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For the first few years of my life, Mum, Dad and I lived with my grandparents and great auntie, in a then very familiar social setting. After demobbing from the army, Dad was working as a salesman, and Grandad, after retiring as a police sergeant, was a bank guard. The toilet was outside, just like every other house in the row. Working class with petit bourgeois aspirations, I think. I found out later that we could trace one branch of the family to having lived within 10 miles of our home since the 1500’s. It was a big day for both families when Mum and Dad got a place on the council housing list, although frankly I have no memory of it. I do recall one toilet still being outside in our new home, although there was also a bathroom and w.c. inside the house. That was around the time that this seaside photograph was taken.

Doris Yates. 1954. Skegness Beach.

Dad was a self taught piano player, a keen photographer and a bingo caller at the British Legion. A prized possession was an LP player for the new vinyl records, which became popular in the 50s. The 33 rpm LP was developed by Columbia Records and marketed in 1948, and RCA Victor developed the 45 rpm format and marketed it in 1949. UK Trad Jazz was dad’s favourite, and Jim Reeves was Mum’s.

In the early 60s, Mum and Dad had saved up enough to put down a deposit on a house, and voted Tory. I won a place at the local Grammar school, via the 11 plus, as did my younger brothers, all of whom also became keen photographers. Entry into the ‘boomer’ middle class had arrived, just as the Beatles made it big. Dad still had a small library of paperbacks which, as a kid, he’d loaned out to friends for a penny a week. I guess he was a salesman all of his life, and he liked books. He bought the occasional new coffee table volume for the family, and in 1966, the big, glossy Travellers Book Of Colour Photography became our collective text book (I still have it in our library). The opening line is ‘Cameras don’t take photographs – people do’. As I didn’t travel outside the UK until after Uni in the 1970s, the book also opened a window on all the exotic places out there.

Despite years of Sunday school, I gave up the idea of being confirmed a Christian, and instead started to try to understand Nausea, The Plague and the writing of Alan Watts. Saturday trips to the library and one of my home town’s few bookshops were both exciting and routine. I used to paint and write poetry, and that combined with an emerging ‘eastern’ yearning like many 60s’ hippie wannabes led me to discover Chinese and Japanese art. Looking back, my interest in combining images with text started then, too, although I would never have articulated that.

Mick Yates. 1969. Heaven. Acrylic on paper.

I realised that I wanted to spread my interests broadly, which led to taking a combined honours degree (then a reasonable rarity) at the University of Leeds – Mathematics and Philosophy.. Thus, I became the archetypical first-generation of undergrad in the family, although I became far more interested in student politics, rock gigs and generally having a good time. The school swot disappeared. But I was also quite aware of my social background, both its good aspects and its limitations when viewed against my fellow students. I worked to pay my way. A university education was a great leveller – but it also highlighted social chasms. I developed a profound dislike for social and intellectual arrogance and inequality, which I have to this day.

Despite academic neglect on my part, I got a degree thanks to diligent tutors – and especially Jerry Ravetz who I am still in touch with today. He helped me find logical holes in Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art. Failing to win the Union’s Presidential election (thank goodness, in retrospect!), I serendipitously got a job with the American firm Procter and Gamble, in the marketing department, in Newcastle on Tyne. I guess ‘sales’ was also a family characteristic, despite my intellectual pretensions. I discovered art galleries, and the Sunday Times colour magazine was, like for so many others, my photographic inspiration. I bought my first SLR (a Praktica) on leaving Uni in 1972. Who didn’t want to be Don McCullin?

Ted Heath’s Three Day Week led to working by candlelight in the P&G offices for the first couple of months of 1974. Whilst never particularly profound in my politics, I joined the millions who voted ‘yes’ in the 1975 referendum, wanting that promised better life. I started calling myself European rather than English, and vowed to escape the country’s deep inequalities and class system. I managed to achieve that in 1981 when I gratefully accepted a transfer to the Netherlands.

I only came back to the UK to live in the early 2000s, including having spent 20 years living and working cross Europe, the USA and Asia Pacific. The great wheel turns, as it also does for our 6 kids, born in 5 countries, and on 3 continents, who are now spread across them world.

