the 1920s and '30s, but it is generally listed now as Consuelo, a more common Spanish name. Her middle name "Delesseps"
is said to have come from her mother's admiration for Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French diplomat and developer of the Suez Canal.
In 1911 the family moved from Oregon to Larkspur in Marin County, California. In 1915 Kanaga got a job as a reporter, feature writer and part-time photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle
. Dorothea Lange
later said that Kanaga was the first female newspaper photographer she had ever encountered. It was there that she discovered Alfred Stieglitz
's journal Camera Work and decided to become a photographer. Lange encouraged her to take up photography as a career and introduced her to the growing San Francisco Bay Area community of artistic photographers, notably Anne Brigman
, Edward Weston
, Francis Bruguière
, and Louise Dahl-Wolf
In 1919 she married mining engineer Evans Davidson
, but they separated within two years. In 1922 she moved to New York in order to work as a photojournalist for the New York American
newspaper. While in New York a co-worker at the newspaper, Donald Litchfield
, introduced her to Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz worked with Kanaga to help transform her vision from photojournalism to a more artistic photographic style. By March 1923 she was living with Litchfield, although at the time she had not yet divorced Davidson. In 1924 she and Litchfield moved to California, living at times near Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Los Angeles. By the end of the year she had finalized divorce proceedings against Davidson, and she became engaged to Litchfield. The engagement lasted only six months, however, and by the end of the year they were no longer a couple.
In 1926 she met Tina Modotti
, who was visiting San Francisco, and she put together a small exhibition of Modotti's photographs at the Kanaga Studio on Post Street. Aided by art patron Albert Bender
, she began planning a prolonged "tour" of Europe, and in 1927 she spent the latter part of the year traveling and photographing in France, Germany, Hungary and Italy. While there she met up with Dahl, and the two of them spent many weeks traveling together.
While traveling to Tunisia in January 1928, she met James Barry McCarthy
, an Irish writer and ex-pilot, and by March they were married. In May they returned to New York City and took up residence there. Kanaga initially found work as a photographic retoucher, but within a few months she had her own darkroom and was printing the first of her many photos from Europe. In 1930 she and McCarthy moved to San Francisco, and soon she was re-established in the photographic community there.
In 1931 she met and began to employ African-American Eluard Luchell McDaniels
, a young "man-of-all-trades"
who worked for her as a handyman and chauffeur. She began to photograph him around her home, and as they talked she became captivated by the plight of African-Americans and their continuing fight against racism. Soon she was devoting much of her photography to images of African-Americans, their homes and their culture.
In 1932 she was invited by Weston and Ansel Adams
to participate in the famous Group f/64
show at the M.H. de Young Museum
, and she showed four prints. There is some confusion about whether Kanaga should actually be called a "member" of Group f/64. The announcement for the show at the de Young Museum listed seven photographers in Group f/64 and said "From time to time various other photographers will be asked to display their work with Group f/64. Those invited for the first showing are: Preston Holder, Consuela Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, Brett Weston."
However, in 1934 the group posted a notice in Camera Craft magazine that said "The F:64 group includes in its membership such well known names as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Willard Van Dyke, John Paul Edwards, Imogene [sic] Cunningham, Consuela Kanaga and several others."
In an interview later in her life, Kanaga herself said "I was in that f/64 show with Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke and Ansel Adams, but I wasn't in a group, nor did I belong to anything ever. I wasn't a belonger."
In 1935 she moved back to New York without McCarthy, and the two apparently were divorced sometime that year. She began plans for a portfolio of African Americans and interviewed several families in Harlem with whom she hoped to live while documenting their lives. While there she encountered painter Wallace Putnam
, whom she had met the last time she lived in New York. Within three months they were married. They spent part of their honeymoon visiting Alfred Stieglitz at his home at Lake George.
In 1938 she joined the Photo League
, where she lectured a new generation of artistic photographers and became the leader of the Documentary Group projects, including Neighborhoods of New York. Her photographs were printed in progressive publications of the time, including New Masses
, Labor Defender
, and Sunday Worker
. By 1940 she found teaching too restrictive, and she returned to taking photographs full time. She was actively photographing and exhibiting throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In the latter decade she became very active in civil rights, and she took part in and photographed many demonstrations and marches. In 1963 she was arrested in Albany, Georgia during the Walk for Peace.
She finally seemed to have found the right romantic and creative partner in Putnam, and the two of them remained together for the rest of her life. They traveled frequently and spent the last half of the 1960s going back and forth to France.
A review published in New York Times
described that "She continued to work into her 70s, despite suffering from emphysema and cancer, which were probably caused by the chemicals used in creating her prints. Her body of work, though comparatively small, is consistently exceptional. Consuelo Kanaga died virtually unknown on February 28, 1978, but her talent endures."
Her entire estate amounted to $1,345 in photographic equipment, almost 2,500 negatives and 375 prints. Everything else she had given away to friends.