Early Women Artisan Photographers: Narrative Nuances, 18401930

Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:30 AM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago)
Lee McIntyre, independent scholar
My work explore the multi-threaded narratives in the careers of women artisan photographers, specifically women running photography studios in the first century of commercial photography. Ironically, the entrepreneurial aspect of women photographers was reasonably well known in the 19th century, but has faded from the collective memory. As a result, histories too often downplay or even ignore the fact that women were a significant part of the photographic economy right from the beginning, especially in North America.

While the standard narrative is that women were (at most) retouchers in studios run by men, in fact women worked in all aspects of the business, not only as retouchers, but also as portrait artists, landscape photographers, and photojournalists, as well as owner/operators of photography studios. By the late 1800s it was not uncommon to find that in even medium sized towns there were multiple studios run by women proprietors, doing the same work—and competing for the same business—as their male counterparts. Their work experiences encompass many intersecting narrative facts, among them:

  • Marital status (single, married, divorced, widowed)
  • Socio-economic status
  • Business models
  • Running a studio alone
  • Partnering with family, including siblings, and/or husbands
  • Partnering with unrelated photographers, male and female
  • Career paths
  • Working successfully in photography for decades
  • Doing photography only for a few years, while passing to/from other careers e.g., teacher, postal clear, poet, etc.

While there have been a few modern studies of individual artisan photographers, such as Emma Freeman, Hannah Maynard, and Myra Wiggins, my work examines the broader patterns that can be found by a more expansive selection of women photographers, using materials from archives, census records, and newspaper articles and advertisements, combined with examples of these women’s photographic output.

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