Women behind the camera

As a belated tribute to International Women’s Day, let’s look at women photographers. Specifically, women photographers who were working Australia in 1900.

By 1900, it was relatively easy to take good photographs – compared to how it was in say, 1860. This was mainly due to Kodak, which had produced celluloid film and small portable cameras to replace the heavy glass plates and large apparatus. They also produced the Kodak Girl to appeal to an untapped market –  women. This led to some great advertising posters.


But let’s focus on Australia. Were women earning a living by taking photographs in Australia in 1900, the way Beatrix Spence does in Taken At Night?

Well, close enough. Here are some examples:

Emily Florence Kate O’Shaugnessy  was one half of the photographic firm of Johnstone, O’Shannessy & Co. Apparently she had had previously operated her own studio. The firm received a medal at the 1866 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition for their coloured, plain and ‘mezzotint’ photographic portraits.She seems to have had a long career, as she photographed a meeting of scientists in 1890 and Edmund Barton, later Prime Minister of Australia, in 1898.

Moore photo of Proctor
Photograph of artist Thea Proctor from the studio of May and Mina Moore

May and Mina ( or Minna) Moore were sisters, born in New Zealand, who came to Sydney and established a photographic studio around 1909. May was trained in painting. They specialised in portraits and took shadowy, sepia toned photographs of Sydney’s artistic, theatrical and literary elite. Mina Moore later set up a studio on Melbourne. They were quite prolific. My family has an original photograph from May Moore’s studio, of a great great uncle on the eve of setting off to war in 1915.

Ruth Hollick worked as a travelling freelance photographer in about 1908-9 in Victoria. She moved into Mina Moore’s former studio in 1918. She was well known for child portraits.

There have been some exhibitions and books written about the history of women in photography, but their photographs when they turn up, are still likely to go unrecognised.

Of course there were many amateur photographers in this time as well. The simplicity of the Kodak camera made it a popular pastime for women. Women were often behind the camera, recording history.

Writing about a photographer appealed to me because the photographer is an observer of people and events. Beatrix and her camera have a reason to go places that other women did not.

Do you know of any other early women photographers?




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