Photography is easily one of the most significant technological inventions in modern times and yet, there still exists a general impression that it is, and has always been, primarily a male-oriented profession. Women have been involved with the medium since its invention in 1839 and by the mid-1840s, several women were already well-established as professional commercial photographers in Boston, New York, and St. Louis. In 1850, according to Humphrey's Daguerreian Journal, a total of seventy-one daguerreotype studios were listed in New York, "including 127 operators, also 11 ladies and 46 boys." Their fees, estimated by the editor of the journal, stated that men were paid $10 per week, women $5, and boys $1.
Elizabeth W. Withington
By 1920, the year women received the vote, the United States census recorded the surprising fact that approximately 20 percent of America's photographic work force was female. It's quite remarkable that women who were looking for a profession were afforded the opportunity to become financially independent by working as photographers and yet, so many remain unknown. Meet one nineteenth-century photographer: Elizabeth W. Withington, from the East and worked in the West.
Elizabeth W. Kirby was born in New York City on March 17, 1825. Nothing is known of her life before the age of 20, when she married farmer and shingle maker George V. Withington of Monroe, Michigan. Withington joined the Gold Rush and moved to California in 1849. In 1852, Eliza traveled from St. Joseph, Missouri with her daughter to join him at a ranch that he was operating in Amador County, California. Looking for ways to supplement the meager family income, Mrs. Withington noticed that the farming and mining areas were also fertile photography ground.
In 1856, Elizabeth journeyed back to the East Coast for the express purpose of learning photography. She traveled throughout the Atlantic states after completing her studies and visited the galleries of the leading photographers of the day, including Matthew Brady's in New York City. Early the following year, she opened her Excelsior Ambrotype Gallery in Ione City, California. Inspiration was all around her: abundant stagecoach lines, railway stations, mills, breweries, restaurants, miners and farmers.
Back in those days, a female photographer was a novelty and curious locals were soon lining up to have their pictures “taken by a Lady!” Specializing in the wet collodion plate process, Withington captured stunning stereoscopic views of Silver Lake, California and its surrounding areas. She also indulged her artistic inclinations by teaching 'Oriental Pearl Painting' to the ladies, a popular parlor activity during the nineteenth century.
Elizabeth W. Withington
By 1871, Elizabeth and her husband were living separately and with her two daughters now grown, she could focus solely upon stereographic photography. Her mastery of wet collodion platemaking is evident in her mining town stereographs. In 1875, she became a member of the Photographic Art Society of the Pacific, and the following year, she wrote a fascinating account of her process in the article, "How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs" which was featured in the Philadelphia Photographer. She described the arduous and highly technical tasks of preparing at least 50 albumenized 5 x 8 inch plates, making sure to place blotting paper between each to preserve them during transport. Her supplies included chemicals, a negative box, iron and wooden fixing and developing trays, and a Newell bathtub, all of which had to be moved gingerly over rigorous terrain by stagecoach. Elizabeth preferred Morrison lenses for landscapes and a Philadelphia box camera she lovingly referred to as “the pet.” Among her ingenious inventions was a "dark, thick dress skirt" often used as a makeshift developing tent and a black linen, cane-headed parasol (more for practicality than fashion) to protect her views from sun and wind and to assist in the unladylike activities of "climbing mountains and sliding into ravines."
Her article is considered one of the finest descriptions of landscape photography in the pioneer West. Shortly after it was published, Elizabeth succumbed to cancer, apparently suffering from the disease for several years. Withington died on March 4, 1877 in her adopted hometown of Ione City, just shy of her 52nd birthday. She left behind an impressive body of work that immortalizes the pioneering spirit of the Old West. Her photographs can be found in the collections of the Amador County Museum in Jackson, California; the Women in Photography International Archive in Arcata, California; the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York; and the Princeton University Art Museum at McCormick Hall in Princeton, New Jersey.
Elizabeth W. Withington
Clio: Elizabeth W. Withington, Peter Palmquist, https://www.cliohistory.org/exhibits/palmquist/withington, retrieved 12/22/2020
Elizabeth W. Withington at Historic Camera, http://historiccamera.com/cgi-bin/librarium2/pm.cgi?action=app_display&app=datasheet&app_id=2758, retrieved 12/22/2020
Women Artists of the American West, Susan R. Ressler, ed., McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina and London, 2003, pp 203-204