Looking back I had an ordinary lower-middle-class upbringing and education and then got lucky. I was unaware of ‘nature versus nurture’, and had no knowledge of the emerging discipline of sociology. And whilst I had curiosity, in my first two decades I had no practical experience of life outside my ‘homeland’. Looking back, I can see all the threads of my habitus, to coin the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s phrase. But what is it and why does it matter to photography?

For Bourdieu (1930 – 2002), habitus refers to the collective entity by which and into which dominant social and cultural conditions are established and reproduced. In Bourdieu’s words, habitus refers to:

a subjective but not individual system of internalised structures, schemes of perception, conception, and action common to all members of the same group or class‘. (1977: 86)


Bourdieu was one of the first to use broad-based statistics to analyse society. His views are succinctly summarised in the introduction to Distinction, probably his best known work.

Whereas the ideology of charisma regards taste in legitimate culture as a gift of nature, scientific observation shows that cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education: surveys establish that all cultural practices (museum visits, concert-going, reading etc.), and preferences in literature, painting or music, are closely linked to educational level (measured by qualifications or length of schooling) and secondarily to social origin [my emphasis]. The relative weight of home background and of formal education (the effectiveness and duration of which are closely dependent on social origin) varies according to the extent to which the different cultural practices are recognized and taught by the educational system, and the influence of social origin is strongest – other things being equal – in ‘extra-curricular’ and avant-garde culture.

To the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts, and within each of them, of genres, schools or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers. This predisposes tastes to function as markers of ‘class’. The manner in which culture has been acquired lives on in the manner of using it [my emphasis]: the importance attached to manners can be understood once it is seen that it is these imponder­ ables of practice which distinguish the different-and ranked-modes of culture acquisition, early or late, domestic or scholastic, and the classes of individuals which they characterize (such as ‘pedants’ and mondains).

Culture also has its titles of nobility – awarded by the educational system – and its pedigrees, measured by seniority in admission to the nobility‘. (1984: 2)

To note Liam Gillespie:

Subjects internalise dominant social and cultural ideas [and thus] become particular kinds of subjects (e.g. raced, gendered and/or national subjects; citizens; subjects of the law). In turn, subjects support, reinforce and ultimately reproduce the habitus itself by subscribing to and propagating its dominant ideas and socio-cultural modes of being’.

So a habitus is a set of overlapping fields of interest, influence and education. I use field in a general sense rather than Bourdieu’s technical and refined position of fields being arenas of production, circulation, and appropriation and exchange of goods, services, knowledge, or status.

Power relationships are central to habitus, self-perpetuating the systems involved, often in institutional and invisible ways which make it difficult to change that system. It can therefore perpetuate some form of elite privilege. And that is where photography comes in – or, more correctly, the study, critique and discussion of photography.

Hilda Ogden’s ‘Murial’ in Coronation Street, with Three Flying Ducks. 1978, © Granada TV

Anyone who grew up in 1960s and 70s Britain will probably know both these characters and those ducks. Hilda Ogden was in the soap-opera Coronation Street from 1964 until 1984. And in 1976 she added three pottery ducks to her wall-sized ‘muriel’.  Today seen as the ultimate in retro-kitsch, at that time the ducks were in homes everywhere. They could be an example of what Bourdieu called the ‘popular’ in art, but actually were rather aspirational for many people. Mum and Dad had a set in our 1960s home. In a way, the ducks were transitional, not in the sense of a baby blanket but as a signifier of social arrival and confirmation through objects d’art.

Bourdieu distinguished between ‘legitimate taste’, ‘middle-brow’, and ‘popular taste’. His research suggested that Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and works by Goya and Breughel were associated with the taste of the more educated and professional classes – ‘legitimate taste’. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and paintings by Renoir and Van Gogh were quite ‘middle-brow’, with a fairly even spread of association across all social classes. And ‘popular taste’ included Strauss’ Blue Danube and Verdi’s La Traviata, alongside Raphael’s paintings.

He also discussed ‘camera clubs’ directly, on which his data suggested that they were relatively ‘lower class’ or middle-brow affairs. Whilst some of his points still seem right (such as a propensity to discus photo equipment), his conclusions on the class basis of such clubs seem outdated.

