Welcome to Photographs, Pistols & Parasols, the podcast where we celebrate early women artisan photographers.
Over the past few years, I’ve been researching the lives and accomplishments of women who made a living from photography between 1840-1930. I have been amazed at just how many women there were — my list of possible early women artisan photographers to profile currently has over 300 women on it!
In the first 8 episodes of Season One of the podcast, I’ll be able to introduce you to only a small fraction of them. But this sample should give you an idea of the range of professional artisan photographers who will be profiled on this podcast. Some of these women are from what I call the informal “canon” of women photographers who are more well-known, at least to photo historians. Others are women who have been all but lost to history.
The thing that ties them all together is that each of them started her professional photographic career between 1840-1930. I hope you’ll join me as I introduce you to these talent female entrepreneurs, one (or two or occasionally more) at a time.
There will be a Notes page for each episode here on the website. Plus, additional material that relates to an episode will be shared on a corresponding board on Pinterest — check out the board on Pinterest for today’s episode here.
You’re listening to Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols.Welcome to the first episode of Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols, the podcast where we celebrate early women artisan photographers .
I’m your host, Lee McIntyre.
In today’s episode I’m going to give you a brief introduction to the Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols project and explain the type of woman photographer we’ll meet on the podcast.
For more information about any of the women discussed in today’s episode, visit my website at p3photographers.net. That’s letter “p”, number “3”, photographers “do” net.
Here’s a question for you: when do you think women started working as professional photographers?
Before you answer that, let me just review a few of the technical challenges faced by photographers back in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Wet plate photography circa 1860 required hauling along a darkroom wagon and tent if you wanted to take outdoor shots away from home.
One photographer, though, around that time invented an unorthodox way of doing it that would allow the darkroom to be left at home.
Or consider another example:
In the late 1890s police departments hired photographers to take pictures of the suspects they arrested. They wanted two shots: one full face, and one profile. But one clever photographer circa 1899 figured out a way to save money on materials — and in that way increase profits! — by using mirrors to get both shots in a single frame.
Or consider: black and white film in the early 20th century wasn’t sensitive to reds, so photos of a red hot fire turned out black. But one photographer circa 1929 figured out how to get around this limitation, capturing spectacular shots of molten metal.
Those 3 professional photographers never met each other. But in addition to their skill and ingenuity they had another thing in common: they were all professional women photographers:
— It was Margaret Burke-White who made a name for herself with her riveting photos inside the factory in 1929.
— It was Hannah Maynard who went to work for the Victoria police department and experimented with her two in one shots of the folks who had been arrested.
— It was Elizabeth Withington who in 1875 wrote about how her portable petticoat darkroom technique allowed her to travel and get wonderful landscapes without having a full darkroom along. Elizabeth Withington actually opened her studio in 1858.
Now going back to my original question: when did you think women first became professional photographers?
Elizabeth Withington wasn’t even the earliest. Women started working as professional photographers at the same time men did, in the 1840s when photography first took off.
But if you’re really surprised here, you’re not alone. A few years ago when I was doing some lectures on the history of women photographers, I discovered that it’s a rather common misconception that women didn’t start doing professional photography until at least 1930. At the time I was already lecturing about what I call the informal canon of women photographers, including women from the late 1800s and early 1900s, women who are well-known to photo history circles but typically not well-known to the general public.
This included women like Gertrude Käsebier, who was a co-founder of a very important artistic photography movement circa 1900.
Frances Benjamin Johnston, whose career included a little bit of everything: studio work, journalism, social documentary, architecture, … She even invented the role of White House photographer.
Women like Imogen Cunningham, who was a contemporary of Ansel Adams and co-founder of the photography group known as Group f64.
And also Dorothea Lange. Her migrant mother photo is probably one of the most famous photos to come out of the 1930s, but few people know that was actually a woman who took that photo.
Now the work of these women and others in the canon fit within a bias in the history of photography the favors socially focused or artistically praised photographic works. But in addition to their more famous work, all of these women were also artisan photographers, photographers making a living with their photography.
