Women Pioneers of Photography

Few women photographers are cited in the most popular books on the history of photography, for which there could be several reasons. One is that history has a habit of becoming repeated and in turn quoted, with the result that it becomes the established lore even when the story may have been incorrect. In fact, women were very active in this field and deserve far greater prominence than has been accorded to them. This brief article can only scratch at the surface; those wishing to pursue this further are well advised to read "A History of Women Photographers" by Naomi Rosenblum, published by the Abbeville Press (ISBN 1-55859-761-1). This book makes illuminating and compelling reading, and the author of this article has drawn heavily upon it.

Those familiar with the ordeal of taking photographs in the earliest days would sympathise if women were to regard this new activity as not being their cup of tea. In the earliest days, development would be needed immediately after exposure; consequently the equipment needed for photographs outside a studio would be cumbersome. In addition, the chemicals could be smelly, and the whole process initially was a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. However, this clearly did not deter women from being actively involved in picture-making.

There is also evidence that women did not receive the acknowledgement due to them inasmuch as many accepted a more supportive role for their husbands. Of those who participated, a number would be relatives of a male photographer. Fox Talbot had a number of female relatives who were active in this field, and indeed his own wife, Constance, both took pictures and developed and printed them. Emma Llwelyn printed for her husband, John Llwelyn. Robert Tytler photographed the ruins following the Indian Mutiny of 1858; his wife Harriet accompanied him, and though the work received much acclaim, the records only mention the husband's name. Elizabeth, wife of Disderi, famous for his carte-de-visites, was in partnership with her husband, and continued to operate in Paris after his death, until her own death in 1878. It says much of the times that her death certificate cites "without profession, 61 years old."

There follows the names of a few women who practised photography in the earliest years:

Laure Albin-Guillot (b. 1880; d. 1962) together with her husband, spent many years photographing specimens, plant cells and animal organisms. She also produced nudes and soft-focus portraits, and wrote articles on photomicrography.

Berenice Abbott studied with Man Ray in the early 1920s, and was almost solely responsible for preserving the work by Eugene Atget.

Anna Atkins(b.1799; d. 1871) became the first person to print and publish a book, photographically illustrated. On her tombtone in Halstead, Essex, her husband is referred to as a JP, but she is simply referred to as "Daughter of..." - again a sign of those times.

Alice Austen (b. 1866; d.1952) was an American photographer. She received a camera at the age of ten, and never looked back! In addition to many family and local interest photography, she became involved in documentary work. Having lost her money and home in the 1920s stock crash, she was for a while in the equivalent of a poor house, though her work ultimately became recognised and she was able to live comfortably for the last years of her life.

Emma Barton (b. 1872; d. 1938) lived and worked in Birmingham and in the Isle of Wight. One of her pictures, "The awakening", gained her a medal from the Royal Photographic Society in 1903.

Alice Boughton (b. 1866; d. 1943) was an American photographer whose work included pictures of children, portraits and theatre. For a while she worked in the studio of Gertrude Kasebier. She became a member of the Photo Secessionist movement. Some of her pictures are in Camera Work.

Anne W. Brigman (b. 1869, d. 1950) was an American who produced a number of nude and draped figures in landscape. She was a close friend of Edward Steichen, and exhibited in the Photo-Secession exhibitions. She too had some pictures published in Camera Work.

Christina Broom (b. 1863, d. 1939) has sometimes been referred to as the first British woman press photographer. The number of events she covered included Derby Day, at Epsom, Surrey, investitures of monarchs, women suffrage demonstrations, the Oxford and Cambridge Boat race, and the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace.

Bessie Buehrmann was an associate of the Photo-Secession group. Her consisted mainly of portraiture.

Julia Margaret Cameron b.1815; d.1879, is without question the most well-known woman pioneer in photography.

Mary Cassatt (b.1844, d. 1926) was an American-born impressionist, famous for her paintings of mothers and children. One of her pictures was published in Camera Work.

Nancy Ford Cones (b. 1869, d. 1962) worked in photography in the latter stages of the period covered by this work. She operated in Ohio. Kodak used some of her work for publicity purposes. In a Kodak competition of 1905, she received second prize for a photograph entitled "Threading the needle", Edward Steichen winning the competition, and Alfred Stieglitz coming third.

Clementina Hawarden (born 1822, died 1865) operated in South Kensington, London, and produced hundreds of images of her family and nearby surroundings. She was awarded a medal by the (then) Photographic Society, though she died aged forty-two, before receiving the award. Many of her prints are owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Frances Benjamin Johnston (born 1864, died 1952) was an American photographer who opened a studio in Washington in 1890. She was much in demand photographing celebrities of her day, and had several assignments photographing in the White House. In 1897 she published an article entitled "What a woman can do with her camera."

Gertrude Kasebier (b. 1852; d.1934) was the first woman to be elected to the prestigious Linked Ring.

Theresa Llwelyn, a distant relative of Fox Talbot used "photogenic drawing" (photograms) of seaweed specimens.

Agnes Warburg (b.1872; d.1953) was inspired by her elder brother to take up photography. She exhibited at the Photographic Salon of the Linked Ring and at the Royal Photographic Society, where she was highly active. She was a founder-member of the Society's Pictorial and Colour Groups. She specialised in landscapes and portraits, and also experimented with the autochrome colour process.

Catharine Barnes Ward (b.1851; d. 1913) was an American photographer who later lived in England. She became associate Editor of the American Amateur Photographer in 1890, was a popular lecturer, and a strong supporter of women photographers. She joined the Photographic Society in 1893. In 1893 she married Henry Ward, the founder and editor of the magazine "Practical Photographer." Her works included a well-illustrated "Shakespeare's Town and Times" , books on Dickens and the land of Lorna Doone.

Jane Wigley, an English photographer, purchased the franchise to operate from Beard, and worked in Newcastle and London. It is stated that she was one of the first to use a prism in the camera so as to reverse the daguerreotype image.

These are just a few of the many women early pioneers of photography, doubtless many more being unheralded and, at present, unknown. Again, those wishing to pursue this area further should read Dr. Rosenblum's remarkable book, which covers the entire period of photography from the earliest days up to the present.


Robert Leggat, 1997.