by Peter Palmquist
In 1852 Eliza Withington traveled overland from St. Joseph, Missouri, to join her husband, George Withington (1821-1900), who was operating a ranch in Amador County, California. She was accompanied on the trip by the oldest of her two daughters. The hardships of the crossing were chronicled in the journal of a fellow migrant, Mary Stewart Bailey (see Jeanne Hamilton Watson, To the Land of Gold and Wickedness: The 1848-59 Diary of Lorrena L. Hayes). Shortly before 1857 Eliza Withington returned to New York to learn photography and visited the famous Matthew Brady gallery.
By January 1857 Withington had returned to California and opened her, Excelsior Abrotype Gallery in a rented house in Ione City. In addition to photography she offered lessons in Oriental Pearl Painting, a nineteenth-century parlor art popular among women. A 25, July 1857 newspaper advertisement described her gallery as having "a large and well arranged skylight." The studio was located on Main Street, "first door west of the bridge," open to business on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. An additional comment was made by the newspaper editor: "She is an accomplished lady and most excellent artist... Just think of it -- your picture taken by a Lady!"
Withington's second daughter joined her in California that same year. In 1861 she had a son who died at just five months of age. During the 1860s it is unclear whether she continued her involvement in photography. By 1871 the children had left home and the Withingtons were living separately, apparently at her instigation.
Withington once again turned to photography, including both portrait studio work and outdoor stereograph production. During the summer months, to escape the heat, she toured local town sites and mountainous mining areas "by stage, private convey" or, when necessary, by hitching a ride on a passing "fruit wagon." Preparing for these trips, Withington packed a uniquely devised kit of travel-ready camera equipment, including supplies for developing her negatives in the field. Some of her home inventions included eight "dark, thick dress skirts" used as a makeshift developing tent and a "strong, black-linen cane-headed parasol" used to shade the lenses and as a walking stick for "climbing mountains and sliding into ravines".
In the summer of 1873 Withington traveled to the Silver Lake region of Amador County to capture stereographs of the scenery, including views of mines and miners. She sent a selection of these images to the editor of the Philadelphia Photographer who responded with enthusiasm: "the scenery is faithfully portrayed, and shows Mrs. W. to be a skilled artist." The editor also praised her camera outfit as "the handsomest, the lightest and certainly the most unique landscape outfit that I ever saw."