Photography as an Industrial Occupation for Women (1873)

Although originally written for an English audience, the following essay provides a thoughtful overview of the business side of photography at a relatively early time. In fact this may be the first effort to evaluate the role of women in the profession. -- Peter. E. Palmquist

Jabez Hughes

There are few more definitely established customs than that of periodically sitting for your photograph. In the early days people used to have scruples, and they offered objections that were frequently considered sufficient to exonerate themselves from passing through the new-fashioned ordeal. But we have changed all that, and now, to have your photograph taken is as necessary a duty as to avail yourself of the services of your hairdresser or your dentist. A photograph has become not only a household word, but a household necessity. Each drawing room table has its well-stocked album, which is fast becoming its family historical gallery, and every cottage fireside is made brighter by its embellishment of some pictures. How deep is our passion for portraits photography alone has made clear. Happy art, that can create a new want, and supply it too! For surely no invention has arisen so rapidly, has extended itself so widely, and been responded to so heartily as this one. At once a place was found for it; science recognized it; art used it; fashion patronized it; trade utilized it; commerce diffused it; and all gave it welcome. A little army of workers were suddenly called forth to put it in practice, and now that it has definitely taken its place as one of the art industries, the question may fittingly be asked, by those interested in spreading the domain of female labor, whether this art offers a fresh outlet for women’s energies—whether it supplies to them a new field for legitimate, honorable, and remunerative labor. It is the purpose of this article to supply information on this subject, and to give assurance that photography does offer such facilities. Already many ladies do earn their livelihoods by it, and there is no reason why a larger number should not be so employed, particularly if the women themselves gave a fraction of the energy they now devote to frivolous accomplishments to the acquirement of its working details.

Few persons are aware of the extent to which this art is practiced, or how deeply it has interwoven itself with all our social habits. From being an article of luxury the simple photograph has become, by its inherent attractiveness and usefulness, one of the necessities of civilized life. It can be produced so cheaply that the very poorest can patronize it, and its best production so nearly approach works of high art as to make it welcome with those who value it only for its intrinsic merit. It therefore adapts itself to all the varying means and conditions of society, and its cultivators find in every civilized community a means of obtaining an honorable livelihood. Granted that, as an artist, the photographer occupies a very humble position in the eyes of the public, yet the fact remains that not only in all our large cities are there to be found prosperous photographic establishments, but our smaller towns also support them, and few large villages even exist but some adept in the art ekes out his means, if he does not entirely support himself by it. Nothing can, therefore, better prove how exactly adapted is this singular art to meet a craving want of our common nature. In the smallest communities, long before the penny newspaper has arisen, or the railway station has made its appearance, the photographer will have established for himself a ‘‘local habitation and a name."

The full extent to which this art has assimilated itself with our daily habits could only be shown by the publication of statistics which would be sufficiently startling to those who have paid but little attention to this subject. In addition to the large number of persons who depend for their means of existence on photography, the number of amateurs who follow it as a means of pleasure is very considerable. Special branches of other forms of industry have been called into existence to minister to the peculiar wants of the photographer, and in some directions, especially in chemistry, definite branches of science have been developed, that otherwise would have remained dormant.

My purpose, however, is not to show the extent to which photography has, directly and indirectly, had its influence on our age, but rather to beget an interest in the art in its industrial sense, by pointing out how considerable a section of the community make a living by it, and how extensive the occupation is. I should also like to prove that the public estimate of the photographic practitioner is not an accurate one; that he is not so low in the intellectual scale as he is supposed to be; and that his occupation is not so sordid as is sometimes imagined. I should like to point out that this art has a valuable and interesting literature of its own; that it has many societies in London and the provinces expressly devoted to its cultivation and advancement; and that in this country it has one monthly and two weekly journals entirely dedicated to its interests, and that on the Continent and in America its literature is equally cared for. The consideration of these topics would, however, lead from the main idea of this paper, and are only referred to to show that photography has its intellectual aspect, and that it may be approached from a much higher level than the one from which I propose to consider it, namely, as an industrial occupation.

