Women Photographers – Part One

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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.


History of the Autochrome: The Dawn of Colour Photography. 2009. National Science and Media Museum. Available at: https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/autochromes-the-dawn-of-colour-photography/ (accessed 30/12/2020).

ADLMANN, Jan & FABER, Monika. 1987. Dora: Vienna & Paris 1907-1957 – The Photography of Dora Kallmus. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College Art Gallery.

BAUDELAIRE, Charles Baudelaire. 1959. The Mirror of Art. 1955 Edition, Jonathan Mayne, Editor & Translator.  London: Phaidon Press.

BLACKMAN, Cally, 2014. Colouring the Claddagh: A Distorted View? Costume, Volume 48, 2014, pg. 213-235. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1179/0590887614Z.00000000051 (accessed 03/01/2021).

BOUVERESSE, Clara. 2020. Women Photographers. Sarah Moon, Series Editor. Photofile London: Thames & Hudson.

CAMPANY, David. 2020. On Photographs. London: Thames & Hudson.

DANIEL, Pete & SMOCK, Raymond. 1974. A Talent for Detail: The Photographs of Miss Frances Benjamin Johnston. New York: Harmony Books.

DANIEL, Malcolm. 2007. The Countess da Castiglione. Heilbrunn History of Art Essays, Metropolitan Museum, New York. Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/coca/hd_coca.htm (accessed 01/01/2021).

JACOBS, Mark. 2006. Autochromes – Women Photographers. Luminous Lint. Available at: http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/vexhibit/_THEME_Autochromes_Women_01/2/0/0/ (accessed 31/12/2020).

JAMES, Peter, SIDEY, Tessa & TAYLOR, John. 1995. Sunlight and Shadow: The Photographs of Emma Barton 1872-1938. Birmingham: Birmingham Libraries and Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

ROSENBLUM, Naomi. 2015. A History of Women Photographers. New York: Abbeville Press

WOOD, John. 1994. The Art of the Autochrome. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

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