This thesis recuperates women’s photographic production in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain, specifically the commercial practice of studio portraiture. It addresses a gap in scholarship, namely the absence of women photographers in social histories of photography, and the lack of attention paid to commercial photography within feminist accounts of the medium’s history. I draw out the social, political and cultural significance of women’s portraits of women during this period and theorise the various ways that photographs constructed femininity at a time when gendered norms were being restructured. In so doing, my thesis constructs an original social history of photography in this period from a feminist standpoint.
The thesis is structured thematically and comprises six chapters. The first chapter examines the professionalisation of the ‘lady photographer’ through an analysis of late-nineteenth-century periodicals aimed at a female readership. I then consider how women photographers succeeded within the masculine domain of commerce by instrumentalising aspects of the feminine ideal (as defined through Victorian domestic ideology) to soften their transgression of women’s ‘rightful’ place in the home. Chapter three focuses on the collaborative working practices of women photographers, and how alternatives to the heteronormative status quo were envisioned through co-operative dynamics. In chapter four I consider the role of studio portraiture within the British suffrage movement and women photographers’ picturing of modern, politically engaged femininity. The construction of celebrity and feminine spectacle through studio portraits is the subject of the penultimate chapter. Finally, I reflect on the process of historical research into women’s agency, and the commodification of femininity in which commercial photographers participated. Key photographers examined in the thesis are Lallie Charles, Lena Connell, Alice Hughes, Rita Martin, Kate Pragnell and Alice Stewart.