Despite the well worn witticism, that some would as lief visit the dentist to have a tooth extracted as go to the photographer to have a portrait taken, it is surprising how little is the provocation that induces persons to visit the studio. When the "welcome little stranger" appears on the scene, one of its earliest troubles is with the photographer. At every successive growth, "baby" has the fact chronicled by the lens. Boyhood and girlhood, in all their stages of advancement, are as faithfully depicted, and during adolescence many are the occasions when youth and maiden visit the studio, for reasons of their own, and make interesting exchanges of their fac similes. And so it goes on; every new change of dress or fashion causes the old cartes to be displaced by new ones; and each photographic novelty gives additional reason for fresh sittings to be taken. But this is not enough; the public must have, not only their own and their friends’ photographs, but those of all the rest of the world, who are anybody. Greatness has had a new and modern penalty added to it—it must pay its devoirs, and frequently too, to the photographer. Kings, queens, and princes; heroes, actors, and authors; divines, charlatans, and thieves; great and small, noble and ignoble, all must pass before the inexorable camera. And thus it is that this art-industry is kept constantly going; and for these and other reasons the certainty is that the vocation of the photographer will always remain with us.

Seeing, then, that it is so widely spread, so well established, and so likely to remain a permanent industry, is it one that is adapted for female talent, and, if so, are there a sufficient number of women employed in it? To these queries I can very definitely answer, that it is a very proper and legitimate field for female skill, and that there is no adequate reason why the number should not be largely increased. It may be stated that from the beginning to the end of the production of a photograph there is nothing that might not all be done by a woman. There are portrait establishments in town and country, on the Continent, and in America, that women have successfully conducted, and even gained reputation, for their ability. These, however, are exceptional, and though it is admitted that women can do everything photographic, yet there are certain portions where ill-smelling chemicals and dress-disfiguring solutions are used, that are better conducted by the rougher sex. In compensation, however, there are other portions of the work where the neatness of habit, the nimbleness of manipulation, and delicacy of touch of the female assistant is superior to the male. In advocating the introduction of a greater amount of female labor into photography, it must not be supposed that I wish them to pass through a scientific training like a "certified" teacher. There is, fortunately, no need whatever for anything of this sort, and if any woman fancies that her general knowledge of science, or her special acquaintance with chemistry, will be of advantage to her, the sooner she is disabused of these ideas the better. A photograph—a carte-de-visite, for instance—is a manufactured article, and a photographic establishment is a factory where labor is subdivided for economy’s sake, and where no one person performs all the operations. When a person sits for his portrait, the part that is performed in his presence is a very trifling one, so far as time and work are concerned, much the greater part having to be performed after the sitting is taken. No photographer can profitably conduct an establishment if he perform all the manipulations himself. He must have assistants, and if he have a good business, he must employ many. Unless a man can find work for three or four, he cannot get a good living and pay his way. I have known one man employ over a hundred, but from five to ten is a fair number to conduct an average respectable establishment. When one notes the number of portrait studios, this alone will give an idea how extensive an industry is the production of photographs.

As to the class of women that find work in photography, I may compare them with three grades that are met with in every-day life: the "maid-of-all-work" class, the "shopwoman" class and the "governess" class. The subdivisions of labor in the production of photographs permit these three kinds of female skill to have adequate scope.

What I have called the "maid-of-all-work" class is of course the lowest grade, and their work is quite behind the scenes, being confined to what is technically called "printing," that is, preparing the paper and producing on it the print from the "negative." This class of labor is the most laborious and dirty, and, as such labor generally is, the least remunerative. Women of this grade are more often employed in the country than in London, and at best their work is mainly confined to the cheap establishments. Their remuneration will be from ten to fifteen shillings per week. Their recommendation is, not that they do their work better, but that they can be got cheaper than men. In many respectable establishments this kind of work is done by men and boys.

