Alma Ruth Lavenson (20 May 1897, San Francisco – 19 September 1989, Piedmont, California) was a leading American photographer of the first half of the 20th century. She worked with and was close friends with Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston and other photographic masters of the period.
The daughter of a dry-goods businessman, Lavenson apparently decided to become a photographer on her own after enrolling at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1915. Her first photos were snapshots of family and friends taken with a small Kodak camera. She learned to develop and print her negatives by watching a technician at an Oakland drugstore in the early 1920s. Her first published photograph, an image of Zion Canyon entitled “The Light Beyond,” appeared on the cover of Photo-Era magazine in December 1927. In her early work she concentrated the geometric forms of structures and their placement in the landscape. She frequently exhibited in photographic salons and became a member of the influential Pictorial Photographers of America.
In 1930 she was introduced to Adams, Cunningham and Weston by art collector Albert Bender. Two years later she was invited to participate in the famous Group f/64 show at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, although there is some uncertainty about whether she 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, Consuelo 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 [sic] Kanaga and several others.” Lavenson was not mentioned by name in that notice, but her name is always listed as being associated with the group because of her place in the first exhibition.
In 1933 Lavenson began taking a series of photographs of abandoned buildings in the Mother Lode region of California. She continued documenting the remains of the Gold Rush period for more than two decades, and her images are now noted both for their artistic beauty and as a record of a vanishing piece of the California landscape.
Lavenson’s “Self-Portrait (with Hands) was one of the most admired images of the 20th century. In 1996-1997, this photograph was fashioned into a huge banner and adorned the entrance to the New York Public Library’s exhibition on the history of women photographers. In 1999, the University of California hosted a major retrospective on the photography of Lavenson and Imogen Cunningham., which used the self-portrait as a central image. The self-portrait is used as a cover photograph for the book 101 Years of California Photography (1992). Recently a print of Lavenson’s self-portrait was sold at auction for more than $110,000.
Alma Lavenson remained mostly an amateur photographer, but her inspiration has been a continuing influence on generations of women photographers.