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Photography for Ladies: Women and Photography at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
By Andrea Kunard

The history of photography is inseparable from that of social history. Since its inception, photography became intimately integrated into aspects of people's daily lives, and reflected back to them their desired world. In addition, as photographs can both reveal and conceal, they give testimony to a public personae all the while safeguarding an individual's private thoughts and desires. An often neglected fact is that women have had a long involvement with the medium, and an account of their history in this respect reveals many social issues of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The creation of social selves--the plurality of women's existence as wife, mother, daughter, and, in the case of Lucy Maud Montgomery, professional writer--is one that can be traced through photographs both in their use and subject matter. 1

Photography has often been characterized in terms of pivotal developments, most often those that wed the idea of technology with that of progress. It is true that certain inventions have traditionally marked the "milestones" of photography's history. 2 However, to limit discussion only to such achievements displaces personal employments of photographic imagery. In a very real way, the continued history of the medium depended directly on its popularity, which in turn was a result of the need of individuals to give expression to personal circumstances.

From a modern viewpoint, it is easy to forget that the nineteenth century experienced a huge influx of imagery due to the invention of photography. Photographs were first obtained through commercial studios and towards the end of the century photographic technology had advanced to the point where individuals themselves could record any number of events of social and personal importance. Photography had affected how people interpreted and depicted the world, not only that of their immediate surroundings, but those of foreign lands and peoples. In terms of the latter, photographs confirmed the values of the period's dominant cultures. In this respect, photography was a powerful tool in the hands of colonizers; the manner in which "alien" lands and peoples were portrayed was itself determined by pictorial conventions rooted in the values of white society. Through the photographer's choice of subject matter and attentiveness to formal arrangements, subtleties of tone and studio conventions, a Victorian audience could be transported to an area which had already been made familiar. 3

The photograph, therefore, is not neutral in its depiction of the world, nor is it entirely accurate in its representation of reality. The frame of the camera provides its operator with a selective way of viewing the world; certain elements are kept within the frame, and others "edited" or cropped out. The choice of subject matter, and the manner in which it is depicted, speak not only to the values of the individual taking the photograph, but also to those of the period. That being said, however, photographs in themselves are limited in the amount of information they convey. Any photograph needs either oral or textual explanation, and even then the relation between text and image is often fractured and thus imperfect.

However, this seeming limitation of the photograph, being that of the paucity of information it conveys, was advantageous in certain respects as it provided a means to negotiate both private and public spheres. In particular, studio photography allowed individuals to engage in a desired social representation of self. This social aspect of photography can only be understood in conjunction with certain events which occurred in the history of the medium. In order to provide a greater context for the understanding of the photographic imagery of this period, a brief digression is necessary to explain the relation between specific developments in the technology and their larger social impact.

Although today those without possession of a camera are in the minority, the exact opposite was true in the nineteenth century. In order to have one's picture taken, a trip to the local studio photographer was necessary. There were those who owned a camera and developed their own photographs, but they were few in number. There are several reasons why this occurred, perhaps the most prominent being the state of the technology. Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, the most common method of obtaining photographs was the wet collodion process. 4 This entailed coating a glass plate with a mixture of collodion (gun cotton, alcohol and ether) and potassium iodide, sensitizing the plate in a bath of light sensitive silver nitrate particles, and exposing and developing the plate while still wet. If the plate dried, it was useless. To take photographs in the field meant that one also had to bring a portable darkroom for coating and developing plates. All in all, the wet collodion process was too involved and messy except for serious amateurs and professional photographers. 5

A more convenient way of obtaining photographs was sought, resulting in the dry-plate process. 6 With this method, plates could be coated ahead of time, carried out into the field, exposed and then developed. The popularity of the dry-plates resulted in their mass manufacture. This, in turn, meant that plates could be ordered easily through photographic supply houses thus freeing photographers from the burden of preparing their own plates. 7 Photography became more mobile, and improvements in lens technologies and photographic emulsions made exposure times much shorter. 8 By the late 1870s, photography had become, relatively speaking, much easier, resulting in an increased number of amateur practitioners.

