Lost and found: Discovering and revealing the histories of women photographers

By Catlin Langford

Since 2017, I have been working on projects to bring to light the histories of women photographers.

Despite women’s early and continued involvement and creation of photography since the medium’s invention in 1839, research on women photographers proves difficult– their role lost in historical accounts, neglected in scholarship, and excluded from exhibition.

This is understandably frustrating and caused me to consider and investigate some of the reasons behind the substantial lack of historical accounts and scholarship surrounding women photographers.

There are various factors that have contributed to this, from lack of credit, to a scholarly and curatorial disregard for commercial studio portraiture, a practice largely undertaken by women. It often only because of the determination of individual women to write and record their own histories for posterity that sources exist. Consider the wonderful autobiographies by Alice Hughes, Dorothy Wilding and Madame Yevonde. It is perhaps no coincidence that Hughes, Wilding and Madame Yevonde remain among the better-known British women photographers.

Whilst it is clearly shown that women were involved in photography from the medium’s inception, their names are often missing from historical accounts and contemporary scholarship.

An example of this neglect is shown in an account of ‘The Third Ordinary Meeting’ of the Photographic Society, later the Royal Photographic Society (RPS). Held in the RPS archives at Blythe House, the document records the minutes of the meeting held on 7 April 1853. In a section noting works shown during the meeting, it is recorded: ‘Madame [blank] a Lady from Germany exhibited a very fine specimen of a Daguerreotype Portrait of considerable size’.

Detail from ‘Third Ordinary Meeting’, 7 April 1853, Royal Photographic Society Archive, Blythe House

Considering the establishment of the Photographic Society only a few months earlier, this is a significant exhibition by an early woman photographer affiliated with the Society. Yet, her name is not recorded—a clear neglect.

This historical neglect has far-reaching ramifications since it is now impossible to identify her or attribute works to her. This becomes a clear pattern, where women’s involvement with photography is essentially unremarked and undocumented, the researcher or curator often inheriting a blank page.

This ‘loss’ of women photographers, both in terms of historical accounts and contemporary scholarship, and the possible reasons behind it is something I will now consider through a few select examples. It is not possible to have all the answers, but I hope to inspire people to consider and think about possible ways to conduct further research and address the lack of representation.

A common issue arises from women photographers’ use of male names, which occurs for multiple reasons. It may be assumed that this occurred primarily in the nineteenth century, following the invention of photography in 1839. In this early period in the medium’s history, photography was perceived as outside the female domain as it required use of dangerous chemicals and heavy equipment, and significant scientific and technical knowledge when women could not easily access this kind of information. However, the practice of women using male pseudonyms extended far into the twentieth century.

When husband and wife duos worked collaboratively, or in family businesses that were mixed gender, the male name was often assumed. Upon the death of a male relation or husband, the male name continued to be used owing to the reputation then associated with the establishment or business. For instance, the studio of William Constable in Brighton gained much renown in the mid-nineteenth century. Constable was a pioneer photographer, and he took the first surviving photograph of a royal family member, a portrait of Prince Albert in 1842. Upon Constable’s death in 1861, his nieces Caroline and Eliza Constable took over the running of his studio and maintained his name. As research shows, however, their roles are rarely mentioned, if at all, in the histories surrounding Constable’s business.

In other instances, women photographers have purposefully sought to disassociate themselves from their gender by taking on a male name or pseudonym. The photographer Sophia Rogerson, née Southwell, was sister to the Southwell Brothers, a notable photographic establishment that photographed the royal family on numerous occasions, as well as many renowned stars of the stage. Sophia was involved in their photographic business, and later worked with the photographic firm Boning & Small. Rogerson was responsible for running the studio and eventually became head photographer. However, she did not clearly identify herself as female in trade directories and advertisements, listing herself simply as S. Rogerson. Perhaps she felt revealing herself to be a woman would damage business. And yet, at this time, as revealed through census records, she was running an entirely female operated business with a woman colourist and administrator.

Could this work have been coloured by Sophia Rogerson? Southwell Brothers, A Portrait of 'Miss Louisa Pyne', 1860-69, albumen carte-de-visite, RPS.4435-2018 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The trend for using male names did not entirely end at the turn of the nineteenth century. Whilst studio photography became an acceptable field for women, other fields of photography remained distinctly associated with men, including photojournalism. The British photographer Grace Robertson is a notable case. Initially when Robertson began work in 1948, she published her works under the name Dick Muir. Her reasons were twofold: she did not wish to trade on the fame of her father, Fyfe Robertson, and her feeling that a male name would help her get ahead in a male dominated industry, at a time when gender roles were narrowly defined. As Robertson recalls ‘Aunts would say to me “darling, are you going to be a nurse or a secretary? ”’ Photography, Robertson states ‘did seem to be a man’s world’. She was, happily, soon credited for her work, under her own name.

