Known and unknown – two women photographers of the 1890s

Jane Windeyer, by Laura Praeger (National Portrait Gallery)

Recently I was hunting through Trove for references to early women photographers.  My novel Taken At Night features a photographer named Beatrix Spencer who operates her own studio in Sydney in 1900. In those days there were many amateur women photographers but professionals were rarer.

Laura Praeger was quite a successful society photographer in Sydney. Her clients included some of Sydney’s best known families and she mingled with the wealthy and well-connected.

According to the National Portrait Gallery, she was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, in around 1859 and came with her family to Queensland when she was a child. She married Francis Pasqual Praeger in Brisbane in 1880 but the marriage ended shortly afterwards, and she then relocated to Sydney where she began working as a photographer. She worked in partnership with a photographer named Chubb between 1889 and 1891 before establishing her own studio. She exhibited work in the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. She apparently closed her studio after remarrying in 1894.

Her portrait of Sir Alfred Stephen was described by the Illustrated Sydney News “decidedly the best that the aged statesman has yet had taken.”

In 1891 she photographed the delegates to the Australasian Federation Convention. One of these was taken using the largest size of negatives made at the time, and the Sydney Morning Herald described  it as “magnificent”, saying that “the faces and figures of the delegates represented are brought out with great clearness and distinctness.”shearers-camp_001

The other woman is unknown, but I hope further research might reveal her name. I came across an article called “Amongst the Unionists at Wilcannia” which appeared in the Sydney Mail in September 1894. The author was described as “a lady photographer”.

There was a shearer’s strike going on at the time and the strikers were encamped outside the town. The photographer took a horse and buggy out to the camp and went in on her own. In her own words:

“I explained that I was a photographer and desirous of getting some suitable views of the unionists’ camp. He replied, ‘ I know you are, but you won’t get my photo, that’s a certainty.’ ‘Very well. Please tell me where I shall find Mr. Nolan.’ He told me to go straight ahead…I found a great crowd of men, all variously occupied, some sitting about smoking, others’ reading, and a good number collected round some men throwing weights and poles ; more were gathered round the grocers’ and bakers’ carts. Catching sight of one of our local storekeepers with a group round him, I made inquiry for Mr. Nolan. Someone found him for me. I stated the object of my visit. I could see by the questioning look on several faces round, that they wanted to know what a solitary woman’s appearance amongst them meant.

Mr. Nolan said he would see what the men’s views were on the matter, and proceeded to call them together by ringing a bell. … My spirits fell a little when I saw how few hands went up for and how many went up against a photo, being taken; but I am not easily discouraged — so I let them all talk for a while. I afterwards learned that there were about 500 men altogether.

After waiting a while, I said to them, ‘ Now all you men who do not wish to be photographed just stand back ; I am going to take the rest.’ I soon found that there were quite a good number that would be photographed, especially as it was to be done by a lady.”

She took a number of photographs which appeared in that issue and they are a marvellous document of the shearer’s camp and Australian labour history.

It is a mystery why her name was not given if her photographs were good enough to publish. Perhaps she was not a professional photographer but rather a skilled amateur. It seems that she must have lived in the Wilcannia area because she recognised “one of our local storekeepers” at the camp.

Both women broke new ground. Praeger overcame an unsuccessful marriage at a time when divorce was still scandalous, to set up her own successful studio. The “lady photographer” seized an opportunity to photograph an important news event in spite of initial difficulties. How many more are out there?