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Sitting for a Woman Photographer in 19th-Century Massachusetts

They set up shop in Boston's commercial districts

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It wasn’t all that unusual to have a woman photographer take your picture in the mid-1800s.  While you might be surprised to find a woman operating a camera and running a studio during the Civil War,  women were stepping up to fill the jobs left by men who enlisted in the armed forces. Women then managed everything from farms and mills to stores and offices.

Some were widows who took over the family operations, but others had to start from scratch to find ways to support themselves. Since photography was relatively new — it had only been “invented” in 1839 — the field was wide open. It had fewer prejudices about race and gender than existed in more established professions.  Advice manuals of the day enumerated some of the requirements needed for start-up. They included “a preliminary education in the science of photography, a knowledge of chemicals used, and a few hundred dollars. It costs from forty to seventy-five dollars to build a good skylight.”[1]

At the time photographers lacked good artificial light/ So they often located their studios on the top floor of a building and depended on the sun coming through a skylight for illumination.

Helen F. Stuart, Washington Street, Boston: Faces & Spirits

If you had been strolling around Boston’s commercial district in the early 1860s you likely would have passed food and clothing shops, printing establishments and photographic studios including that of Helen F. Stuart (1832–1912) at 258 Washington Street.  While information about Helen Stuart is limited, her cluster of surviving photographs and the city directories tell us that she set up her establishment in 1861 and maintained it through the decade.

Like her competitors, the mainstay of Stuart’s practice was the carte de visite (abbreviated cdv),. These were photographic portraits printed on paper and mounted on 2 ½ x 4-inch cards. The small, inexpensive likenesses were so much in vogue that the phenomenon came to be called cartomania.

A carte de visite of an unidentified Civil War soldier that Stuart produced soon after setting up shop indicates that she was already mastering her craft.

Helen F. Stuart, [Unidentified] Civil War Soldier

The cdv yielded a standardized format on a small scale, but her technical proficiency is evident in her balanced range of tones and clear, sharp image. You can even see the abrasions in the soldier’s boot. She also demonstrates a grasp of the chemistry involved, since her image remains readable while many from this era have turned foggy.

Intriguingly, Stuart rented space to William H. Mumler, who worked in her studio. While his name may not be familiar today, he gained notoriety during the Civil War era for what was called spirit photographs. In an age when death was ever-present — from high infant mortality to slaughter on the battlefield — people were eager to connect with their lost loved ones. Some attended séances where the departed could communicate with those still on earth through a medium.

A Woman Photographer of the Spirits?

With the increasing popularity of spiritualism, Mumler saw an opportunity. He specialized in visualizing the dead. Mumler superimposed the likeness of what was called the “extra,” or spirit, of the deceased onto a glass plate negative upon which he had already exposed an image of the living sitter on the negative.

His most famous example circulated widely: Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghostlike presence of her assassinated husband President Abraham Lincoln hovering behind.

But everyday people, too, desired to be depicted in this way. Helen Stuart served such clients, including an unidentified woman who posed seated at a table upon which sit a bouquet of flowers and a book — likely a prayerbook. Staring off into space, she seems to conjure up the apparition of the male head and torso that floats over the blossoms, presumably her recently departed spouse.

Helen F. Stuart, [Unidentified] Woman Seated at a Table with a Male Spirit Behind Her

Mumler alone has been credited with “discovering” this format. But given that he shot many of his images in Stuart’s studio, and that spirit photographs bearing her studio mark have been identified,  it is possible that she too had some hand in creating these ghostly mementoes.

Additionally, Stuart was deeply involved in a wide range of personal mourning rituals. They embraced not only these spirit pictures but also post-mortem photography of a dead child or adult lying in a coffin. And if you turned over one of her photographs, you could read on the reverse: “Hair jewelry made to order.” This inscription indicates that she supplemented her photographic practice by fashioning brooches, lockets, rings, and bracelets from the hair of a loved one. Such jewelry would be the only adornment on the heavy black dresses women wore during their mourning period.

Stuart left little trace after the 1860s . But her jewelry and small sepia-toned pictures, which brought a degree of comfort to bereaved Victorians, survive.

Marion Hooper Adams, Beverly: Woman & Nature

One summer day in 1883 Marian Hooper Adams (1843-1885)– known to her friends as “Clover” — carried her camera to Singing Beach in Manchester, a town  on the north shore of Massachusetts. There she took a photograph of her companion, Mrs. Jim Scott. Mrs. Scott sat on a large boulder at the east end of the beach, looking directly at the camera.

Marion Hooper Adams, Mrs. Jim Scott Seated on a Rock at the East End of Singing Beach

Earlier in the century landscapists, including John F. Kensett, had painted on this very spot. Later, Adams family associate John LaFarge would create one of his stupendous stained glass windows The Fish and Flowering Branch (c. 1890, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) for Gordon Abbott’s nearby mansion.

For her contribution to this distinguished lineage in American art, Adams created a photograph articulating the interrelationship between the female figure and this tranquil coastal location. There is a subtle air of Emersonian Transcendentalism in its evocation of nature. Perhaps she inherited it from her mother, who died when Clover was five years old. Clover’s mother published her poetry in the magazine The Dial, edited from 1842 to 1844 by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Society Hostess

In 1872 Clover married Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of U.S. presidents and an important writer and observer of American political life. During their honeymoon while traveling down the Nile, they took up photography together. After their return they settled in Washington, D.C. , where she became a famous hostess.

