Four British Foremothers of Photography

Posted by Penny in Articles

The Flickr Commons project lets us see the 19th-century beginnings of photography represented in a very 21st-century space. And among those early treasures, we have reminders that women were there at the very beginning, some of the first to embrace photography as an art and as a tool. Consider these four founding mothers:

Anna Atkins (1799-1871) is represented in the Commons by her Photographs of British Algae, found as a set in the New York Public Library’s Flickr stream. Atkins studied science as her father’s assistant and made illustrations of shells for his 1823 translation of Lamarck’s book on the subject. She collected botanical samples, and through both her father and her husband came to know William Fox Talbot, inventor of the negative/positive process. By about 1841 she had access to a camera, but she’s best known for her 1843-45 cyanotypes (sunprints) of algae specimens. She collaborated with another woman, Anne Dixon (1799-1864), on other albums of botanical cyanotypes. Fucus nodosus
Fucus nodosus (1843-53), New York Public Library
Mary Dillwyn (1816-1906) was also acquainted with William Fox Talbot through family networks: her older brother John Dillwyn Llewelyn (himself a photographer) married Talbot’s cousin Emma. Mary was using a small camera in the early 1850s, and made a specialty of rather informal portraits for the time. After she married a clergyman in 1857, she gave up photography. Her work is to be found in the LIGC-NLW (National Library of Wales) Flickr stream, including this self-portrait from 1853. Mary Dillwyn M.D. 1853
Mary Dillwyn M.D. 1853 [self-portrait], LIGC-NLW (National Library of Wales)

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), who was raised in India, only started taking pictures at age 48, in 1863, when someone gave her a camera as a gift. Through her sister, she knew Tennyson and other writers and artists, and drew from their work in her subjects and poses. Cameron was also forward-thinking enough to get each of her images registered with the copyright office. She continued to make photographs when she moved back to Ceylon in 1875, but it was hard to get the necessary supplies there. The George Eastman House and the National Media Museum Flickr streams both include examples of Cameron’s work.

Ophelia Study No. 2
Ophelia Study No. 2, 1867, George Eastman House
Baby Pictet
Baby “Pictet”, 1863, National Media Museum
Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake (1809-1893) wasn’t herself a photographer. She was an art critic who wrote one of the first and most influential essays about photography as an art form, in 1857, declaring that “[p]hotography is intended to supercede much that art has hitherto done, but only that which it was both a misappropriation and a deterioration of Art to do.” She was married to Sir Charles Eastlake, the first president of the Royal Photographic Society. A Hill and Adamson portrait of Lady Eastlake (an early subject of photography as well as an early supporter) c. 1845 can be found in the Flickr stream of the National Galleries of Scotland. Lady Elizabeth (Rigby) Eastlake, 1809 - 1893. Writer
Hill and Adamson, Lady Elizabeth (Rigby) Eastlake, 1809-1893. Writer, c. 1845, National Galleries of Scotland

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One Response to “Four British Foremothers of Photography”

  1. History Carnival No 81 - Philobiblon Says:

    [...] Indiecommons, you can meet four of the foremothers of photography – I doubt that you have ever seen such beautiful pictures of algae. No, [...]

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