Times have changed, and Bourdieu’s work can be rightly criticised that it inadequately assesses race, gender and so forth. And reading his work today, the rigid social class definitions often get in the way of appreciating his insights, rather than explaining his ideas. But today we have a huge middle class across them world, and we have elites in all kinds of fields – cultural, political, intellectual, celebrity. And we have the mega rich. It is easy to translate Bourdieu’s ideas of class-driven culture to modern society.

Bourdieu’s research is did not really address social mobility, suggesting an almost deterministic loop that one cannot escape, which I think the global growth of living standards and the middle class proves wrong. In fairness, Bourdieu himself did not directly suggest that we are stuck in social contexts that we cannot escape. But, to give it all a neo-liberal twist, there is clear implication in his work that the taste of the middle classes is not defined as much by aesthetic appreciation as it is by wanting to compete – keeping up with the ‘upper class’ elites. Has that changed today?

It is fascinating to see some of his other data-based, class-driven distinctions. For example, when asked what they would make a beautiful photograph, the ‘working class’ suggested folk dances and sunsets, whilst the ‘upper class’ thought metal frames and tree barks would be cool (my word, not Bourdieu’s). His implication is that there is some form of class-driven elevated aesthetic taste, which includes ‘the right thing to say’ about art. A short visit to many social media photography groups proves that ‘arty bollocks’ is still very much alive and well.

Taking another approach to critique, Roland Barthes argued that ‘the author is dead’, and that the reader is central to the understanding of a given work. Subsequent writers suggest that Barthes did not mean this literally, but rather meant that in critiquing a work of art we should consider not just the author and his / her context, but most importantly the reader’s / reviewer’s context. Michel Foucault also argued against this ‘death’ by showing the important of context. Starting with a detailed analysis of what we actually mean by ‘author’, something Barthes did not adequately cover, Foucault went on to write:

‘The disclosure that Shakespeare was not born in the house that tourists now visit would not modify the functioning of the author’s name, but, if it were proved that he had not written the sonnets that we attribute to him, this would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the author’s name functions. Moreover, if we establish that Shakespeare wrote Bacon’s Organon and that the same author was responsible for both the works of Shakespeare and those of Bacon, we would have introduced a third type of alteration which completely modifies the functioning of the author’s name. Consequently, the name of an author is not precisely a proper name among others’.

Foucault is underpinning my own view of the importance of context and indeed intention in the evaluation and critique of photographs.

Returning to where this post started, my own biography suggests a fair degree of mobility, serendipity and education, all of which impact on the way that I make, curate and assess images. But I can still see the beginnings of some of my lifelong ‘likes’ and also pet hates in my original habitus.

One way forward might be to work with the Zen concept of ‘Beginner’s Mind‘.

‘Once, a professor went to a Zen Master. He asked him to explain the meaning of Zen. The Master quietly poured a cup of tea. The cup was full but he continued to pour. The professor could not stand this any longer, so he questioned the Master impatiently, “Why do you keep pouring when the cup is full?” “I want to point out to you,” the Master said, “that you are similarly attempting to understand Zen while your mind is full’.

The idea is to approach new situations and learning with an open (beginner’s) mind, otherwise one’s mind is so full of what we know that there is little room for new knowledge. Of course, ignoring what one knows is both hard and highly unlikely – even Zen masters have an encyclopaedic knowledge of  their subject matter. In the prologue to Susuki Roshi’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes:

‘In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few’.

We need to at least need to try at situations afresh, and balance that with what we think we already ‘know’. And that includes, I submit, having a good sense of our own habitus which, even as it evolves, is undoubtedly influencing the way that we ‘see’.


Header: Mick Yates. 1969. Grandparent’s House. Burton on Trent.


BARTHES, Roland. 1966 .The Death of the Author. In Image-Music-Text, 1977. London: Fontana Press.

BOURDIEU, Pierre. 1965. Photography – A Middle-Brow Art. 1990 Edition. Cambridge: Polity Press. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/0/03/Bourdieu_Pierre_Photography_A_Middle-brow_Art.pdf (accessed 31/12/2020).