The greater part of the female labor is supplied by the "shopwoman" class. The work consists in taking the simple photograph and pasting it on to the cardboard, and when dry, painting out the numerous white spots and other marks that constantly occur in producing the "print." There are other little attentions the photograph receives at their hands before it is ready to deliver to the customer. These are the women also who attend in the "reception room," and also render assistance to the lady patrons in the mysteries of the toilet, prior to undergoing the dread ordeal of the camera. A skillful woman of this class will also take the orders, manage the cash, and conduct the correspondence. The salary that such a woman will receive will depend on the establishment she is in, on her knowledge of her work, the time she may have been in the house of business, and generally on her ability and fitness for her duties. A clever woman of this class is invaluable, and it is her fault if she does not retain her situation, for the longer she remains the more useful she is to her employer, by her knowledge of the ways of the establishment, and her acquaintance with the customers. Such women usually remain a considerable time in their situations, and when they leave, it is usually to get married, or from a breakdown in health. Their hours are from nine in the morning till dusk. In summer of course the work is much harder and the time longer than in winter. The salary of such persons varies from fifteen to thirty shillings per week. In many cases much higher salaries are given, but a woman of this class can always obtain a guinea per week, and it is generally her own fault if she is not higher paid.

In the "governess" class there are not so many women employed as there ought to be, as from their higher intelligence and superior manners they are able in a variety of ways to render themselves useful. The chief fault with this class is, that they will not bend to their work; they think too much of themselves, and act as if they were the persons who patronize the photographer. Persons of this class should always be able to keep the accounts, to conduct the correspondence, to take the orders and see them properly executed, and should be regarded, and are so when they do their work properly, as in situations of trust. If they possess a knowledge of drawing and painting they can command higher salaries by the skillful use of their pencils. As photography is rapidly passing from the hands of mere handicraftsmen and Bohemians into a more artistic and respectable class, women of the "governess" grade will more readily find a remunerative field for their labor, especially if they will bend to their new calling, and feel that in it there is scope for an honorable ambition. There is no standard I can name as the remuneration that woman of this class may reasonably expect. The difficulty with such persons is to make them see, until they have qualified themselves for their work, that they ought not to expect the remuneration to which they may ultimately aspire. It will not take long for an intelligent woman to qualify herself—a few months in a good house will do a great deal—but until this knowledge is acquired, such an individual is of less real use than an inferior woman who will at once turn her hand to anything. Photography itself, as a profession, will gain very much by the importation into it of this higher class of female labor, and the profits of respectable photographers are such as to permit them to pay adequately for this superior class of assistants; always, be it understood, that in their manners and behavior they import no corresponding drawbacks, and do not make the mistake of considering themselves above their business.

As matters stand now I think that about one-third of the photographic assistants are women, but there is no reason why there should not be at least one-half. The chief drawback to female labor is the want of better women—women with more brains, with more carefully directed energies. There are many reasons, some too technical to be introduced here, that might be shown as to the desirability of women being more employed in photography than they are. It is an occupation exactly suited to the sex; there are no great weights to carry, no arduous strain of body or mind; it is neat and clean, and is conducted indoors. The many women who excel in it show that it is adapted to their capacity, and, speaking from a very extended experience, the main reason that more are not employed is because we cannot obtain them in sufficient numbers possessing the requisite business capacity to exactly understand their position, and act accordingly.

In the foregoing remarks I have intentionally omitted all reference to a wide field for female labor in coloring and painting photographs. This properly comes into the domain of art, and I have confined myself to photography pure and simple. There is an enormous and lucrative scope for female skill in coloring photographs. At present the men have it almost entirely to themselves, yet there would seem no more obvious occupation for a woman, who is without the higher genius to lift her into the legitimate sphere of art, and yet has ability enough to use her pencil skillfully, than in painting photographs. This is a phase of the subject which I strongly recommend to the consideration of those who have the elevation of woman at heart, as in this direction there is a very wide field open.

In conclusion, as a well-wisher to the women’s movement, I have pleasure in bearing testimony to the fact that in photography there is room for a larger amount of female labor, that it is a field exactly suited to even the conventional notions of women’s capacity, and further, that it is a field unsurrounded with traditional rules, with apprenticeship, with vested rights, and it is one in which there is no sexual hostility to their employment. It is a business easily learnt, moderately well paid, and affording scope for all gradations of skill and ability.

Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, vol. 4 (1873), pp. 162-166; originally published in the London Photo News. Reprinted with permission from Peter E. Palmquist, Camera Fiends & Kodak Girls: 50 Selections By and About Women in Photography, 1840-1930. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1995.