Thora Hallager

Early Women Photographers: Part I (The Pioneers)

I shared a few early women photographers on Twitter a few days ago, and thought I’d go into a bit more depth here, as a follow on from my posts on Early Women Writers of Fairy Tales and Women Illustrators from the Golden Age of Fairy Tales. Many early women photographers used the fairy tale in their work: limited by social expectations, they stayed close to home and photographed their own friends and family in fashionably allegorical and fantastical scenes. But as you can see here, the very early women pioneers, those working in the 1800s before photography was a respectable hobby, were doing anything but chasing fairies…

Constance Fox Talbot was the wife of the much heralded inventor of photography William Henry Fox Talbot. She is thought to be the first woman to have made a photograph, but doesn’t get much credit for it. At least she is held up for her enthusiasm. Here’s what Maev Kennedy had to say in the Guardian:

There is also a rather dull image of four hazy lines of verse by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, a family friend. It was made by shining sunlight through the original manuscript, on to a piece of treated paper. Ovenden believes it was made by Fox Talbot’s wife, Constance, the first photograph by a woman.

“The archive shows that she was caught up in the excitement of the discovery as early as 1839, and was virtually elbowing him away from the developing table, making her own experiments,” he said.


Anna Atkins
and her husband were friends with the Talbots, and she soon began experimenting with photography too. She is also credited by some sources to have made the first photography by a woman. Neither Constance or Anna used a camera for their ‘first’ images, so the title is contentious. Anna is best know for her cyanotypes of botanical samples, which she began creating not long after family friend John Hershal invented the process in 1942. She published a book of her work a year later, the first photographically illustrated publication. Anna dedicated her life to the study of biology and its representation with the cyanotype process, and has left us with a beautiful and scientifically important legacy.

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Geneviève Élisabeth Disdéri was an early French photographer. She also began experimenting with photography in 1842 after her marriage to fellow photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri. They ran a studio together in Brest, France until he left for Paris in 1852. She ran the studio alone, until moving to Paris and setting up her own atelier there in 1872. She worked as a portrait photographer for many years, but is best know for her architectural views of Brest.

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Thora Hallager brings us back momentarily to Fairy Tales. She was a working portrait photographer, and landlady to Hans Christian Anderson. They wrote often, and she produced a portrait of him in 1869. You can read their letters if your Danish is good, or run them through Google translate, as I have done below. In that letter, he states (as far as I can tell from a clunky translation) how pleased he is with his portrait. It seems that Thora was a professional photographer her whole life, and never married.

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Sofia Carolina Ahlbom  is described on Wikipedia as “a Swedish drawing artist, engraver, lithographer, photographer, map maker, writer, poet and feminist.” I like her already. She supported her family as a professional artist after moving to Stockholm in 1832, and never married. She was also an active writer, and engaged in politics, particularly regarding women’s rights. Ok, now I would very much like to have her to dinner. I couldn’t find any of her photographs, but I couldn’t not include her.

Julia Margaret Cameron was probably one of the most famous of early women photographers. She started working with photographer late in her life, and photographed almost solely her friends and family, often in allegorical and legendary scenes. She also worked her neighbour, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, to produce a photographically illustrated book of his poems. Her works were often derided as being limp and fanciful by her (male) contemporaries, but her legacy is a strong one. Her images may often be soft, but the there is no denying the life and power within them.

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Julia heralded a new wave of women photographers: women who viewed photography as a means for creative expression. Mostly, these early photographers were of the upper classes, and to keep their respectability stuck subjects close to home. They photographed their children and friends, usually in the garden and grounds of their family home. Photography was suddenly a respectable hobby, which meant a flourishing of images that represented allegory, fantasy and fairy tale.

I will explore the creative lives of Victorian Female Photographers in Part II of this series, next time…

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