Women Photographers, Institutional Practices, and the South Kensington Museum

Friday, January 4, 2019: 11:10 AM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago)
Erika Lederman, Victoria and Albert Museum and De Montfort University
Photographs and photographers were present from the very beginning of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s history. In 1852 the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) became one of the first museums to collect photographs and in 1858 was the first to exhibit them. Its collection is among the most important in the world and forms the UK’s national collection of photography.

Female photographers were employed by, and played an important role in, the Museum’s mission to use photography for these administrative and educational purposes. My paper will examine the Museum’s first female photographers, including Isabel Agnes Cowper, who ran the Museum’s photographic service beginning in 1868 to 1891. I will synthesize my ongoing research within the V&A’s collection and archive, which has uncovered a large body of work attributed to Cowper and a biography that includes ties to Henry Cole, who promoted her career. The paper will locate Cowper’s work within the history of photography and the newly contextualized archive of photography documenting the fine arts.

While the Museum had its own photographic service, it also sourced photographs from independent professionals. I have identified three other female photographers working during the same historical period as Cowper from whom the V&A acquired work: British photographer Jane Clifford, who established a studio with her husband Charles in Madrid in 1850; Louise Laffon, one of the first female members of Le Société Française de la Photographie, and Swede Emma Schenson.

These women have been overlooked in the writing of the history of the V&A’s photographs collection, their work either unattributed or attributed to men. In exploring the relationship between the V&A and these female photographers, I will expand upon the institutional history of the Museum while at the same time highlight the challenges involved in identifying and researching archives produced by women.