Kanaga, Consuelo (1894–1978)

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Kanaga, Consuelo (1894–1978)

African-American photographer who worked with portraits, still lifes, documentation, and news photography . Born in Astoria, Oregon, in 1894; died in Yorktown Heights, New York, in 1978; married Evans Davidson (a mining engineer), in 1919 (divorced 1926); married briefly for a second time during the early 1930s; married Wallace Putnam (a painter), in 1936.

Important in the study of both women and African-Americans in the history of American photography, Consuelo Kanaga produced portraits and cityscapes of New York which are outstanding examples of early 20th-century photography. Unfortunately, after her death in 1978, Kanaga's work did not become available to galleries or to individual collectors for years, and, therefore, was seldom seen. The 2,500 negatives and 375 prints that comprise the photographer's archive remained with her third husband, artist Wallace Putnam, but after his death were given to the Brooklyn Museum, which held a retrospective of her work in 1992. On the occasion of the exhibit, Barbara Head Millstein , associate curator of painting and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum, and Sarah M. Lowe , guest curator of the exhibit, published Consuelo Kanaga: An American Photographer, which provides a rare look at the photographer's life and work.

Consuelo Kanaga was born in Astoria, Oregon, in 1894, and grew up around San Francisco, California. Little is known about her mother; her father was a lawyer who also published a magazine on farming and irrigation. Kanaga's first job was as a writer-reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, whose editor encouraged her to also become the newspaper's photographer. She worked for the paper from 1915 to 1922, during which time she also became involved in portrait photography. In 1918, she joined the California Camera Club and discovered Alfred Stieglitz' Camera Work, which by her own account "changed her life." Viewing Stieglitz' prints as "the most beautiful things that had ever been done in photography," Kanaga was inspired to become an art photographer.

Kanaga married mining engineer Evans Davidson in 1919, but left him in 1922 and moved to New York, working as a news photographer for the New York American until 1924, then opening a portrait studio in San Francisco. After divorcing Davidson in 1926, she spent a year in Europe, returning to San Francisco with a new husband. (The marriage, difficult from the start, was relatively short-lived.) By the early 1930s, Kanaga's work had become widely respected, and she was included in the historic exhibit of Group f/64 in 1932, along with photographers Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, who were also her friends.

In 1935, Kanaga moved to New York, where she worked on assignment for Index of American Design, a WPA project, and aligned herself with the political left, photographing for such publications as New Masses, Labor Defender, and Sunday Worker. She married painter Wallace Putnam in 1936, after which she lectured at the New York Photo League and continued to maintain a successful portrait business. Throughout the decade of the 1940s, she and Putnam lived and worked in Manhattan and were part of an artistic circle that included Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and other luminaries of the period. In 1948, Kanaga's work was included in three important shows at the Museum of Modern Art.

In 1952, at Putnam's insistence, Kanaga moved permanently to the couple's modest vacation home in Yorktown Heights, New York (the Icehouse), an event which pretty much halted her career. "Connie herself was dispossessed—that is to say, she was in the wrong place," said William Maxwell, her neighbor in Yorktown Heights. "The people she wanted to be photographing were in the city, in black neighborhoods, or in the deep South." Although she continued her portrait business, which provided most of the couple's income, Kanaga lost interest in promoting her career. In the late 1950s, Helen Gee , who owned the Limelight Gallery in Manhattan, visited the photographer with a friend, hoping to arrange a show. Upon their arrival, Kanaga's only interest was in providing a meal for her guests. After they ate, Gee asked to see some of Kanaga's photographs. "She proceeded to wander around the house looking for them in an aimless fashion," Gee recalled. "She couldn't seem to focus at all. She couldn't find the photographs. The conclusion was that Wally began to show us his canvases of two birds.… There must have been two hundred canvases.… I did n't see one photograph and it didn't seem to bother her at all." The last solo exhibition of Kanaga's work while she was alive was at the Brooklyn Museum in 1976–77.

Although Kanaga produced landscapes, interiors, still-lifes and cityscapes, her portraits comprise the soul of her work. In attempting to capture the essence of her subjects, she found much of herself. "The great alchemy is your attitude, who you are, what you are," she said about portrait-making. "When you make a photograph, it is very much a picture of your own self. That is the important thing. Most people try to be striking to catch the eye. I think the thing is not to catch the eye but the spirit." Most outstanding among Kanaga's portraits are those of children. Millstein points out that her images are unsmiling and contemplative, and are examples of portraits that do not focus on making children cute. Also outstanding are her portraits of African Americans: one of Langston Hughes draped on a couch is notable, as is an image of a young African-American mother with her baby girl.

Elsa Dorfman , who reviewed the Millstein-Lowe book for The Women's Review of Books, suggests that although it is the first and probably only study that will be devoted to Kanaga's work, it raises as many questions about the photographer as it answers. Most pressing: Why, given her talent and opportunity, did Consuelo Kanaga produce such a modest body of work?


Dorfman, Elsa. "An interrupted career," in The Women's Review of Books. Vol. X, no. 7. April 1993.

Millstein, Barbara Head, and Sarah M. Lowe. Consuelo Kanaga: An American Photographer. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1992.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. NY: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts