This photographer who documented professional pioneers was a pioneer herself

Connie Guion, 1961, published in “The Amazing Doctor Guion,” LOOK, Sept. 12, 1961. (Charlotte Brooks/Courtesy of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Gift of Katherine Hall Page)

“I repeat many times in the course of discussions that Charlotte Brooks is the most inconspicuous and successful photographer that I have ever heard of. You forget she is in the room and pay her no attention, and she goes about her business and takes a successful picture.” This was said of photographer Charlotte Brooks not by critic or curator, but by one of the women she photographed, Connie M. Guion. Brooks was the first and only long-term female photographer to work full time on the staff at LOOK magazine, where she turned out over 450 assignments during her 20-year tenure.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Brooks documented the challenges of women in the workplace caused by social norms. Guion, described in Brooks’ caption as “an island of femininity surrounded by a sea of men,” was one of many essays that Brooks photographed that focused on women’s rights and achievements. Guion was a pioneer in her profession, the first female doctor in the United States to be named professor of clinical medicine at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College.

Brooks’s work touched on many obstacles for women striving to make careers, including race and marital status. Brooks’s 1966 essay, “The Long, Lonely Wait of a Young Divorcee,” told the story of a 27-year-old single mother, recently divorced and caring for her young son. This profile of a young mother is a slice of the transformations affecting women during the 1960s, part of a special issue of LOOK on “The American Woman.”

Her photos of newscaster Joan Murray focused on the difficulties for a young African American woman entering a high-profile industry, part of a larger series on continued discrimination even in Northern states. Murray is quoted in the essay, ” ‘I know I’m a Negro,’ Joan Murray says, ‘but I can’t let it embitter me, nor do all of us have to demonstrate in the streets. I think by example I have helped change many wrong white attitudes, and I am learning to be at peace with myself.’ ”

Brooks’s work is on display at the Davis museum at Wellesley College until Dec. 18, in an exhibition curated by Ileana Selejan, The Linda Wyatt Gruber ‘66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography.