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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Helen Messinger Murdoch

Dates:  1862 - 1956
Born:  US, MA, Boston
Active:  Global
Boston photographer, autochromist, aviator and artist - currently being researched by Pam Roberts (Bath, UK) who supplied the following biographical information and is interested in any further details.
HELEN MESSINGER MURDOCH (1862-1956). Boston photographer, autochromist, aviator and artist.
The youngest of five daughters, Helen Messinger Murdoch initially trained as an artist but then took up monochrome photography in the late 1890s after borrowing a camera from one of her older sisters. She was a very competent portrait photographer but in 1907, the advent of the Lumière Bros colour autochrome plate, the first widely available amateur colour process, opened up new horizons for her. Despite the difficulties of obtaining the colour plates from Lyon in France, which usually necessitated a personal visit to the factory, Murdoch used the autochrome process in her travels over the next few years.
When visiting London, Murdoch rented studio and gallery space to show her work in a variety of London venues including the Wigmore Street Gallery and the Halcyon Women‘s Club at 14/15 Cork Street. Here she lectured and exhibited her autochrome plates of travel around the British and French countryside as well as recent portrait work.
She became a member of the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) in London in 1911 and a Fellow in 1912 (an unusually rapid elevation), showing her work in their annual Colour Exhibitions. She exhibited also with the Society of Colour Photographers (formed in 1907) along with John Cimon and Agnes Beatrice Warburg, Violet Blaiklock and other RPS early colour devotees.
In April 1913, Murdoch left Boston for another exhibition and lectures in London but also took the chance, as she usually did, to travel around the UK and Europe. She and a companion doggedly walked around the Cornish coastal path, lugging a selection of cameras and the heavy glass autochrome plates up and down the rugged cliff path around Land‘s End.
As well as her photographic record, Murdoch also kept a frequent diary, wrote a constant supply of letters back to her sisters in Boston, and sketched and painted whenever possible. She wrote pithily, with humour and with clarity of detail that brings scenes vividly to life.
During this London trip and, seemingly needing little encouragement from friends, the 51 year old Murdoch decided to embark on a round the world tour, notably the first woman photographer to make such a journey, photographing on both autochrome plates and black and white negatives. Her round the world travels took her first to Lyon to buy autochrome plates, then down to Marseilles from where she sailed to Alexandria in Egypt. Her subsequent stops en route were in Cairo, Luxor, Palestine, India, Burma, Ceylon, Hong Kong, China, Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, Honolulu, San Francisco, San Diego and then back overland to Boston via Chicago arriving home in 1915.
Her observations, both in her diary, her letters home and the notes from the lectures she made along the way, make fascinating reading, giving a vivid picture of the experiences of a lone Western woman traveler in early 20th Middle East and Asia. But there is also great photographic detail, both artistic and technical, given the exigencies of getting successful results from the, often temperamental, autochrome process under the baking heat of an Indian sun and finding water to wash the plates in countries where water was scarce. She discusses exposure problems in a variety of climates as well as the difficulty with the supply of the plates themselves. She fulminates against the customs‘ duties she repeatedly has to pay on all her equipment and chemicals at a variety of foreign borders.
Murdoch was a great socialiser and constantly mentions tea with Lady Somebody, dinner with the charming Mr and Mrs Somebody Else, who, in turn, all introduce her to someone equally helpful at her next port of call. Wherever she goes around the world, someone can always be persuaded to adapt a small room or bathroom into a darkroom for her or drive her miles out of their way to take her to that sunset, that volcano, that monument that she simply MUST photograph. There are also amusing and often touching personal anecdotes about the handsome young Dragoman she meets in Egypt; the patient, willing and much put-upon boy she engages in India; the tailor in Hong Kong who disinfects and dyes a piece of stripy but subsequently mould-spotted material she has bought in Ceylon and turns it into a smart navy blue dress with a frilly collar and cuffs.
In short, Murdoch seemed to travel the world, charming and befriending everyone she met and making it seem easy. She was one of life‘s great optimists and enthusiasts, carrying all and everyone before her. Despite some private income, she counts her dollars and cents, drachmae, yen and rupees, always adamant about value for money. The beauties of the vistas hugely moved her and she risks life and limb for that perfect autochrome, hanging over the edge of an erupting volcano in Hawaii, someone grabbing her heels, or trudging through the desert and the mountains for days to get the photographs she wants.
On her return to Boston in 1915, WWI having put an end to her immediate long-distance globetrotting but far from retiring into complacent old age, Murdoch took flying lessons beginning a second career as a photographer and collector of all things concerning aviation. She also still practised portrait photography as well as a lifelong photographic record of flowers, in both b/w and on autochrome plates. Murdoch was made an Honorary Fellow of the RPS in 1934.
My interest in Murdoch began when I worked at the RPS from 1982-2001, for the last 13 years as the Curator of the RPS Collection, and fell totally in love with autochromes. There were several thousand autochromes in the Society‘s Collection, amongst them, a few glorious examples by Murdoch which intrigued and amazed me with their beauty. I was unable to discover much about Murdoch until I found an unanswered and filed-away letter from her great niece, sent to the RPS some years before I began working there, offering more Murdoch material.
I wrote to the address in Massachusetts, expecting silence, and was amazed to get a response almost by return of post. After some further fascinating correspondence, I was able to acquire several hundred more Murdoch autochromes for the RPS Collection from her great niece who had been storing them in her attic for 40 years, plus photocopies of letters, diaries etc. all of which related to those few brief years of the round the world travel material. She even still had Murdoch‘s lantern-slide projector as used in her lectures.
I was interested then, and am still interested now, in writing a book on Murdoch and frequently use her work in lectures where it always gets a lively response. However, whilst I have information on this world-traveling and London 5 year period of her life, what has so far eluded me is finding evidence of the rest of her very long life and career, or locating the aviation and flower photographs which I believe are still somewhere in the Boston area. Past letters to the Boston Horticultural Society have failed to elicit any response and local friends‘ attempts to track down her work on my behalf have also been unsuccessful. Thanks to a recent Peter Palmquist Award, I aim to try and find these missing two collections of Murdoch‘s work for myself and to piece together more of her life there through local sources.
© Pam Roberts, Bath, UK, 08 December, 2005

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