+ women in photography 1840-1900
An examination of census reports of the 19th century reveals fascinating, and surprising, information regarding the numbers of female photographers operating professionally in the medium. Equally interesting is a comparison between the British and American figures, even though there is a slight discrepancy in the dates of the reports.
First, the numbers of male and female photographers in Britain, decade by decade:
- 1851: 50 males and 1 female
- 1861: 2789 males and 168 females
- 1871: 4021 males and 694 females
- 1881: 5352 males and 1309 females
- 1891: 8102 males and 2469 females
- 1901: 11,148 males and 3851 females
- 1911: 11,899 males and 5016 females
Several comments and observations on these figures will place them in perspective.
The census reports clearly reveal the depressed state of photography in Britain during the first decade of the medium. By 1851 there were only 51 photographers in the country (50 men; 1 woman - a Miss Wigley who operated a studio at 108 Fleet Street, London). By contrast there were nearly 700 photographers in America.
The reason for this low figure in England is not difficult to discover.
All photographic processes were subject to rigorously controlled patent restrictions. In spite of the fact that the French government had given the daguerreotype process “free to all the world”, Daguerre had previously crossed the Channel and patented his process in England - the only country in the world so restricted.
It is true that would-be professionals could purchase a license to practice the daguerreotype process but few could raise the money. A license cost around ₤200, which might not seem very much today but in the 1840s it represented the total annual wages of the average semi-skilled worker for 6 years.
Photographers fared no better with Fox Talbot’s calotype process. His patent restrictions were ruthlessly upheld and woe betide any photographer who dared practice photography without paying the fee. Talbot and his solicitors intimidated photographers, brought court actions and closed down studios with alacrity at the first whiff of infringement. It is not usually appreciated that even amateurs were required to pay Talbot a license fee, and obey all his dictates.
Eventually pressure from colleagues caused Talbot to relent - a little. In 1852 he relinquished control of his process, except for the taking of portraits for profit. Of course, this was precisely the use most demanded by professional photographers, so little changed. Talbot patented the albumen-on-glass process in England, even though it had been invented in France. He also claimed that the collodion process, which F. Scott Archer had generously published in 1851 without restrictions, infringed his calotype patent.
After closing down several photographers and threatening many more, Talbot’s unjust and absurd monopoly of photography was contested in court by a French-Canadian, Silvester Laroche, who operated a studio in London. In an historically celebrated trial, Laroche won the right to practice the collodion process without interference from Talbot.
But the decision had far greater repercussions than one man’s business. Through Laroche’s courageous stand, the collodion process was now free to anyone, and England, for the first time, was on equal footing with the rest of the world. The date was 20 December 1854.
Photography instantly boomed. The rapid rise in the number of professionals is reflected in the figures. During the same decade, 1851-1861, the number of American photographers increased by a factor of 3.8, whereas the number of British photographers increased by a factor of 56.0. The increase was so dramatic that within a 6 year period the total number of photographers in England (2,957) surpassed the number in America (2,623).
Equally surprising is that women were becoming professional photographers at a faster rate than men. In 1851 there was one woman (literally) to 50 men; in 1861 the proportion had dropped to one woman for every 17 men. This is an extraordinary statistic not only because it reveals that women were “waiting in the wings” to enter the profession but also that the messy, inconvenient wetplate process was not a deterrent to women photographers, as is commonly believed.
This trend continued throughout the 19th century. Females entered the profession of photography in comparatively greater numbers than males decade by decade. By 1871 there was one woman for every 6 men, by 1881 there was one woman for every 4 men; by 1891 there was one woman for every 3.3 men.
[…] By 1901 for every 2.9 male photographers there was one female photographer. This is an extraordinary and little-known fact, which might, and should, alter our perception of the typical Victorian photographer.
It is particularly surprising in light of the well-documented social inferiority of women during the Victorian age. There is a temptation to assume that these women were not photographers per se, but engaged in ancillary studio activities, such as preparing plates, printing, handcoloring, assembling frames, receptionists, and so on. But the assumption would be false, for two reasons:
- 1) women in these other activities, other than operating a camera, would be included in separate census figures and not under the category of “photographers” and
- 2) a careful reading of the 19th century literature reveals that female photographers commonly owned their own studios or were employed as operators by large studios.
It remains to be answered why, in light of these facts, so few names of 19th century women photographers are known and why this phenomenon is never discussed in the history textbooks.
Bill Jay - WOMEN IN PHOTOGRAPHY: 1840 - 1900 / published in The British Journal of Photography, 20 March 1982.