BOURDIEU, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice (Vol. 16). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BOURDIEU, Pierre. 1979 (1984 English Translation). Distinction. 2010 Edition. London: Routledge. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/e/e0/Pierre_Bourdieu_Distinction_A_Social_Critique_of_the_Judgement_of_Taste_1984.pdf (accessed 29/12/2020).

FOUCAULT, Michel. 1969. What is an Author? Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie, 63, No. 3 (1969), 73-104. Available at: https://monoskop.org/images/9/9b/Foucault_Michel_1969_1977_What_Is_an_Author.pdf (accessed 20/12/2020).

FOWLER, Brigit, 1999. Pierre Bourdieu’s Sociological Theory of Culture. Available at: https://www.variant.org.uk/pdfs/issue8/Fowler.pdf (accessed 29/12/2020).

GILLESPIE, Liam. 2019. Pierre Bourdieu: Habitus. Critical Legal Thinking. Available at: https://criticallegalthinking.com/2019/08/06/pierre-bourdieu-habitus/ (accessed 29/12/2020).

GOODMAN, Nelson. 1968. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 1976 Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

PHILLIPS, Van & THOMAS, Owen. 1966. The Traveller’s Book of Colour Photography. London: Paul Hamlyn.

SUSUKI, Shunryu. 1970. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York: Weatherhill.

TAMAIRA, Moata. 2015. Know your Kitsch: Three Flying Ducks. Available at http://www.moatatamaira.co.nz/2015/01/10/know-your-kitsch-three-flying-ducks-cake-oven/ (accessed 29/12/2020).

Women Photographers – Part One

mickyates Culture, Documentary, History, Ideas, Journalism, Mick's Photo Blog, Photography, Portrait, Time, Travel, Women Leave a Comment

Here’s a short series on women photographers from early in the history of the medium.

1. Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952)

Frances was well-connected – she got her first camera from George Eastman, and she received training in photography and dark-room techniques from Thomas Smillie, director of photography at the Smithsonian. She began working as a freelance photographer and toured Europe in the 1890s, using her Smithsonian connections to meet prominent photographers and gather items for the museum’s collections. She briefly worked for the newly formed Eastman Kodak company in Washington, D.C.

In 1894, Frances opened her own photographic studio in Washington, and at that time was the only woman photographer in the city. Her sitters included suffragette Susan B. Anthony, writer Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington, principal of the Tuskegee Institute. Frances travelled in all the elite circles, and she was commissioned by magazines to do ‘celebrity’ work. She was dubbed the ‘Photographer to the American court’ by Lincoln Kirstein (in MoMA’s press release about her Hampton Photographs, 1965). Frances was appointed as official White House photographer for the Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Taft administrations. Amongst others, she photographed Admiral Dewey on the deck of the USS Olympia and the children of Teddy Roosevelt playing with their pet pony at the White House.

Always interested in both the business side of things and the role of women, in 1897 Frances wrote an article ‘What women can do with a camera‘ in which she argued that a career in photography was still wide open to women. Later she taught classes on the subject.

In 1899, Frances was commissioned by Hollis Burke Frissell to photograph the buildings and students of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. This series (The Hampton Album) is now perhaps her most famous work.

Frances Benjamin Johnston. 1899 – 1990. Geography- Studying the Seasons from the Hampton Album. MoMA.

With her partner, Mattie Edwards Hewitt, a successful freelance home and garden photographer, Johnston opened a studio in New York in 1913. Her mother and aunt also moved into her new apartment. In the 1920s, Frances became very interested in architectural photography, documenting buildings falling into disrepair and thus preserving history.  As a result of a 1928 exhibition of this work, the University of Virginia hired her to survey all of its buildings, and subsequently she received grants to document the architecture in eight Southern states.

Frances was thus both a portraitist to the rich and famous and an accomplished documentarian with an eye for detail. She was also commercially astute. Always interested in the process of photography, she was a very early user of colour film although it is here black and white work which forms the vast majority of her output.

David Campany notes:

She was .. a bohemian non-conformist, refusing the more demure behaviour of upper-class American women. She was sexually liberated, living and working with the photographer Mattie Edwards Hewitt for a number of years‘.

This leads to my favourite photograph of hers.

Frances Benjamin Johnston. c. 1896. Self Portrait (as New Woman). Library of Congress.

