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AutochromesIf the study of the contribution of women to the history of photography is a fairly recent phenomenon, then the study of the role of woman to the history of color photography can safely be said to be non-existent. However, this state of affairs is not a sign of neglect to women in particular, but rather to the general neglect that is given to the history of color photography.
Helen Messinger Murdoch (1862-1956)
The case can easily be made that the most important contribution made by a woman to the artistic and documentary acceptance and popularity of the autochrome was the American, Helen Messinger Murdoch. A Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in England, Murdoch was asked to deliver a lecture about her work with autochromes in 1913. Murdoch‘s autochromes taken in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), comprised the very first full-fledged color series to have appeared in the National Geographic Magazine made by a woman photographer. No less important was the context of how those autochromes came into being. The photo-historian and curator Pam Roberts has written elsewhere on this website of how 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." Despite those and numerous other accomplishments, Murdoch‘s contribution was completely ignored not only in both editions of Naomi Rosenblum‘s History of Woman Photographers (1994 and 2000), but incredibly enough, in Cathy Newman‘s book Woman Photographers At National Geographic (2000). Indeed, if this were not enough, John Wood reminds us: "Though some of her work was exhibited at the Library of Congress‘s 1981 autochrome exhibition, it was credited to ‘Photographer unknown‘". (Art of the Autochrome, 1993).
Olive Edis (1876-1955)
History has been somewhat kinder to another Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. (Mary) Olive Edis. A professional portrait photographer since the early 1900‘s, Edis formed a partnership with her sister Katharine in 1903. She specialized in photographing fisherman and local celebrities in the fishing village of Sheringham. Eventually that partnership was dissolved when Katharine married. Edis herself married Edwin Galsworthy, a cousin of the novelist John Galsworthy and though the Sheringham studio remained, new ones were opened in London. Edis took up autochromes in 1912 first photographing flowers and then people. By 1914, Edis was elected a Fellow of the RPS. Her autochrome portraits of many of England‘s leading figures were eventually willed to the National Portrait Gallery along with a sample of one of the autochrome viewers - called diascopes, which Edis had personally designed for her clients.
Marjory T. Hardcastle (1876-1959)
Little is known of the talented amateur Miss Marjory T. Hardcastle. Born in England in 1876, Hardcastle was most active between the years 1910 and 1915. She was known to have exhibited photographs at the Fifty-Fifth Annual Exhibition of the Royal Photographic Society (1910), the Fifty-Sixth Annual Exhibition of the Royal Photographic Society (1911), and Sixtieth Annual Exhibition of the Royal Photographic Society (1915), the last being under the curatorial directorship of Alvin Langdon Coburn. Hardcastle‘s autochromes were apparently disbursed sometime after her death in 1959.
Marguerite Mespoulet and Madeleine Mignon
In 1913, the two French photographers Marguerite Mespoulet and Madeleine Mignon set out for the heart of rural Ireland. The banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn (1860-1940) sent them on this mission for the purpose of creating an illustrated report about that land and its people. In the belief that a world where all men would live in peace assuming knowledge of the habits and customs of other men was possible, Kahn created the Archives of the Planet (1910-1931). It would be the depository, the memory of fifty countries, which once existed but exist no longer. The Archive consists of 72,000 autochromes of which only 73 were photographed by Mespoulet and Mignon. Nevertheless, the legacy of those 73 images remains some of the most beautiful and significant autochromes in the entire archive.
Jane Reece (1868-1961)
Though Reece primarily worked in black and white, a group of 55 autochromes were discovered within her collection of the 9,000 negatives which were deposited with the Wright State University library archives. According to Dominique H. Vasseur, the senior curator of Dayton Art Institute and author of Reece catalogue The Soul Unbound (1997), "...nearly half of Reece‘s autochromes are studies of unidentified friends and sitters - and indeed one appears as a family portrait - it is apparent that she generally did not consider them a part of her regular commercial work as they would have been difficult for most families to display. Her autochromes show an unusual interest in pattern and color.... In addition to the 26 portraits are 14 autochrome still lifes which range from traditional compositions of flowers and fruit to more abstracted pictures of empty ceramic bowls....Curiously though, Reece never mentioned the autochromes to anyone...." (p.41)
Agnes Beatrice Warburg (1872-1953)
Agnes Warburg, along with her brother J. C. Warburg, did much to establish the legitimacy of color photography not only in Great Britain but throughout the English speaking world. She set up the Royal Photographic Society Colour Group in 1927 with the splendidly named Violet Blaiklock and was active with the The British Journal of Photography monthly Colour Supplement (1907-1934) that was published by Henry Greenwood in London. The collection of the RPS contains the photographic legacy of both Warburgs.