One American dry-plate manufacturer, located in Rochester, New York, was George Eastman. Eastman felt that the dry-plate process was still too complicated and messy for most and set out to develop an easier method of obtaining photographs. The result was the Kodak camera, an invention that completely changed the photographic industry. 9 Launched in July 1888, the Kodak was a small handheld camera that contained enough film for 100 exposures. When the film was finished, the owner mailed the camera and $10.00 to Eastman's company where the film was developed, prints made, camera reloaded, and the whole package sent back to the customer. 10

The Kodak camera was innovative in a number of respects. Eastman had developed a rollable paper film of high sensitivity. The burdensome glass plates, therefore, quickly became a thing of the past. In addition, the camera was small and thus extremely portable. However, the most appealing aspect of the Kodak was stated in their slogan "you press the button, we do the rest"; the photographer did not have to worry about developing the negatives. Eastman, in fact, had created what we now call "photo-finishing."

Throughout this period, from the wet collodion process to the handheld camera, women had been involved with the medium in numerous ways. However, their practice of photography was affected by the period's notions of femininity. Women had to comport themselves as a "lady," a social expectation that would be somewhat challenged by the messy wet collodion process. Nonetheless, women had an interest in photography from its earliest period. In 1855 the Liverpool Photographic Journal published two articles entitled "Photography for Ladies." Although the author assumed a patronizing tone throughout the article, the process for taking and developing photographic plates was described. 11

From the very beginning women were present in nearly all levels of photography, from professional to amateur. Some, such as ?lise L'Heureux Livernois of Quebec City, and Hannah Maynard of Victoria, ran studios in partnership with their husbands and continued to maintain them after their husbands' death. Others entered the business as studio attendants, retouchers and colourists. The photographic industry provided employment for many women, although they were limited in their opportunities and payed far less than their male counterparts. 12

The other main area of women's involvement in the medium occurred in the home with the assembly of photographic albums. The popularity of albums was in part due to the carte-de-visite phenomenon which captured the public's imagination beginning in the early 1860s. The carte-de-visite was a card mounted photograph that measured approximately 21/2 x 4". Albums with cut-out windows were constructed to hold the photograph. The other type of photograph which could be purchased was unmounted, and known in the trade as "scraps." 13 Albums with blank pages were manufactured for unmounted photographs. Individuals would purchase such images, cut, arrange and paste them onto pages in imaginative and creative ways.

With the increased popularity of photography, to have one's "likeness" taken became relatively inexpensive, with the result that most could afford numerous visits to the photographic studio. Important events, such as the birth of a child or a marriage, were celebrated photographically. More whimsical occasions, such as the purchase of a new dress, also prompted a visit to the studio. 14 In many respects, the photograph can be understood as a theatrical space; the studio portrait often contained "exotic" elements such as Greek column props and painted Italian villa backdrops which allowed individuals to indulge in fantasies of bourgeois affluence.

Through photography, people could control aspects of their public presentation of self. The assembly of such photographs in albums also gave individuals more control over how they wished their interests to be presented. In terms of the family album, assemblers could arrange photographs in such a manner as to display their family and acquaintances as a coherent group. The photograph also preempted the need to write anything down. Information was orally transmitted with the result that certain facts concerning those represented could be either conveyed or withheld, depending on who was the viewer.

It is difficult to say where exactly Montgomery learned photography. By the end of the 19th century, there were numerous publications available for those seeking instruction on photographic techniques and methods. 15 There were also camera clubs which both men and women could join to learn aspects of the medium, compare notes, share equipment and exhibit works. In the Maritimes, the two largest camera clubs were located in St. John and Halifax. However, smaller groups of people often got together to share information without officially forming a club. 16

Photography had been practiced from its earliest days on Prince Edward Island. 17 In 1842, itinerant photographers advertised the daguerreotype process in the local paper. 18 A woman daguerreotypist, Mrs. J. Carroll, announced her photographic services in the Islander in the summer of 1854. 19 The first documented amateur photographer was Henry Cundall who most likely learned the craft from the itinerant photographer H.D. Munro. 20 At one point, Cundall ordered an "Oxyhydrogen Magic Lantern" for showing educational and entertaining slides as a means of raising money for community causes. His shows impressed the artist Robert Harris, who recalled in his adult years how magical Cundall's presentations had appeared to him as a child. 21

