The late poet Maya Angelou once famously said, “I love to see a young girl go out and grab life by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” Angelou, a black woman who defied convention in so many ways, grew up in the Jim Crow South and went on to become one of the most celebrated poets and authors in American history. She joined a canon of women who throughout history have defied expectations by daring to live wild, carefree lives in a male-dominated society. Amelia Earhart. Mae West. Josephine Baker. Eartha Kitt. Dorothy Levitt. Gloria Steinem. And with the introduction of the photo book “Snapshots of Dangerous Women” (Rizzoli USA, March 31, $27.50), other equally brave women, who — though nameless for the time being — now join them.
For over 25 years, Peter J. Cohen, a consummate art collector of found objects, has been scouring flea markets and estates sales, picking up one-off photographs taken in the early part of the 20th century and selling them to major museums that include the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. His dazzling collection of found photos of women engaging in socially “unlady-like” activities in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s have become the focus of the new photo book, whose publishing date of March 31 coincides with Women’s History Month.
“I initially started finding these vernacular photographs at a flea market that used to be on 6th Avenue in New York about 25 years ago, ” Cohen tells In Sight. “In 1991 when I was traveling abroad to Berlin and Uruguay, I would find these same types of photos of women engaging in what were considered men’s activities, all while wearing frocks or even tailored menswear. Because this was the ’90s, I soon found out about eBay, and started looking through some 60 buyers’ collections who specialized in only selling snapshots. I started buying photos that were found in Australia, Berlin, Uruguay, Argentina, Romania.”
Over the course of two decades, Cohen has amassed a stunning collection of more than 60,000 vintage photographs of women, many of which he has given away (not donated) to major museums. Out of his collection, Cohen has some six titles that he used to categorize the photos he has found. When asked why he chose ‘dangerous’ to describe the women for this particular collection of photos, Cohen explained, “Though many of the photos show women brandishing weapons like guns, bats, knives, or engaging in boxing or fighting, the concept was really more about the attitude they all seemed to have about them.”
Smoking; riding a bucking bronco; shooting tin cans in the backyard with a pistol; drinking alcohol straight out of the bottle while wearing a skin baring bikini, the beautiful audacity of women across the world living outside a societal box and appearing to be having the time of their life doing so is chronicled in “Snapshots.” This was all taking place during an era that placed women in a different reserve than men; one that encouraged them to be better at preparing dinner than learning to fix cars or knowing how to shoot a gun. A quick scroll through most American advertisements dating from 1900 to 1960s demonstrates the difference in expectations.
The idea of distributing a book of the photographs came about as an idea Cohen originally had to give his sister a birthday gift.
“My sister lives in St. Louis and is a feminist. I picked out a few photographs of women carrying guns or knives or boxing to make an album for her as a holiday gift. But then I realized I wanted to compile the photographs into a larger collection so I decided I would publish the book and give that to her instead.”