To quote Wikipedia:

‘The New Woman was a feminist ideal that emerged in the late 19th century and had a profound influence on feminism well into the 20th century. In 1894, Irish writer Sarah Grand (1854-1943) used the term “new woman” in an influential article, to refer to independent women seeking radical change, and in response the English writer ‘Ouida’ (Maria Louisa Rame) used the term as the title of a follow-up article.’

2. Etheldreda Janet Laing (1872–1960).

A serious amateur photographer, she created her own darkroom in 1899. Etheldreda was born in Ely, near Cambridge in England, where her father was headteacher of the King‘s School which had its origins in a religious house founded by St Etheldreda.

She studied art in Cambridge and in later years was a member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers (RMS). The society was founded in 1895 dedicated to the tradition of miniature painting and sculpture. Etheldreda was an enthusiastic early user of autochrome colour, almost from its commercial beginnings in 1907. Etheldreda’s children were often her subject, taken in their gardens, and her compositions make the most of the tonality of the new colour medium. She was 38 when she first took pictures of her daughters – Janet was 12 and Iris was seven.

Etheldreda Janet Laing. c 1910. Iris. National Media Museum.

Invented by the Lumière brothers, the autochrome was the first practical process for colour photography. From the National Science and Media Museum:

‘No mere technical description, however, can adequately convey the inherent luminous beauty and dream-like quality of an autochrome, reminiscent of pointillist or impressionist painting. This beauty has a very down-to-earth explanation. In theory, the coloured starch grains were distributed randomly. In practice, however, some grouping of grains of the same colour is inevitable. While individual starch grains are invisible to the naked eye, these clumps are visible—the reason for the autochrome’s unique and distinctive beauty’.

Etheldreda Janet Laing. c 1914. Janet & Iris. National Media Museum.

Etheldreda married Major Charles Laing, of Oxford, on July 23rd, 1895, at Little St Mary’s Church, Cambridge. They moved to Bury Knowle House in Headington, Oxford in 1899, where they lived with five indoor servants, a governess and a gardener. Charles Laing served in France in a Red Cross unit in World War I despite being in his fifties. The Laing’s left Bury Knowle House in 1923, and in 1936 moved to Richmond, London. That year the Oxfordshire Who’s Who listed his recreation as hunting. Charles died in a nursing home at the age of 76 in 1939.

Etheldreda’s daughter Janet married Howard Montagu Bulmer de Sales La Terriere around 1930. She was his second wife. She died in Malvern, Worcestershire in 1985, age 87. Iris married Sir John Randolph Leslie, 3rd Baronet of Glaslough in 1958 and became Lady Shane Leslie, and died in 1995, age 92. Today, Bury Knowle House is a public library, and its grounds are a public park.

Etheldreda Janet Laing. c 1914. Janet & Iris. National Media Museum.

Etheldreda took photographs for her own pleasure, and mastered the techniques of composition and exposure, and the darkroom. Sadly, whilst some of the images that she made are amongst the very best of autochrome portraits, she is something of a footnote in photographic history.

How do we view Etheldreda’s work today? Snapshots? Technological innovations? A Time capsule? Art? Privileged lives? Or all of those? In any case, the images are just lovely.

3. Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione (1837 – 1899).

Virginia was an Italian aristocrat and arguably history’s first ‘selfie queen’. In 1856 she  was sent to Paris to try to gain Emperor Napoleon III’s interest in Italian unification, and instead became his mistress. Known as ‘La Castiglione’, she collaborated  with the French court photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson for 40 years. The partnership created over 700 portraits.

Often seen as one of the most beautiful women of her time, she set out to record memorable events in her life: 1856 to 57, entry into French society; 1861 to 1867 –her elegant Parisian life; and 1893 to 1895, as she aged. La Castiglione took complete editorial and artistic control of the process, including choosing the camera angle. Even drawing on some images, she fully directed the post production and printing of the photographs as visiting cards.

Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione. c 1867. Scherzo di Follia (Joke of Madness), by Pierre Louis Pierson. The Metropolitan Museum.

The photographs portray her in all kinds of costumes – Beatrix, Medea, Lady Macbeth, Judith, a nun, a prostitute, Anne Boleyn, Queen of Hearts and even a corpse. But the image shown above seems to stand scrutiny as a modern, almost surrealistic selfie.

Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione. c 1865. Untitled, by Pierre Louis Pierson. The Metropolitan Museum.

The idolatrous mob demanded an ideal worthy of itself and appropriate to its nature – that is perfectly understood. …A revengeful God has given ears to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the faithful says to himself: ‘Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), then photography and Art are the same thing.’ From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal‘.

Baudelaire, 1859, The Mirror of Art.

4. Helen Messinger Murdoch (1862 – 1956)

Like many other early photographers, Helen was originally an artist. She worked in monochrome and then switched to colour autochromes from their introduction in 1907. She was a frequent exhibitor in London, including at the Society of Colour Photographers, and in 1911 she joined the Royal Photographic Society (RPS).

In 1913, at age 51, Helen embarked on a  two-year world tour, becoming the first woman photographer to do so, taking both autochrome and black-and-white photographs. She visited Egypt, Palestine, India, Burma, Hong Kong, China, Japan, the Philippines and Hawaii. The First World War stopped her travelling, so she took up flying, and that led to her photographing the Lindberghs, Richard E. Byrd and Amelia Earhart.  From 1929 to 1933 she was again in London. Apparently members of the RPS organised a collection to help her pay for her passage back home to Boston, and in 1934 she was made an Honorary Fellow of the RPS.

Helen Messinger Murdoch. c 1914. Buddhist Priest, Zoological Gardens. RPS Collection / Victoria & Albert Museum.

Helen had a direct, calm style with an apparently simple style of composition which belied her excellent technique and observational eye. She is a great exemplar of early colour travel photography. This is from Egypt.

Helen Messinger Murdoch. c 1914. Bishareen Children, Aswan. RPS Collection / Victoria & Albert Museum.

The largest collection of her autochrome work is with the RPS, although much seems only really accessible online via Getty Images at commercial prices. But that is another story.

Sadly, Mark Jacobs, at Luminous Lint, noted that:

‘Despite [her] numerous accomplishments, Murdoch‘s contribution was completely ignored not only in both editions of Naomi Rosenblum‘s ‘History of Woman Photographers’ (1994 and 2000), but incredibly enough, in Cathy Newman‘s book ‘Woman Photographers At National Geographic’ (2000). Indeed, if this were not enough, John Wood reminds us: ‘Though some of her work was exhibited at the Library of Congress‘s 1981 autochrome exhibition, it was credited to ‘Photographer unknown’. (Art of the Autochrome, 1993)’.

5. Dora Philippine Kallmus (1881 – 1963).

Dora Kallmus was into a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in 1881, her father being a lawyer. She became interested in photography field while assisting a Viennese artist, and in 1905 she was the first woman to be admitted to the Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt (Graphic Training Institute). She also became a member of the Association of Austrian photographers in that year.

While completing an apprenticeship with Berlin-based portraitist Nicola Perscheid, she met her future assistant and long-time collaborator Arthur Benda, with whom she returned to Vienna and  in 1907 founded the studio Atelier d’Ora. Dora worked professionally as Madame d’Ora.

Dora took a portrait of Gustav Klimt, in 1907, the same year that he painted his subsequently famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Dora Kallmus. 1907. Gustav Klimt. / Gustav Klimt.1907. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Other portraits by Dora include Josephine Baker, Coco Chanel, Tamara de Lempicka, Picasso, Alban Berg, Maurice Chevalier, Colette, chronicling the high fashion of the inter-war years. Interestingly, after WWII, she photographed Austrian refugee camps and the abattoirs of Paris.

To quote Wikipedia:

Her portraits exuded energy, imagination and often sensuality, their subjects emerging from behind formalised poses to express personality and verve, while her vibrant fashion photographs helped nudge the publishing industry away from illustration for good. She loved working with dancers – capturing their grace and celebrating their physical freedom on film, at times directing this liberated energy into her more formal portraits‘.

Dora Kallmus. 1922. Elsie Altmann-Loos. Photoarchiv Setzer-Tschiedel.