Towards the end of the 19th century, the photographic industry realized that women represented a large untapped market for photography. Generally speaking, this period demonstrated a mixture of old and new attitudes. On the one hand, with the invention of dry- plate photography, women could take photographs all the while maintaining the composure expected of a "lady." On the other hand, photography was a technology associated with progress and modern life. By the late 19th century, the age of the "New Woman" had begun, a period in which women moved beyond the moral and physical restrictions of the Victorian era. The "modern" woman, therefore, could take up the practice of photography as a hobby without fear of censure. Publications began to appear that directly targeted a female audience. A section of the Ladies Manual of Art (1887) described the dry-plate process in detail. 22 Articles such as "What a Woman Can Do With A Camera," by Miss Katherine Johnson, were published in the 1897 Ladies' Home Journal. Some writers argued that women's "feminine capacities" made them "naturally" suited to the practice of photography: "Ladies...are taking up the practice of photography to very large extent as a pastime, and by the artistic talent which is so generally inherent in their nature often produce results which few adepts in the art can obtain." 23

Montgomery was one among many women interested in amateur photography. In an article which appeared in the Monday, May 12, 1902, edition of the Halifax Daily Echo, she offers advice to those who wished to pursue photography as a hobby. She states that a 4" by 5" camera (the measurements indicating the size of the plate) is large enough for a beginner. She also indicates that she prefers a slow brand of plates as, to her mind, "they yield more artistic results." From this information it is likely that Montgomery possessed a 4" x 5" field camera. Such a camera would have a bellows, and as such be collapsible making it highly portable. The camera could be used with a tripod, thus allowing for longer exposures if lighting conditions demanded. As light meters did not exist, exposure times were learned from experience. As Montgomery put it: "In regard to exposures no cut-and-dried formulas are of any use. The time is regulated by the strength of light and the kind of plates used. In this you must simply learn by making mistakes. Do not take pictures between eleven and three o'clock. The results are never so good."

To operate such a camera, a black cloth was drawn over the head, and the lens cap removed. The image appeared upside-down in the "ground glass," a piece of glass located at the back of the camera. To focus, one moved the glass closer to the lens. When the photographer was satisfied with the scene, the lens was recapped, and a thumb screw tightened to hold the ground glass in position. A plate holder containing the unexposed plate was then placed in the camera. The slide on the holder was drawn back, the lens uncapped, and the exposure time counted off. When the plate had been exposed to the photographer's satisfaction, the slide was placed back into the plate holder. The exposed plate could then be put in a carrying case for later development.

If there was a need for more plates while shooting, Montgomery offered this piece of advice: "If you are ever where you cannot gain access to a darkroom and yet want to change plates, here is a plan I have followed with success. Get into a windowless closet, sit on the floor and get somebody to put right over your head a heavy quilt - a red one if possible. Then have the door shut tightly and change your plate. In summer this is a fearfully warm job, but it is better than getting your plates light-struck."

Plates were developed in the dark room, with the aid of a ruby lantern--a lantern with red glass whose light would allow the photographer to see what he or she was doing, but whose light would not fog the plates. In the Halifax Daily Echo article, Montgomery relates how certain special effects can be obtained in landscape pictures. She explains that a summer moonlight scene can be made by "cutting out of white paper a tiny new moon and pasting it properly on the glass side of the negative." A winter moonlight picture can also be fabricated by placing a negative with a landscape scene against another negative and exposing both to a blast of gas light. A positive plate will result, to which a full moon made of paper is fixed. As Montgomery states, when printed: "[T]he sky will come out black while the ground and trees will be white with - apparently - snow. The effect will be very pretty. I may add that your "positive" is also a magic lantern slide."

To make prints from the plates, a printing frame was used in which one inserted both paper and negative. Most often, the type of paper used was called P.O.P, or "printing out paper." The printing frame was exposed to the sun for a period of time, allowing the image to make a gradual appearance on the paper. This procedure, more commonly known as making a contact print, was, for the most part, the only method of obtaining a print. Enlargers of a type existed, but as electricity was not in common usage, light bulbs were unavailable to create a projected, and thus enlarged, image. Again, the light source for these enlargers was sunlight, and as such, these devices were more commonly known as "solar cameras."