By 1883 she acquired a new camera and kept apace of the latest advances in printing and developing photographs. Clover progressed from albumen prints to the platinotype. This new process was a demanding one, but the resulting image – based on the light sensibility of iron and platinum salts – demonstrated a matte finish and subtle shades ranging from gray to deep black.

She kept meticulous notes on her photographs, from the initial shot through the chemical processes used to develop them. Her husband discouraged her from publishing or selling her photographs. She organized them into red leather-bound albums (now in the Massachusetts Historical Society), where this one can be found.

Death of a Woman Photographer

Just as she was coming into her own as a photographer, her beloved father passed away. That event plunged her into a deep depression.  By December 1885, while at the home she shared with Henry in Washington, D.C., she ingested the potassium cyanide she used to fix her images. It killed her. The means of Adams’ art, as her biographer Natalie Dykstra phrases it, became the means of her death. Most accounts of Marian Hooper Adams melodramatically emphasize this dark fate, but attention should shift to her meditative photographic legacy.

Emily Stokes, Boylston Street, Boston: Baby Pictures

Often typecast as “baby photographers,” women found their bread and butter capturing the likenesses of crying babies and squirming children. They were thought to have the requisite skills for the job. They could keep them quiet, coax a pleasing expression and snap the picture quickly.

The popular press was brimming with cartoons of male photographers who were miserable failures in this line of work.

Artist unidentified, “Young Higgins” [Man Trying to Photograph a Baby]

“Mrs. Emily Stokes of Boston is an example of what a woman may accomplish in photography,” wrote Frances Willard in her book Occupations for Women (1897). “For sixteen years she has aimed to produce the true child portrait. She has conquered difficulties and is an enthusiastic and successful artist.”[2] Stokes’ portrait of Katharine Weems in her Christening Gown  highlights her technically accomplished work.

Emily Stokes, Katharine Weems in her Christening Gown

The press advised photographers to take care with the infant portrait. If the mother was pleased with it, she would likely return annually for more pictures. This was apparently the case for Stokes, who documented successive stages of Weems’ childhood.

Women were the primary consumers of portrait photography, who brought family members to the studio . Later they inserted the precious pictures into family albums displayed in the parlor. The cabinet card used by Stokes was the preferred format after 1870, when it superseded the carte de visite.  A thin photograph was mounted on a stiff piece of cardboard measuring 4 ¼ x 6 ½ inches. The photographer’s information was embossed on the front and elaborate designs were often printed on the back.

A Woman Photographer Markets Her Work

Stokes created a logo perfectly suited to her cultured clientele. Although printed, her signature appears as if handwritten in cursive, done in gold leaf and accompanied by a floral emblem (Illus. 8). The cards also featured her address on Boylston Street, where she occupied several successive spaces on the same busy thoroughfare. She attracted socially connected and wealthy clients to her tastefully appointed chamber, with photographs hanging alongside fine art.

Emily Stokes, Logo

“My patrons,” Emily Stokes wrote, “are among the very best of our citizens, people of culture here and in England.”[3] From the 1880s on her studio became a preferred site for educated women to have their pictures taken. She met an increasing demand for class portraits of female college graduates. Stokes portrayed the young women graduating from Wellesley College, along with well-known women like Helen Keller. She portrayed Keller when she was a student at Radcliffe College around 1902, the year she published the autobiography that made her famous.

Emily Stokes, Helen Keller

While Stokes preserved the likenesses of primarily female Bostonians for posterity, she also ensured that her identity as the photographer would survive.

Helen Stuart, “Clover” Adams, Emily Stokes and numerous members of their photographic sisterhood operated studios and made portraits of thousands of sitters during the second half of the 19th century. Practicing at a time when it was thought that women rarely worked outside the home, these female photographers helped shape their new, challenging medium and contributed to the visual culture of Massachusetts.

End Notes about the woman photographer

This text about the woman photographer in Massachusetts derives from Katherine Manthorne, Women in the Dark: Female Photographers in the US, 1850-1900 (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2020). Sources of direct quotes are provided below.

[1] Martha Louise Rayne, What Can a Woman Do; or, Her Position in the Business and Literary World (Detroit, 1884): 126-127.

[2]Frances Elizabeth Willard, Occupations for Women (NY: 1897): 504.

[3] Emily Stokes, “Plain Portraiture,” Wilson’s Photographic Magazine 37 (March 1900): 97.

Sources of woman photographer images: Civil War soldier, carte de visite, ca. 1862, Private Collection. Helen F. Stuart, [Unidentified] Woman Seated at a Table with a Male Spirit Behind Her, carte de visite, ca. 1865, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Helen F. Stuart, [Unidentified] Woman Seated at a Table with a Male Spirit Behind Her. Verso of Helen F. Stuart, [Unidentified] Woman Seated at a Table with a Male Spirit Behind Her, carte de visite, ca. 1865, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Marion Hooper Adams, Mrs. Jim Scott Seated on a Rock at the East End of Singing Beach, Manchester, albumen print, 1883, Massachusetts Historical Society, #50.64, album 8, p. 17. Artist unidentified, “Young Higgins” [Man Trying to Photograph a Baby], popular press, ca. 1870s. Emily Stokes, Katharine Weems in her Christening Gown, cabinet card, ca. 1880s, Radcliffe College, Harvard University. Emily Stokes, Helen Keller, 1902, Private Collection. Emily Stokes, Logo, cabinet card (verso), 1880s, Private Collection.

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