fig. 5: Unknown Amateur Photographer


Essays
by Peter E. Palmquist


Preface

100 Years of California Photography by Women: 1850-1950

Women Photographers and the American Indian

Selected Resources


Preface

The study of women in the history of photography has lagged far behind that afforded male photographers. Even today, the greatest bulk of published research has concentrated on women active in the Photo-Secession movement or on revisiting our most visible twentieth-century heroines, Margaret Bourke-White and Imogen Cunningham for example. There has also been an ongoing preoccupation with women who exhibit eccentric (so-called "artistic") behavior-such as the well-known English amateur Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). Another generalized perception-widely-held and essentially "male-chauvinistic"-is that female photographers did not have much impact on pre-1900 photographic trends.

Yet there are numerous early examples which belie this unwarranted perception. In England, Mrs. Talbot, wife of the inventor of the Talbotype process, wrote of her own experiments with photography as early as May 1839 (Buckland 1980: 54). Likewise, in the early 1840s, Anna Atkins completed an outstanding series of photograms of plant specimens by the cyanotype process (Schaaf 1985). By 1841, a female daguerreotypist in Montreal, Canada, Mrs. Fletcher, touted herself as a "Professor and Teacher of the Photogenic Art" (Jones 1980: 4-7). The mid-1840s saw a growing number of women at work in American daguerreotype in Boston, New York and St. Louis. In November 1850, Humphrey's Journal reported a total of 71 daguerreotype studios in New York, "including 127 operators, also 11 ladies and 46 boys." The editor estimated that the men were paid $10 per week, women $5 and boys $1. Moving westward, the Houston Morning Star of December 12, 1843, reported that a Mrs. Davis was the first photographer of Texas, while in Minnesota Sarah L. Judd began photographing in 1848 (Baker 1989: 15). And finally, Julia Shannon was active in San Francisco by 1850, less than a year after the first-known male photographer of California (Palmquist 1980: 208-210).

This author's study of the history of women photographers began in 1971 with research on photographers active in California and the American West during the years 1850-1950.(1) He soon found that women represented roughly 10% of all photographers working in this region during the nineteenth century. By 1910 this figure had risen to about 20%. Note, however, that these figures were gleaned from public records and that the actual number of women working as retouchers, receptionists, etc. in photograph studios may be significantly higher.

Women frequently took on multiple roles during the course of their photographic careers, perhaps employed first as print-finishers or retouchers, then as camera operators before finally becoming gallery owners. In addition to those working commercially, many women were involved as amateur photographers. Some amateurs regularly participated in camera clubs and/or exhibited their work in the various fine-art salons which were increasingly common by the turn of the century.

What attracted women to photography? Photography was seemingly one of the very few nineteenth-century professions-along with such traditional occupations as nursing and school teaching-that was considered socially acceptable, when and if a woman must work.(2) Dabbling in the fine arts (landscape painting, for instance) was generally respectable among ladies of leisure, but much less so as an occupation. Any woman working for money in photography before 1890 (on her own as compared to being the wife of a photographer) was considered both daring and remarkable.

Catharine Weed Barnes (1851-1913), an amateur photographer working in New York, wrote and lectured on the subject of women in photography beginning in 1889. Among her strongest beliefs was that special awards for ladies be eliminated: "If the work of men and women is admitted to the same exhibition it should be on equal terms" (Barnes 1890: 42). In May 1890, she joined the staff of the American Amateur Photographer, as the writer of a column called "Women's Work," perhaps the first woman to become a photography columnist and associate editor of a photographic journal (Palmquist 1992).(3)

After 1890, the onset of a period known as the Progressive Era dramatically altered the role of women in American society. Women became involved in jobs that had been previously closed to them insuring their civil and economic rights. This period also coincided with greater female participation in photographic organizations and an overall increase in literature on the subject of working women generally.(4)

Photography was a new phenomenon that appealed to women of the working-class as well as those in much more well-to-do circles. While it was true that daguerreotypy required a special knowledge of chemistry and a certain manual dexterity, most of this work could be performed at a local, even household, level. Later, after paper photographs were introduced, most technical problems gave way to the assembly-line (piece work) modes of mass production. These assembly-line operations led to many employment opportunities, especially for young women or those recently immigrated.(5)

Many women learned the basics of the photographic trade within a family setting, and more than a few inherited a studio business following the death of a father or husband. One researcher, working on a study of women in Oregon photography, makes this claim for family involvement: The most basic conclusion I have come to is that the majority of these women worked with their family in some aspect in their photographic career. The Portland [Oregon] photographers were the easiest to trace and there is a definite pattern of family involvement there.... This relationship was father-daughter, husband-wife, brother-sister, sister-sister, mother-daughter and/or mother-son. About 30% of the women photographers on my list can be shown to have one or more of these relationships involved in their business. [One woman] said that "every studio had a wife associated with it" (Anonymous [c.1970]).

Finally, we cannot overlook the purely social aspects of photography, especially in regards to portraiture. Typically, women arranged for, purchased, and distributed the vast bulk of all family portraits. These decisions involved coordination and negotiation (such as getting the family to the studio in the first place); social awareness (choosing the photographer, proper clothing, hair styles, etc.); and economics (how much to pay for the photographs, often from meager household budgets). Each of these skills could be considered prime requisites for the management of any successful photographic business.

Preface

100 Years of California Photography by Women: 1850-1950

Women Photographers and the American Indian

Selected Resources





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