The photographic practice and legacy of Montgomery encapsulates what was to become more generally practiced, being that individuals now had the capacity, more than in any other period in human history, to visualize aspects of their daily lives. Children, pets, houses, cars, and other types of subject matter, could all be recorded, and the images organized and assembled to display an ordered, secure, and comfortable world. Reality, of course, could be quite different. Yet photography allowed certain moments to be "stilled," and both the taking and assembly of photographs represented the need to construct a desired vision of one's existence. 24

With the invention and mass marketing of the handheld camera, the ability of people to visualize their world increased even further. From this point on, the needs of the amateur photographer dictated technical developments. To this end, the industry improved the design, portability and speed of cameras, and created astute advertising campaigns which targeted all levels of society. Much to the horror of photographers dedicated to the fine art of photography, cameras were everywhere. The mass marketing of the medium made it increasingly difficult to champion the photograph as an expression of the creative spirit.

For many, however, the camera could be used to express not the lofty themes of art, but those of a more humble, quotidian nature. As Montgomery stated of amateur photography: "There is nothing beautiful about a weird snapshot of your friends or a slap-dash exposure where the houses come out slanted at an angle that surpasses the leaning tower of Pisa. But a really pretty bit of scenery, nicely furnished and properly mounted, reminiscent of a pleasant summer day's walk or outing is a thing of beauty and a joy forever." Her advice was to frame a view in a picturesque manner to complement the pleasantness of either the subject matter, or the experience associated with it. In this sense, Montgomery did not associate herself with the Pictorial movement in photography which promoted the display of themes of an allegorical or quasi-religious subject matter. 25 Rather, it appears that she understood photography as an art form grounded in experience; it was a means of expression that could focus both aspects of her personal life and, by extension, the subject matter of her literary personae.

Montgomery deliberately engaged in the practice of photography in what could now be seen as a transitional period of the medium's history. The means of making visible the public presentation of self had passed from the studio to amateur photographer. The almost "invisible" incorporation of photography into the daily lives of people was about to begin. The dry plate process, with its need of darkroom development, would soon disappear; the development of both negatives and prints, for the most part, would be under the direction of the commercial industry. The standardization of photographic processes, in terms of both means of expression and final product, were now largely defined by commercial interests.

This fact, however, was secondary to those whose immediate needs were served by photography. The medium was to become integral to the recording, and thus understanding, of the family, acquaintances, and leisure activities. However, the camera has directly associated with it the idea of a fragmented vision of the world. The photograph represents the choices and thus social mores, values and psyche of its user. Through the process of making such imagery, a vision of the world is represented back to its maker. Yet such a reflection is only partial, a fragment of what is felt, comprehended, or known. And as a fragment, there is an allusion to a greater whole, which in the end is an excuse to take more photographs, and engage in photography's endless capacity to present and represent reality.

1. A number of books and articles on women's involvement with the medium have been published such as Naomi Rosenblum, A History of Women Photographers (New York: Abbeville Press, 1994); Liz Heron and Val Williams, eds. Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present (London: Tauris Press, 1996); Jo Spence and Patricia Holland. Family Snaps: The Meaning of Domestic Photography. Trafalgar: Virago Press, 1992; Anne Higonnet, "Secluded Vision: Images of Feminine Experience in Nineteenth-Century Europe," Radical History Review 38 (1987): 16-36; and Jane C. Gover, The Positive Image: Women Photographers in Turn of the Century America (Albany: SUNY, 1988). up

2. Much of photography's history has been formed within art historic models which treat the medium in terms of style and influences. In addition, most study photography through survey texts which align aesthetics with technology as seen in Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present (New York: MoMA, 1982); John Szarkowski, Photography Until Now; and Helmut Gernsheim, in association with Alison Gernsheim, The History of Photography: From the Camera Obscura to the Beginning of the Modern Era (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1969). up

More recent approaches avoid associating photography with art and progressivist ideas of technology. Photography is studied within the context of certain periods, and examined for its effects on society. Examples of the such approaches include works by Mary Warner Marien, Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History 1839-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Marien Stange, Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1989), and Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Industrial Madness: Commercial Photography in Paris 1848-1871 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

3. There was a considerable market for images of "foreign" countries and peoples. Individuals could purchase such views through commercial studios, who in turn bought them from large distribution warehouses.

