Emma and the Aristocrats

mickyatesArt, Culture, History, Ideas, Mick's Photo Blog, Photography, Women Leave a Comment

A very interesting conversation transpired in the RPS Distinctions **Official Group** on Facebook, January 4/5 2021, after I posted on G.A. (Emma) Barton (1872–1938) as part of my Women Photographers exploratory.

Emma was a portrait photographer, using a pictorialist / Pre-Raphaelite style. From a working-class family in Birmingham, she was the partner of solicitor George Barton. Her photographs of Dan Leno, a music hall star, were published in 1898 and started her road to fame. She was almost certainly one of the most well known and successful British photographers of that period, and her work was well regarded, critically. Her work was first exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society in 1901, and in 1903, probably the height of her fame, she was awarded the RPS Medal for The Awakening, pictured here.

Emma also swiftly adopted the autochrome process, continuing in the same photographic style and genre. Writing in the Penrose Pictorial Annual of 1911, the critic Charles E. Dawson said her work was ranked alongside ‘the best works of Kasbier, Duhroop, Baron de Mayer, Steichen, Demachy, Puyo, and the other photographic giants …’

To quote Wikipedia:

‘Not only was her work highly regarded in England, but also internationally. Many of her photographic exhibitions were held in France, America, England, and Berlin. In Berlin, she held a solo exhibition organized by the Photo Club. In 1906 she exhibited 58 prints at the Birmingham Photographic Society’s Exhibition. From there, she presented work at the Third American Salon, the Salon of the Photo Club of Paris, and the Universal Exhibition of Photography in Berlin. By 1908, her work was published in The Sketch, The Sphere, Country Life, and Illustrated London News’.

Considering Emma’s work today, it is very noticeable how she is left out of many ‘histories of photography’. Perhaps that is a combination of her pictorialist style, or of her popular success in what Bourdieu would later go on to call the ‘middle-brow’ art of photography.

Or perhaps her omission is simply that she was a woman, suffering the historical fate of others. Even in the 2020 volumes edited by Clara Bouveresse on Woman Photographers, her name is not mentioned. Still, I find the best of her portraits quite moving – well constructed and with a delightful empathy for the subject which communicates directly to the audience.


Reproduced here with permission:

David Norfolk

Even around 1982 I was being told that colour photographs could simply never be Art. I think pictorialist monochrome might have been OK …

But photographers are generally inclined to overlook women. It was quite a long time before Lee Miller’s contributions to Man Ray’s work, and even her wonderful war photography, got the recognition it deserved.

And not just in photography. Wasn’t Sonia Delaunay somewhat eclipsed by her husband while he has alive, although she is now thought a greater artist than Robert?

I think that a woman often has to do everything a male artist does “but backwards, and in high heels”, in order to be recognised by posterity …

Mick Yates

David, I found this interesting. Robert Greetham wrote a review of Sunlight and Shadows, a retrospective exhibition of Emma’s work in Birmingham in 1996. He noted that the combination of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the emergence of a merchant middle class, created a structure and market for Art Photography which was lacking at that time for traditional Fine Arts. I’d think this might be the fertile ground for today’s Camera Club structure beyond the more ‘serious’ societies? Greetham concluded on Emma’s career:

In October 1904 an exhibition of sixty seven of her carbon and gum prints was opened at the Royal Photographic Society in London, an important moment in the history of British women’s photography. Between 1910 and 1919 she produced a series of delicate autochromes. The shift in pictorial aesthetics after World War I made it difficult for her to maintain a pre-eminent position with the idealized imagery that had previously won her acclaim‘.

David Norfolk

Yes, so “class” comes in again? What Emma did was too accessible to the middle classes to be considered high art?

That war continues, selfies and phone pics don’t count as Art (I’m generalising broadly – many exceptions) and High Art is a Gursky that hoi polloi couldn’t afford to make – and couldn’t afford to buy. High art photography is limited to the elite by artificially limiting the supply (labelling photos “1 of 10”).

Nevertheless, photography generally is reverting to pictorialism, helped by comparatively cheap cameras that make capturing what is in front of the lens ever more accurate and ever easier. The surrealist photography of Man Ray and Lee Miller and others the 1920s/30s is still thought of as “cutting edge” and it is 100 years old!

Is this “fertile ground for today’s Camera Club structure beyond the more ‘serious’ societies”? Probably, but I worry that an essentially conservative form of popular art divorced from cutting edge “fine art” innovation (whatever that is, in practice) might be a dead end. I love the pre-raphaelites, but producing more of it now seems a bit pointless.

Or am I missing your point? My brain takes time to get into gear these days …

Mick Yates

David, I think you are making me be clearer about my point! Aristocracy is always at work – from the Church driving mural painting, to the courts and bankers / merchants with their secular patronage, onto the rather elite societies that formed in the early days of photography, as Robert mentions, and then to the monied classes driving so-called fine art … the great wheel continues. And recall where Gursky trained in a kind of cycle of perpetuation. Throughout, of course, ‘western white men’ drove the history.

My point on ‘fertile ground for camera clubs’ is actually more positive than you might think. Certainly they have helped the democratisation of photography, ably aided by technology. But I see that as a good rather than a bad thing. What I find rather anomalous is the term ‘fine art’, though. It seems to be used too often as an elite defence mechanism. Is Tracey Emin’s bed ‘fine art’? Only if it declared as such. Is Gursky’s Rhine ‘fine art’? Well, exactly the same. The real revolutions in art will not come from definitions, but from ideas and creative genius. Yes, structures, markets, education and money help. But, go back to Emma. She grew up in a working-class row house in Aston. She did good!

And, David, I have to say that in my experience Camera Clubs are more open to new ideas and debate than many so-called fine art groups. Yes, there’s too much emphasis on ‘rules to win competitions’, but heck, if it gets people engaged in making better photographs, then it’s brilliant.

David Norfolk

Yes, I think that is probably true. But neither camera clubs nor fine-art groups are all the same. I’m not sure if someone really “pushing the boundaries” would find any sort of formal group congenial – and yet the only Fine Arts group I’ve been part of – https://www.facebook.com/mishmash.wiltshireartists – now effectively defunct – was very receptive to new ideas and experimentation.

I always feel that the link between artistic value and monetary value is very tenuous. Particularly when the perceived “artistic quality” of a 15th century daub shoots up once someone plausibly attributes it to Leonardo! For a long period, “Fine Arts” was largely about recording evidence of status, according to Berger anyway, and that has transferred over to photography: “I have a full frame camera you can’t afford and print A2 on a printer you can’t afford. so your criticism of my pictures is worthless”. But there are also people creating images they love. primarily for themselves, because they can’t not create. But they can’t make a living doing this, unless they also have the “validation” of the art market and galleries etc.

The other validation is against the status quo. If I make a perfect Ansel Adams style picture of a scene Adams never saw, that is very skillful and can be objectively assessed against the accepted Adams canon. So, it is a safe purchase – or safe for a club judge to give an award to. Pushing the boundaries is risky – which is why I respect George Melly for collecting surrealists before they became an investment opportunity. It is risky for a club judge to award a semiabstract photo a prize, in case it turns out to have been taken by the family’s pet chimp 🙂

I don’t think that Fine Art is “better” than photography – it has similar issues. There are as many insipid watercolors that simply pastiche existing pictures as there are beautifully crafted photos that pastiche the photographic masters. Does this matter? I think not, there is a joy in “craft”; and “every subject has been done already” is a fairly compelling argument.

But trying to push boundaries is more fun, if one makes images for oneself (and if one has enough money to let one do so). No, one probably can’t make something that has never been done before, but intention is what counts. Nevertheless, it would be nice to have venues that encourage experimentation and where the reaction to a weird image is “how interesting, this makes me think of….” instead of “how did you do that” or “why did you bother”…

BTW, I like camera clubs and have huge sympathy for camera club judges, who give their time for little reward and seldom get much appreciation for it. But, back in the day, I found that found the Camera Clubs I had access to, despite having excellent photographers, weren’t interested in the sort of “why do this” and “what happens if” questions that were interesting me – whereas Mish Mash was.

Here is a picture made from my watercolour from a Mish Mash course given by a member who was a professional artist, photographically developed. I find it interesting: https://flic.kr/p/dq79dE

And the result of a collaboration with a painter I met at Mish Mash, a photographic development of experiments with screen printing and artists colours: https://flic.kr/p/ofNZE34

Robert Lavers

Possibly women photographers were overlooked because what they did was perceived as a hobby, by amateurs, whereas for men it was work so they were taken more seriously. The lines were less blurred between amateurs and pros than today.

Mick Yates

Robert, even professional women photographers rarely get the credit. I honestly think it is socially institutional

David Norfolk

Same for women in computing. Many serious contributors, from Grace Hopper onwards, only now being recognised in the general community for their contributions. Why should photography be different?

Robert Albright

I am delighted that The Royal Photographic Society recognised her work so early and fully. RPS membership was open to women from its founding in 1853, exceptional for the time. It certainly fits the Arts and Crafts/mercantile class theory, even if in its early years the patronage and leadership was more aristocratic than middle class. The original idea came from Prince Albert at the time of the Great Exhibition.

When Fox Talbot turned down the Presidency over copyright issues involving his Calotype invention, Sir Charles Eastlake, previously first Director of the National Gallery accepted the first Presidency. I am sure that Michael Pritchard would be interested in your research, particularly for his website on the history of British Photography.


Header: Emma Barton. 1908. An Indoor Group (Self and Family). Royal Photographic Society.

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