Elsie was a dancer, and there is a freedom in this photograph which captures a free spirit and great style. Her gown has traces of Klimt. In 1924 a Viennese newspaper used this photo to advertise a Kalman show, and remarked that Miss Altmann ‘rejuvenates’ the category of the ‘soubrette’.

6. Marguerite Mespoulet (1880-1965) & Madeleine Mignon (1882-1976).

Parisian banker Albert Kahn (1860-1940) started his Archives de la Planète project in 1912, aiming to ‘form of photographic inventory of the surface of the Earth, as it is occupied and managed by men at the beginning of the 20th century’. He engaged two academics to scientifically cover Ireland at around the same time as the calls for independence from Britain were peaking (the 1914 Home Rule Act was never implemented). Mespoulet was an associate professor of English and Mignon an associate professor of mathematics.

Marguerite Mespoulet took 73 autochromes as they journeyed west to east, initially following the Galway-Dublin rail line, and photographed country habitats and costumes, landscapes, and urban scenes. The series was the first ever set of colour images of Ireland. This image stands out.

Marguerite Mespoulet. 25 May 1913. Mian Kelly, Claddagh, Ireland. Archives de la Planète. Paris: Musée Albert Kahn.

Marguerite’s notes suggest that she approached her mission objectivity, or with perhaps more sympathy than an English observer might have done given the political situation, and the many attempts to ‘other’ the Irish. She compared the people to the inhabitants of Brittany. On 25 May 1913, when Marguerite took her photograph of Mian Kelly, she wrote in her journal:

‘Although we are first struck by the misery and filth of its inhabitants, a few live there quite happily – that is to say in a relative ease – but the kids are never cleaner there than the poor little scabies we see here. Little by little, the directors of the Congested Districts Board buy the land and have bigger and healthier houses built, so the village is bound to disappear one day or another’. 

‘The young girl who posed for these three images is considered in Galway to be a perfect example of The Irish Colleen’.

Marguerite Mespoulet. 25 May 1913. Mian Kelly, Claddagh, Ireland. Archives de la Planète. Paris: Musée Albert Kahn.

Cally Blackman, of the School of Fashion & Textile Design, Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, revisited the photographs and commented that:

‘The significance of Mespoulet’s images lies in their relationship to the visual sources and discourse surrounding folk dress in Ireland, given that the colours of the clothes worn by the working people she photographed are accurate and therefore offer more reliable evidence than most other visual sources. All photographs at this date, especially autochromes, were, in a sense, posed (but not necessarily staged) because of the long exposure times required, and, while Mespoulet’s 1913 images may share aspects of artificiality with other sources, the colours they depict were true to life.

‘The vibrancy of these colours leaps forward into our present, contesting the binary opposition between the ‘artificiality’ often associated with colour photography and the gritty ‘truth’ of monochrome processes‘.

This series of autochromes by Mespoulet and Mignon are thus excellent, very early examples of using colour photography as both historical records and the basis for research. They firmly underline that photographs can be both of significant and accurate documentary value whilst being beautiful in their own right.

7. G.A. (Emma) Barton (1872–1938).

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.

Emma Barton. 1903. The Awakening. Carbon Print, Royal Photographic Society.

Emma 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 …’

Emma Barton. 1911. Old Familiar Flowers. Royal Photographic Society.

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. Robert Greetham, in reviewing a book about the 1995 Birmingham exhibition of Barton’s work (Sunlight and Shadows) 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’.

Yet other pictorialists have a much firmer place in the history of photography. Perhaps her omission is simply that she was a woman, suffering the historical fate of others posted here. 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.

9. Clara Estelle Sipprell (1885-1975)

The Canadian-born Clara Estelle Sipprell was a professional photographer who operated studios in both Buffalo and New York City. Among her portrait sitters were Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost and Alfred Stieglitz. Her brother Frank borrowed money from an older brother and in 1902 opened the Sipprell Photography Studio in Buffalo. Clara was soon acting as Frank’s apprentice. The studio was auspiciously located at  just down the street from the Albright-Knox Gallery where Alfred Stieglitz chose to hold the first International Exposition of Pictorial Photography.

At the age of sixteen, Clara left school and became a full-time assistant, She later fully credited Frank with both her technical and aesthetic training.