Photographs of far away lands and peoples were often purchased for amusement purposes as such peoples were considered curiosities to a Victorian middle class. These same images could be used for scientific purposes, especially in the field of anthropology. In many respects, photography was used to confirm the "superiority" of the white race over those of other races. For more on this subject see Elizabeth Edwards, ed., Anthropology and Photography, 1860-1920 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). up

4. Other types of photographic imagery were the daguerreotype and the calotype. The main advantages of the daguerreotype was that it produced a sharp and highly detailed image. The disadvantages were that it was a unique image (it could not be reproduced), and its surface was highly fragile, and thus vulnerable. The calotype was invented by Henry Fox Talbot (patented in 1841), and was the origin of the negative-positive process with which we are familiar today. Talbot invented a negative (the calotype) from which any number of positive images could be pulled. Unfortunately, the calotype process was not as successful as the daguerreotype as the former used paper as the basis for the negative image. This, in turn, was printed on a sensitized paper ground to produce a positive image, the end result being a somewhat fuzzy image. up

5. The staining of clothing and hands was inevitable and women who did practice this process, such as Julia Margaret Cameron, were characterized as being somewhat "eccentric." For more on Cameron, her practice of photography, and issues of gender, see Dave Oliphant, ed. Gendered Territory: Photographs of Women by Julia Margaret Cameron. Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, 1996. up

6. The invention of this process is credited to Dr. Richard Leach Maddox who developed a gelatin silver bromide emulsion in 1871. Initially this emulsion was slower than wet collodion. However, this was soon improved upon with the result that plates were both portable and of high speed. up

7. Helmut Gernsheim, A Concise History of Photography, 3rd rev. ed. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc.): 18. up

8. This type of photography was referred to as "instantaneous photography," also known as "snap shots." The ability of film to capture motion was novel at this point. Prior to this, in order to indicate motion one had to stage the photograph as the emulsion required long exposure times (relatively speaking) to register its subject matter. Thus the period is replete with histrionic photographs of sporting events, such as hunting, curling, skating and tobogganing. up

9. The increased availability of photography to the average person meant that the commercial studio photographer was in less demand. Eventually, as a result of the increase in amateur photography, many of those who operated studios had to give up their business. up

10. The Kodak camera was based on a previous type known as the "detective camera." The detective camera was small, and could thus be concealed, on one's person, in a small case, or even in the handle of a walking stick. Such an apparatus, however, was not beloved by all. One writer, recounting the camera associated with the development of "instantaneous photography," noted that "...the instrument attracted the attention of the practical joker [who]....securing a good picture of a couple walking about with arms about each other's waists in what they fondly thought was a solitary place...these amateur artists have...been known to exhibit such triumphs of their skill...to all and sundry....." In the eyes of this author, what should have remained private had been made manifestly public. (Anon., The British Journal of Photography, September 14, 1888, p. 584.) up

11. "Photography for Ladies," Liverpool Photographic Journal 2:17 (May 12, 1855): 63. up

12. The photographic literature of the time indicates a strict gender division in terms of tasks. Women rarely operated the camera. Retouching and colouring of photographs were two areas of employment, but also ones which came under constant attack. Both, especially retouching, were considered "trickery" in the eyes of many; it compromised the "true" nature of photography to delineate all aspects of the person, including those considered good and bad, in detail. up

13. For more information on "scraps" see Alistair Allen and Joan Hoverstadt, The History of Printed Scraps (London: New Cavendish Books, 1983). As the authors of this book note, there was a wide variety of printed material which could be cut out and pasted into albums. With the perfection of die-cutting techniques, colour illustrations of children, dogs, birds, flowers, butterflies, etc. could be purchased as embellishments for boxes, bottles and furniture. Another source of imagery was advertising ephemera that first became available in the early 1870s. For more information on this phenomenon, see Deborah A. Smith, "Consuming Passions: Scrapbooks and American Play," Ephemera Journal 6: 63-76. It should also be noted that the photographic industry provided individuals with images of diverse subject matter such as landscape scenes, crests, monograms, reproductions of paintings and photographs of drawings from opera scenes. As with other types of scraps, the idea was to cut out and paste these images into albums, often incorporating them with photographs of family members. up

14. For more on the relation of women to the period's fashion industry see Anne Higonnet, "Secluded Vision: Images of Feminine Experience in Nineteenth-Century Europe," Radical History Review 39 [1987]: 16-36. up

15. Such as W.I. Lincoln Adams, Amateur Photography. A Practical Guide for the Beginner (New York: Barker & Taylor, 1893); C.H. Claudy, The First Book of Photography (New York: McBride, Nast & Co., 1912); The Library of Amateur Photography, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: The Camera Publishing Co., 1915) to name only a few. up

16. It appears that there were few camera clubs in existence in the Maritimes at the turn of the century. Other main centres of amateur activity were Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton and Peterborough. [Lilly Koltun, "The Rise of Photography, 1900-1914," in Private Realms of Light: Amateur Photography in Canada from 1839 to 1940, Lilly Koltun, ed. (Ottawa: Public Archives of Canada, 1985): 46.] up

17. Theresa Rowat, "Photography in Prince Edward Island 1839-1870," Photographic Canadiana 13:1 (May-June 1987): 2-7. This article originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 1983 issue of The Island magazine. up

18. Ibid., p. 2. up

19. Ibid., p. 3. up

20. Ibid., p. 4. up

21. Ibid. The magic lantern was similar to a modern slide projector, except that a gas light was used as there was no electricity. Lantern slide shows were extremely popular. Subject matter ranged from that exclusively meant to entertain, to religious sermons and moral lessons. Often held in a darkened theatre, a narrator would stand on stage and recount the tale associated with the slides. In many cases, music would also be provided, to heighten the effect of the narrator's story. up

22. Anon. "How to Make Photographs by the Gelatine Dry-Plate Process," in Ladies Manual of Art, (Philadelphia and Chicago: American Mutual Library Assoc., 1887): 65-69, reprinted in Camera Fiends and Kodak Girls: 50 Selections By and About Women in Photography, 1840-1930, Peter Palmquist, ed. (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1989): 51-55. up

23. Anon. "Parsell's Portable Photographic Camera" reprinted from the Scientific American (May 9, 1885) in Photographic Canadiana 7:6 (Mar./Apr. 1982): 9.

When considering the practice of photography, class issues, as well as those of gender, must also be considered. Photography still required leisure time to practice, and disposable income to purchase supplies. Therefore, few, if any, members of the lower classes would possess a camera at this point. Trips to the studio would also be far fewer in number as compared to those undertaken by the middle class. up

24. It is interesting to note that the very conditions which prompted the need to take photographs also contributed to their increased accessibility. For example, the nineteenth century experienced a mass dislocation of peoples as a result of the industrial revolution. Individuals seeking work in factories migrated from rural towns and villages to cities. Families were broken up as a result. However, photography allowed family members to keep up to date on one another's affairs through the exchange of photographs. In addition, the industrial revolution allowed for the standardization of photographic supplies. This in turn resulted in lower costs, which allowed people to have their photograph taken even more often. up

25. Pictorialism was a turn of the century movement that promoted fine art photography. Many pictorialists experimented with a variety of photographic methods. Emulsions were spread onto different types of papers with a brush or roller with result that the final print resembled a print or charcoal drawing. Through the application of such techniques, it was believed that photography was capable of expressing the more lofty themes of art, although dissenters argued that such approaches only ran counter to the medium's defining qualities being the production of a sharp, detailed image. up

Photography and Travel
Early Photography | L.M. Montgomery as a Photographer | L.M. Montgomery's Article on Photography | International Kodak Competition | Kunard's Article
Story of L.M. Montgomery's Travels | Sample Images of Her Travels: Out West : Boston : Wedding and Honeymoon

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