"Bound Together by a New Sympathy": Collaboration and Women's Practice of Studio Portraiture in Britain, 1888–1938

Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:50 AM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago)
George Mind, University of Westminster and National Portrait Gallery
This paper investigates how female studio photographers were collectively using the camera as a tool of emancipation in the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century. Departing from a tendency in feminist revisions of art history to mythologise the work of individual women artists, I put pressure on the notion of the photograph having a sole creator and examine in detail what Val Williams has termed the ‘movement’ of studio photography. I draw on individual case studies in order to assess the impact on women’s photographic careers of their setting up studios collaboratively, working collaboratively, and perceiving the rapidly-changing world around them collaboratively.

The language that female studio photographers used to refer to their business partners and assistants reveal that these relationships were integral to their practice. They refer fondly to ‘my sister-partner,’ ‘my inner cabinet,’ and even (when referring to another woman): ‘my right-hand man.’ Kate Pragnell wrote of her partner Miss Stewart, ‘it would be impossible for us to hand over the work to anybody else; I rely upon our methods of working together.’ Because women often traded under one name, photographic studio partnerships formed by women in this period have received too little scholarly attention. My paper addresses this lacuna in current scholarship of the history of photography; it considers the collaborative and cooperative working practices of three under-researched women photographers working in the commercial sector, now held in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection: Alice Hughes, Lallie Charles and Olive Edis.

I situate women’s work in the photographic industry within a specific socio-historical context of women’s increasing political collectivity at this time, namely in their campaign for suffrage. Ultimately, I draw out the theoretical repercussions of women’s pioneering collaborative photographic practice and argue that it offers a radical new way of conceiving the history of women’s photography.