This notion of credit, of ownership and authorship, is a further issue in the historical and contemporary recognition given to women photographers.

Returning to collaborative partnerships, it is often the male that is credited with the output. This makes it difficult to determine the role played by the woman within the partnership—as studio assistant, or as principal photographer. An early example is the largely uncredited work of British Harriet Tytler, who worked with her husband Robert Tytler, a major of the East India Company. She was significant in capturing the uprising in Delhi in 1857 and its aftermath, producing over 500 waxed paper negatives with her husband. Her husband was away on business for a period during the uprising. And yet, it is often he, singularly, who is credited with the works.

Closer to the present day, Margaret Hardman is largely sidelined in the historical focus on her husband Edward Chambré Hardman, the noted Liverpool-based photographer. As Margaret did not often sign her works, simply using the stamp of the Hardman studio, it is reliant on the curator to determine the stylistic difference and attribute the works accordingly. The National Trust addressed this in a 2010 exhibition, noting Margaret’s tendency towards the dramatic and her use of emotive shadows, reflecting her own liveliness. As a review of the exhibition noted, ‘[Edward’s] belated fame, however, overshadowed his vivacious, clever and ambitious wife. She was the one who chatted up clients, bossed the staff and sent out the bills.’

Even when women photographers signed their works, lack of credit was still common. Many women worked as studio photographers and their photographs were largely published in popular journals, like Tatler, or used to illustrated newspaper articles, often uncredited. Lack of credit is a particular issue when considering the collecting of works by museums, galleries and arts organisations. Material records of women’s work—the physical, vintage prints collected by museums and galleries—are largely missing. For this reason, it is often reliant on sources such as newspapers and magazines to provide examples of works by women photographers, but with no credit, it can be a long and complicated process to make an attribution.

The lack of vintage prints makes it difficult to display works by women photographers within the museum setting and formulate conventional exhibitions. Reflecting on her landmark 1994 publication and related exhibition on women photographers, Naomi Rosenblum stated that only a third of the works in the publication appeared in the exhibition as ‘vintage prints weren’t available’. Through lack of exhibition, there is often a lack of scholarship and vice versa, one often informing the other, the lack of knowledge and scholarship surrounding a woman or women photographers leading museums to not acquire works. This causes challenges when trying to further disseminate information about women photographers. Notably, Wikipedia often requires a valid source for information to be uploaded to the widely accessible and accessed website.

The historical and scholarly disregard towards women photographers extends to the roles often undertaken by women photographers within the photography world. Many women were involved in the running and management of studios, and were instrumental to the printing, editing, and colouring of photographs. This behind-the-scenes work is largely underexplored in scholarship, and essentially uncredited. A significant example is the nineteenth-century colourist Elizabeth Bond, who commonly advertised under the name E. Bond. She was commissioned on multiple occasions by Queen Victoria to colour photographs owing to her skill in this area and was noted among the photographic community of the time. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson referred to ‘Miss Bond, of Southsea (the best photographic colourist living, I think)’. Many notable women photographers entered and trained in photography via these types of roles. For instance, Wilding was initially a re-toucher for Richard Speight. It is therefore a key aspect in the histories of women photographers that has been largely overlooked and underexplored in scholarship. This disregards a wider understanding of women’s’ roles within the photographic industry and history of photography and can be seen to extend from a scholarly fixation on works that fit within a narrow definition of art photography. A pure focus on consciously artistic photographers excludes domestic photography and commercial studio portraiture, a practice that involved many early women photographers.

Following advancements with camera technologies around the 1860s, the process of taking a photograph became relatively easier and less hazardous. Furthermore, photography did not require admission to professional or academic bodies in order to practice. Photography was thus perceived as an acceptable feminine hobby that could be pursued at home, aligned with other feminine crafts ‘dependen[t] on patience and reproduction rather than original creativity’. As is widely documented, however, women did creatively explore and experiment with the medium of photography. Notably, Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Clementina Hawarden produced and exhibited highly expressive and artistic photographs throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Hawarden and Cameron were among a group of women photographers commonly known as ‘Lady Amateurs’. The term ‘amateur’ did not have a pejorative meaning, rather it signalled the individual’s pursual of photography for non-commercial purposes.

Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden Clementina Maude, 5 Princes Gardens’, ca.1863-4, albumen print, 291-1947

The perception of the amateur photographer changed with the ]introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888. The camera was cheap and accessible, taking near instantaneous photographs that came to be known as ‘snapshots’. Users of Kodak cameras were negatively described as amateurs, casual photographers lacking skill and artistic knowledge. The camera was primarily marketed towards women through the ‘Kodak Girl’ advertisements. Initially, advertisements focused on women in faraway locations, independent and free, but over time, the advertisements evolved, largely confining the woman to the home, using the camera to document her children. The photographs produced by predominately women were viewed as amateur, cheap, and sentimental. On this basis, the works and culture of ‘snapshooting’ is widely undocumented. It is worth noting, however, that in recent years there has been a rise in snapshot exhibitions and publications, including displays of snapshots from the Peter Cohen collection at the V&A. This development has opened up discussions surrounding the value of the snapshot.

Vernacular photograph, 1900-1930, gelatin silver print, LOAN:AMERICANFRIENDS.710:37-2015 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Conversely, despite the professional nature of their practice, many women studio photographers’ output is similarly disregarded in scholarship. Around the turn-of-the century in Britain there was a rapid enrolment of women in photography courses, and census records indicate a rise in women declaring their profession as photographer. In A Guide to the Professions and Occupations of Educated Women and Girls, photographer Olive Edis reflected on the vast numbers of women photographers, declaring ‘[p]ortraiture is now in the hands of women’. Women were encouraged to undertake studio portraiture as a profession, their feminine sensibilities believed to suit the sensitivities needed in styling and arranging a sitter to produce an aesthetically pleasing work. As many sitters were women or children, this too was seen as an advantage for women in the field as they were perceived as having a natural connection with the subject. In the period, a vast number of women photographers open studios in Britain, including Alice Hughes, Lallie Charles and Rita Martin. A similar trend occurred abroad, including Mary Steen in Denmark, Karimeh Abbud in Palestine, and Madame d’Ora in Austria. Whilst these women had a considerable output of works and significant reputations during their practice, their work has been largely undocumented in histories.

On a more practical level, portraits were often pasted into albums or cut down to fit into frames, so the stamp, signature or studio folder is commonly missing or cannot be viewed. It is thus up to the curator or researcher to determine and attribute the work. In terms of making attributions, it should be noted that many women chose to adopt pseudonyms, including Lallie Charles, Vivienne and Yvonne. Whilst the names declare their sex, the use of pseudonyms can often make it difficult to establish the identity and biography of the photographer following the closure of their studio or the end of their practice.

Lallie Charles, ‘Mrs Brown Potter’, 1890-1900, toned gelatin silver print, S.140:211-2007 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Owing to a general disregard, many women photographers may have felt their work was unworthy of saving. Rosenblum reinforces this point stating, ‘frequently women themselves, reflecting the attitudes of their own eras, did not regard their images as important enough to inventory and save.’ This has likely resulted in numerous, recent narratives focusing on the discovery or re-discovery of a lost woman photographer. It has almost become a cliché.

One such story, although less known, is that of the photographer Eva Barrett.

Barrett was a prominent and popular society photographer in the early twentieth century. Despite her considerable effort to ensure her work and authorship was acknowledged during her lifetime, she has been, effectively, lost in historical and contemporary accounts. In introducing the photographer Eva Barrett, the question is, how can a photographer still become lost despite doing everything ‘right’?

Barrett was a British photographer, born in Hertfordshire in 1889. She practiced in Britain, working in the studios of Lafayette, before migrating to Rome in 1914. There she intended to establish herself as a studio photographer, a canny decision considering the inundation of studio photographers in Britain in the period compared to Italy. She soon found a significant clientele among the British and American expats living in Rome. Through these connections, she was later commissioned by the Italian Royal family. From here, Barrett produced numerous portraits of significant individuals including inventors, authors, politicians, and socialites, as well as seven European queens.

Barrett always ensured she was credited, and her name clearly appears in printed or signature form on her works, often with the address of her studio to encourage further custom. Her photographs of well-known people were regularly published in newspapers, both in Italy, and abroad, including The New York Times. Her photographs also regularly featured in Tatler, including full page spreads. In instances when her works where not credited, she wrote to newspapers and journals, and a grovelling apology often appeared in latter editions, with an acknowledgement of her authorship. Barrett was also a keen self-promoter, she regularly exhibited, and interviews in which she discussed her work featured in newspapers.

