Josephine Powell was born on 15 May 1919 in New York City, where she also grew up. She earned a Bachelor of Arts from Cornell University in 1941. Four years later she got her master’s degree at the New York School for Social Work at Columbia University. Almost immediately after graduating, she left the United States on the SS Ernie Pyle to work for the International Refugee and Resettlement Organization for Displaced Persons (IRRODP). She was stationed in Tanganyika, Tanzania, and later transferred to Munich, Germany. She would not return to the United States for another 40 years.
For many decades, Josephine Powell lived in Rome and earned her living as an architectural photographer.
In 1974 Powell moved from Rome to Istanbul. When she was commissioned to write a book on kilims, she discovered that not much research had been done on them. She went into the field to do research herself. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s she visited nomads and villagers in Anatolia, photographing their daily activities and their handicrafts. During these years, Powell became more and more fascinated by the lives of rural women and by their artful weaving. She built an amazing archive of photographs and field notes on flat-woven textiles made by nomadic, semi-nomadic, and settled weavers. Because of rapid recent changes in Anatolian society, the nomadic lifestyles she documented have now disappeared. In the mid-1980s, Powell and others set up the DOBAG project (Doğal Boya Araştırma ve Geliştirme Projesi), which is intended to revive the use of natural dyes among villagers in Western Türkiye. It was also helping with the marketing of quality rugs through several cooperatives, which were organised as women’s ventures only. Some of these early dyeing experiments were even done in Josephine’s own kitchen. She was also involved in the founding of an ethnographic section in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul.
In 2002, she donated her archive of architectural photographs to Harvard University’s Fine Arts Library. Her photos appeared in well over 400 books and scholarly publications. Collections of her photographs and ethnographic objects are held by the British Museum, Harvard University, the Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam) and the Wereldmuseum (Rotterdam). After her death in 2007, Josephine Powell’s entire private collection of Anatolian textiles and ethnographic objects, photographs and books was donated to the Vehbi Koç Foundation in Istanbul. The photographs will be of value to all those who wish to research Türkiye’s rural heritage.
Vos, Judith, Josephine Powel (1919-2007): Traveller, Photographer, Collector in the Muslim World, 2009 , p.11.