And that’s the part of their careers that fits within the theme of Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols.
I’ll definitely be including stories about these women, but I’ll be turning the spotlight also on other early professional women photographers, women who are typically overlooked and left out of the discussion entirely. But their stories and their achievements are just as compelling and worthy of celebrating.
Now the artisan photographers are the ones running the studios and doing “workaday” everyday photography. I mean, they’re taking pictures of babies; taking pictures of small children with their toys; photos of men in bowler hats or photos of women in fancy dresses; photos of wedding couples or school groups. [They are] taking photos in their studios, or outdoors next to the school, or inside a store. Whatever was required.
Artisan photography is how photographers make a living from their photography. Even when their artistry or social documentary work is celebrated, it’s the day-in, day-out taking photos for hire that’s the bread and butter work of a professional photographer.
It’s important to realize that women were running studios like this from the beginning, as early as the 1840s.
Someone said to me recently, “Huh — I always pictured the big old-fashioned camera with the photographer under the cloth, and I’ve always thought it had to be a man under that cloth!” But it didn’t, and it wasn’t. Women were right in there with the men. They were early adopters of technology that was always changing. Here on Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols I’m going to bring you their stories, one (or two) photographers at a time.
Although I’m researching photos, people, and places from the 19th century, I’m using 21st century technology to do it. It’s amazing how much you can actually find out nowadays by looking online. A lot of the microfilm copies of old newspapers and city directories and census records have all been digitized, so you don’t have to spend as much time struggling with the cranky microfilm readers anymore. It’s still a bit of that, but there’s so much you can find online!
It’s like playing detective. You’re off on the hunt when you spot your first clue, which might be a name on an old cabinet card that you bought for a few dollars in an antique store. And then that leads to a newspaper clipping with another woman photographer’s name.
Or it might start with an ad for photography studio that catches your eye because it’s for a “lady photographer”.
Or the name might be attributed to a photo in an archive, where there’s no other information about that woman.
Or your clue may come from scholarship done by photo historians on relatively unknown photographers when you stumble upon an out of print book about a particular photographer.
The information uncovered in all of the searches, combined with stories from previous scholarship on the canon of women photographers, all lead to the stories I’ll be sharing here on the podcast.
The bulk of the episodes will be about the lesser known photographers. The research about them can be really addictive, as I hunt down clues about the woman’s life and work and track down examples where I can of her photos. I’m trying to answer questions like how long did she run her studio, what else was going on in her life, what other interests did she have, and what other people did she know. It’s like doing genealogy research except you’re doing it for other families. But these women somehow become like a family to you, so when you see that someone was killed in a car accident, it becomes almost like a death in your own family because you’ve become so attached to some of these women as you become involved with the stories of their lives.
In addition to being successful artisan photographers, these women were also early entrepreneurs, and we can get a sense of how they were out there hustling for different kinds of business opportunities and experimenting with creative ways to promote their photographic work.
On this first season of the podcast there will be a total of 8 episodes, including this one. I’ll bring you a taste in these episodes of the different types of stories I’ve been finding. Over the last year I’ve been able to amass a database of over 300 women artisan photographers, tracing their lives and uncovering information about their surprisingly rich photographic careers. So beyond these initial 8 episodes there will be much, much more to come. I hope you will subscribe to the podcast and join me for the journey.
More information about any of the women I talk about on the podcast can also be found on my website, p3photographers.net. That’s letter “p”, number “3”, photographers.net.
My goal for the podcast is to share stories about these overlooked women, women whose photography careers started between 1840-1930. I’d love to get suggestions for more women to profile. If you’re a photo historian who has a particular woman photographer that you’ve researched, I’d love to feature you here on the podcast and have you talk about your photographer.
If you’re someone who has an old family photo that has the name of a female photographer printed on the bottom or the back, I’d love to get the name and see where I can find out about her.
If you have any other questions or feedback on the project in general, drop me a line at podcast “at” p3photographers.net.
That’s it for today. Thanks for stopping by! Until next time, I’m Lee and this is Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols.