19th Century women photographers

When I was 1st thinking about the idea to do an impression as a photographer I held a commonly shared idea that there was a limited few women during the 19th century who were photographers and that most learned from their husband, brother or even father.  As I started developing my skills and researching the impression, I looked at my own family history to build from as well noting that a great number of early photographers within the states, learned in New York. As my grand parents on my fathers side being native New Yorker’s, and my Great, Great Grand Father on my mothers side, being the infamous New York Senator, who shot and killed Philip Barton Key II, and successfully plead temporary insanity.. Some of you may have heard about Major General Sickles – Thus my story developed of learning the trade from my late husband, and eventually taking over the gallery in New York.





Perfect idea for an impression, right?






This brings us to question from teachers and the general public at civil war reenactments “where there many women photographers during the Civil War?”  After all it seems everyone has heard about famous civil war photographers like Mathew Brady, and or even perhaps Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan but these are only 3 people amongst the thousands people flocking to this new in vogue art utilizing common knowledge science to create perfect renditions, by drawing with light.  By the time the American Civil War official broke out in 1861 we have to remember that the idea of Photography was just 21 years old, with introduction of wet collodion photography having been just 9 years before hand.  I can often be heard exclaiming at civil war reenactments that we aspire to using the newest photographic processes and the latest in apparatus to capture the finest details – think about it, this was truly amazing,  within a very short time, you could have your likeness captured and reproduced on a card then send it to your relatives. It’s difficult to compare to anything in today’s world. We are so inundated with technology that we take for granted, such as smart phones and computers. But if you think back just a very short time, there were hundreds lining up to buy the latest Iphone..  So think about it this way, you can almost compare the common place of a photo during the civil war as how common it is for people today to have a cell phone.


What is photography? How do you classify it? Is it science, or is it art, the very word photography implies Art. Even today it seems there’s still confusion at times. The world at large didn’t know how to classify this new thing.. But everyone wanted it,  leading to thousands of men and women alike learning about and setting up studios and galleries with the idea being consider more of a hobby rather than a business that needed to be registered. But amazingly people like E. & H. T Antony helped create an industry that employed any number of women, who did everything from colorizing photos, making prints to making the small wooden boxes to carry one’s Daguerreotype photo in, they were even photographers themselves.


This made it very easy for any number of women to become photographers, starting smaller galleries and studios within their residence, after unless you happened to be making and sell camera’s cabinet cards of famous sites and locations you, you were not running a real business.


Looking at people like Julia Margaret Cameron – she was given a camera as a present in 1864, as a novelty item, she using the wet collodion process started take photo’s with the aim to recorded “the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.”   To do this she did things like using soft focus, black backgrounds or using lighting that broke the standards of reproducing a scientific copy of what seen.. Thanks to her, we have amazing striking photos of people like Sir Henry Taylor, and Charles Darwin.


I believe it’s safe to say, that women played a significant role in helping define photography more as an art, than a novel way to record images..


For now, I’ve just hinted about women photographers, mentioning only one woman in England, but what about women in the United States?


There are hundreds, and yes someone learned from their husbands, while others learned to do daguerreotypes in the 1840’s via studios in New York – then opened their own studios some becoming itinerant photographers, while others moved, though out the country. It’s difficult to say how many women photographers there where, as they were not registered as businesses. –


As I write more for this posting, we’ll explore some of those women.



reference links:

19th Century San Francisco 

MPR News



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