G.A. Barton (1872-1938)
G.A. Barton is yet another under appreciated English autochromist. At her artistic height, Barton was perhaps the most published female photographer of her day. Mrs. G. A. Barton, or Emma, first rose to international acclaim in around 1903. Writing in the Penrose Pictorial Annual of 1911 the critic Charles E. Dawson said her work was ranked alongside "the best works of Kasbier, Duhroop, Baron de Mayer, Steichen, Demachy, Puyo, and the other photographic giants..." According to Tessa Sidey, one of the contributors to Sunlight and Shadow: The Photographs of Emma Barton 1872-1938, Barton took up autochromes by 1911 and produced a series of portraits "taken in a picturesque landscape, and so align herself with another contemporary Olive Edis, as one of the first women to take up autochromes." (p.70) Barton‘s brief flirtation with the autochrome resulted in her re-working her favourite themes, locations, and subjects of her earlier work including Breton maids, Whistlerian portraits, and Pre-Raphaelite studies including her famous image entitled "The Soul of the Rose". As Peter James noted that Barton‘s re-working of her earlier imagery, "re-affirmed her faith in the traditional values of Pictorial photography." (p.31)
Etheldreda Janet Laing (1872-1960)
Etheldreda Janet Laing was born in Ely, near Cambridge in England, where her father was headteacher of the 1000 year old King‘s School. According to the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television (U.K.), which houses a small collection of her autochromes, Laing studied art in Cambridge and became enthralled with photography. Laing decided to try color photography with the autochrome when it first became commercially available in 1907. Her autochrome portraits are primarily of her children taken in the garden of the family home, "Bury Knowle" in 1908. Another group of her plates from 1910 was much less successful both in terms of technique and their aesthetic appeal.
Sarah Angelina Acland (1849-1930)
Some of the earlier photographic work of Sarah Angelina Acland is housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford but there is a further collection of almost 200 of her autochromes and other early color work at Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. Although almost totally unknown she experimented with a wide variety of techniques including platinum, lantern slides and early color including like Sanger-Shepherd process in 1900.
Alice Burr (1883-1963)
Though best known for her black-and-white images, the American Alice Burr also worked with autochromes.
Clara Estelle Sipprell (1885-1975)
Clara Estelle Sipprell was a professional photographer who operated studios in both Buffalo and New York City. Among her portrait sitters were Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost and Alfred Stieglitz. By nature a free spirit, Sipprell, much like Helen Murdoch, was known, as one who lived life to it‘s fullest. Sipprell was drawn to the pictorial movement in photography. As she herself recalled, "I had made many photographs but took light for granted. One day I was passing through our studio room as I had many, many times to get to the reception room. I looked over to where a big chair was by the window and something happened. I saw it. I mean I had an ache of realization and then began my consciousness of light, like music, more and more my world was interpreted in terms of light, natural light." She worked in platinum, bromoil, gum, and carbon prints as well as with autochromes.
This list is by no means inclusive. Indeed, the vast majority of surviving autochromes remain unidentified as to the photographer. It is quite likely that many of those images were the artistic endeavors of women autochromists. In addition, many autochromes are waiting to be discovered, buried in attics and basements both in the US and in Europe. Nor does this list include those women such as the photographer Laura Gilpin who briefly experimented with the process and produced Pictorialist looking still life‘s but quickly abandoned the process preferring the qualities of black-and-white photography.
This short essay has not attempted to address the question of whether there was a "feminine" way of approaching color, or, if you will, a "feminine" aesthetic, which can be said to have developed among women autochromists. No valid conclusions can be drawn from such a tiny sample. Except in the cases of Murdoch and Edis, the quantity of surviving plates will not permit any pertinent or supportable conclusions. The best one can say in that regard is that both Murdoch and Edis developed a personal aesthetic, their own style, which enables those familiar with their body of work to claim attribution of authorship with some degree of accuracy. That in of itself is no small accomplishment. Also, James Rhem reminds us that the late photo-historian Peter Palmquist demonstrated how extensive women‘s involvement with photography in America was in the nineteenth century. The abundance of women doing autochromes underscores that there were adventurous and creative women ready to try and achieve impressive results in this new photographic medium, color. In a 1914 article addressing career choices for women, while at her own height as an autochromist, what Olive Edis wrote concerning a career as a studio owner applies equally as well to those women would made use of the autochrome, "If time and space permitted, a personal tribute to the delights of running a studio would include a kaleidoscopic reminiscence of the most varied and interesting experience which would convince the would-be photographer that, at any rate, it is a life worth living, with no monotony about it, and constantly bringing the worker in touch in a very pleasant way with humanity."
© Mark Jacobs - 2006
[With thanks to Pam Roberts for additional information.]