Clara Estelle Sipprell. c. 1940. Alfred Stieglitz. Sandor Family Collection, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Clara was drawn to pictorialism, often using soft focus and always using natural light. She commented on her approach:

‘I had made many photographs but took light for granted. One day I was passing through our studio room as I had many, many times to get to the reception room. I looked over to where a big chair was by the window and something happened. I saw it. I mean I had an ache of realization and then began my consciousness of light, like music, more and more my world was interpreted in terms of light, natural light’.

A free spirit, much like Helen Messinger Murdoch, Clara lived life to it‘s fullest. From Wikipedia:

‘In the late 1910s Sipprell met a young Russian woman named Irina Khrabroff, who became her friend, traveling companion and, later, her dealer and business manager. When they first met Sipprell still shared her apartment with Beers, but when she moved out in 1923 Khrabroff moved in. Later that year Khrabroff married a man named Feodor Cekich, and the three of them lived together in the same apartment for many years’.

In 1924 the threesome traveled to Europe. This gave Clara the opportunity to photograph the Adriatic Coast and, through the Khrabroff’s, members of the Moscow arts community. Amongst her sitters were Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Koussevitzky.

Clara Sipprell. 1924. Pineas, Dalmation Coast, Yugoslavia.

Eventually Clara’s friendship with the Khrabroff’s ended, not least over political disagreement. Clara favoured the changes in Russia, whilst the Khrabroff’s remained czarist. In the 1930s, Clara met Phyllis Reid Fenner who was a writer, librarian, and anthologist of children’s books. They became housemates and traveling companions, and the relationship continued through the rest of Clara’s life.

10. Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870 – 1942)

Another woman born in Canada, Jesse Tarbox Beals was by all accounts the first accredited woman photojournalist in the US. Within her news photographs, she did documentary photo-essays. Unlike others, her approach tended to be to make a photo series, then let the words be written to work alongside the images. She also created striking, evocative images of the city in all weathers, and often at night. I particularly like this.

Jessie Tarbox Beals. c. 1905. Times Square. Museum of City of New York.

Jessie began teaching at a one-room schoolhouse in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, when she was 17. In 1888, she won a camera through the Youth’s Companion magazine. The equipment was rather rudimentary, though Jessie enjoyed using it to take photographs of her students and their surroundings. She soon bought a higher quality Kodak and set up Williamsburg’s first photography studio in front of her house.

In 1899, The Boston Post gave Jessie her first professional assignment, which was to photograph the Massachusetts state prison. That same year, she got her first byline for her photos in the Windham County Reformer. About 1901 the Beals’ resettled in Buffalo, NY, where later in the year she was taken on as a staff photographer by the Buffalo Inquirer and The Buffalo Courier. This made her the first accredited female photojournalist. By her own admission a bit of a  ‘hustler’, she got many new assignments – including being the photographer for several news outlets at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, (St. Louis World’s Fair) where she took a candid of Theodore Roosevelt. This led to her photographing Roosevelt and the Rough Riders at their reunion in San Antonio, Texas in 1905.

Jessie opened her own studio on Sixth Avenue in New York City and photographed everything from car races to portraits of society figures, including several presidents such as Coolidge, Hoover and Taft, and celebrities such as Mark Twain. Some of her better known work, though, has become her documentary work on Greenwich Village and the New York tenements which have become important historical records.

Jessie Tarbox Beals. c. 1910. Lower East Side Tenement. Museum of City of New York.

Jessie’s career flourished, but her marriage was troubled. In 1911, she gave birth to a daughter, Nanette, most likely from another relationship. She finally left her husband in 1917. With an increasing number of female photographers emerging, Jessie focused on giving public talks and specialized in photographing gardens and estates of the wealthy. After some time also doing that in California, the Great Depression brought her and Nanette back to New York in 1933. Jessie lived and worked in Greenwich Village. Unfortunately, she gradually fell into poverty, and she died at Bellevue Hospital.

Unlike some of the other women photographers noted in this short post, Jessie seemed to use only black and white and in a rather ‘objective’ journalist’s style. Her connections came from her own hard work and ‘hustle’, and she left an important archive of some of the most fascinating moments in the history of New York.


Header: Etheldreda Janet Laing. 1914. Janet.


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