Women in early photography

There are so many recognizable names in photography. Joseph Niepce, the first to capture an image in a camera. Louis Daguerre, developer of the daguerreotype process.
William Fox Talbot developed the first paper negative. And, of course, there was Mathew Brady, one of the most recognizable early photographers. Early photography was mainly a British and French invention, with quite a few British and French men racking up great accomplishments. However, as the idiom goes, “behind every great man is a great
woman.” Rarely are women mentioned in early photography. Women were very  instrumental in the development and advancement of photography.

William Fox Talbot was one of the early innovators of photographic processes. His wife Constance was an early user of his process and is considered the first woman
photographer. She started making photographs in the 1830’s.

Anna Atkins was a botanist who first learned of the cyanotype process from the inventor John Herschel. She went on to produce, in 1843, Photographs of British Algae, considered
the first book of photographic illustrations.

André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri was the Frenchman who patented the carte de visite. His wife, Geneviève Élisabeth Disdéri established one of the first daguerreotype studios in
France in the 1840’s. She was an accomplished landscape and portrait photographer.

Thora Hallager was a danish photographer. She was an accomplished portrait and early photography studio photographer and owner. She was also a landlord, and one of
her tenants was Hans Christian Andersen who was a close friend and one of her portrait subjects. She must have been pretty good and kept busy because she never married!

Cabinet Cards

Cabinet Cards

Not all women were hidden behind their husband’s name or profession. Many were trend setters in their own chosen interpretations of photography. Many women started working
with landscape photography but quickly moved to portrait photography. The early male photographers got the job done, recording the scenes as they were and the portraiture with a stiff, somber portrayal. Women added a sensitivity and personal feeling to their images.

Julia Margaret Cameron started her photographic life in 1863 at the age of 48. Her daughter gave her a camera as a birthday present. She was a self-taught British photographer, and her unique style and innovations in portrait photography
are still in use today. Julia Margaret Cameron learned the wet collodion glass negative process so she could have complete control over her photography, unlike many photographers of the time who turned the development process over to others.
Her unique style was not without criticism.

Similar to many other male-dominated fields, in photography, men set the standards. Anything that went against their ideas and ideals
was not taken seriously. Julia Margaret Cameron was the first to use soft focus in portraiture. She also closely cropped her images and posed her subjects in warm sensitive poses, unlike the stiff, expressionless techniques used most portrait photographers. She also was the first to copyright her images and to have her photographs included in art galleries and museums. Her photographic career was a short 11 years. Over that short period, she photographed many celebrities, providing a lasting record of these people which we would not have had otherwise.

Not all women photographers were struggling, hardworking people. In fact, most of the early women photographers were well off and were able to afford this expensive and difficult to learn hobby/profession.

One of my favorites, Lady Clementina Hawarden started taking landscape photographs of their estates in Ireland. After moving to London in 1862, she turned to portraiture. Lady
Hawarden is considered the first fashion photographer. She also used props in her portraits as an integral part of the composition instead of just a prop to fill space in an image.
And like many of the women photographers, she was able to add sensitivity and fluidity to her images. Like Julia Margaret Cameron, many of her innovations are still in use today.
Just a few brief words on “The Linked Ring,” or as it was also known, “The Brotherhood of the Linked Ring”. The group was founded in 1892, with the goal of declaring photography was just as much an art form as it was a science. Like other brotherhoods, it was strictly for men. Women weren’t allowed to be members until 1900! This policy fit with the time period, as women were involved in photography long before the 1900’s but rarely recognized.

Anna Mattke was a relative of my wife’s who was a professional photographer in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. The middle photo is an RPPC (Real Photo Post Card) from
about 1902. The imprint is hard to read but says A. E. Mattke, Fredericksburg IA. Note the using of her initials rather than her full name. Was this for business reasons? Photography in the 1900’s was still male dominated. If a woman used a camera it was thought that she was a hobbyist. Anna’s photography was done with a 5×7 view camera. Picture this petite woman hauling around this massive tool! Surely women deserve much greater recognition of their roles in photography!

These four images were from a collection of almost 200 5×7
glass negatives taken by Anna Mattke of rural Iowa farm life I digitized and are now a valuable record of Iowa history.

-Bob Walden

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you. Many great names in history that accomplished much. However how many did it alone. So many unnamed people lost to history.

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