‘A Woman Who “Shot Her Way to Success” in Rome’, Miami News, 18 April 1930, p. 13

She continued to work up until the start of the Second World War in 1939, creating almost thirty years of output. The increasing fascist activities in Rome led to decreased custom, and she was forced to sell her glass plate negatives before making a hasty return to England in 1945. Upon her return, she continued to record her memoirs through interviews and tell her stories through regular appearances at Women’s Institutes. Upon her death in 1950, many newspapers published obituaries, some of which appeared on the front page. And yet, barely a few years later, when trying to publish her memoirs the family could find no publishers. Thirty years later, the V&A was offered the sale of over 200 of her works. Unaware of her identity, they did not make the purchase. It is uncertain where these works are now.

So how could this be? There is not a clear answer.

Curator of the 2018 Femme at Paris Photo, Fannie Escoulen has one suggestion. She states ‘I don't know exactly why women, little by little, disappeared…I would say most of them suffer a lack of visibility.’

Thanks to the recent fantastic programme of events, exhibitions, and publications there is now perhaps greater visibility of women photographers than ever before. Consider recent and upcoming exhibitions, among them Who's Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839-1919 (2015-6) at Musée d'Orsay, Women in Photography: A History of British Trailblazers (2019) at The Lightbox, Another Eye: Women Refugee Photographers (2020) at Four Corners and Know My Name (2020) at the National Gallery of Australia; or the recent publications, including MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora (2017); groups like Fast Forward: Women in Photography; and events like this year’s Photo Oxford festival. Women photographers are gaining significant visibility and there is a hope to continue to this momentum to ensure that these women retain a valid and highly deserved place in photographic history.

Note: This is an adapted and amended version of a talk given at the Women, Work and Commerce in the Creative Industries: 1750-1950 conference, University of Westminster, 9 February 2019.

Biography note

Catlin Langford, whilst currently furloughed, is the inaugural Curatorial Fellow in Photography, supported by the Bern Schwartz Family Foundation at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

1 See Madame Yevonde, In Camera (London: John Gifford, 1940); Dorothy Wilding, In Pursuit of Perfection (London: Hale, 2958); Alice Hughes, My Father and I (London: Thornton Butterworth Ltd, 1923)

2 For further discussion see Diana Pedersen and Martha Phemister, ‘Women and Photography in Ontario, 1839-1929: A Case Study of the Interaction of Gender and Technology’, Women, Technology and Medicine in Canada, Vol. 9, No. 1, June 1985.

3 David Simkin, ‘The Earliest Photographic Studios ‘, Sussex PhotoHistory, https://www.photohistory-sussex.co.uk/Sussexearly.htm

4 They are mentioned in the History of Photography article, but not by name.

5 ‘Grace Robertson: Five Women Photographers’, 1986, https://vimeo.com/171562018

6 To see an example of Grace Robertson’s work, refer to the series ‘Mother’s Day Out’, 1954, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O178507/mothers-day-off-margate-photograph-robertson-grace/.

7 See biography in Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf, Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007).

8 Maev Kennedy, ‘Margaret Hardman: a forgotten Edwardian talent emerges’, The Guardian, 14 March 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/mar/14/margaret-hardman-photography-liverpool

9 Naomi Rosenblum quoted in Carol Squires, ‘Original, savvy, fearless, and female’, American Photo, March/April 1998, p. 56.

10 Charles Lutwidge Dodgson quoted in The Letters of Lewis Carroll, 1837-1885 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 273.

11 For further discussion, see Hilary Fraser, Women Writing Art History in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

12 Tirza Latimer and Harriet Riches, ‘Women and photography’, Grove Art Online, 11 February 2013, https://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7002022250.

13 See Carol Armstong, ‘From Clementina to Käsebier: The Photographic Attainment of the “Lady Amateur”, October, Vol. 91 (Winter 2000), pp.101-39.

14 For further information see Grace Seiberling, Amateurs, Photography, and thee Mid-Victorian Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

15 Olive Edis quoted in Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1996), 119.

16 Madame d’Ora has recently been the focus of a number of articles and exhibitions, see for instance: Ariella Budick, ‘Madame d’Ora, forgotten photographer of prewar Europe’s celebrities’, Financial Times, 28 August 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/e9dc7c42-b5ed-4a80-ad35-2b6b20b51b28.

17 See Naomi Rosenblum, A History of Women Photographers (New York: Abbeville Press, 1994), p. 10.

18 Fannie Escoulen quoted in Matthew Ponsford, ‘The female photographers who vanished from museums’, CNN Style, 5 November 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/paris-photo-elles-frieze/index.html