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Ruby M. Cusack


Female Photographers

 A photograph of one young girl by Jane Wilson shows her holding a badminton racket and birdie.
 On back of photo is written  “Taken by Mrs Wilson who was Jane Fleet in Chatham 1865"

                                                                           Provincial Archives of NB     MC 1055-MS26-E1-4W


For my Birthday Aunt Ethel gave me a roll of film for Mum’s Brownie box camera with a note attached that it included getting the film developed.

As soon as the film was loaded into the camera, I rushed outside to take the twelve pictures.

It seemed to be a long week as I waited to see the results of my first attempt at photography.

When Saturday finally arrived, my hand was shaking with excitement, as I opened the envelope that Aunt Ethel handed me. As I took out the first picture, it was blurred which meant I must have moved the camera when I snapped the picture but the others were nice and clear.

I rushed into the kitchen and announced that I was going to be a photographer and have my own studio when I grew up. My bubble of happiness broke when Dad said, "Only men were photographers.

In fact when I read an article by Josh Green in the 2017 Fall Issue of Silhouettes, published by the Associates of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, I found out recent research has revealed that at least a few New Brunswick ladies practiced the “men-only” trade of photography over 150 years ago!”

The earliest female photographer for whom there are extant examples of her work is likely Jane Wilson. Born Jane Flett of Nelson, NB, she married William Wilson in 1855 in Miramichi, and the two lived between Washington, Minnesota, and New Brunswick over the ensuing decades.”

By 1865, she advertised her services as a photographer in the Chatham, NB, directory, and took out ads in “The Chatham Gleaner” with one stating, “Photographs! Photographs. Mrs. J. Wilson, late of the United States, begs leave to announce to the Ladies and Gentlemen of Miramichi that she has taken rooms above the store of Mr Arthur Wright, in Chatham, where she is prepared to take Photographs, Ferreotypes, and Melaneotypes, in the very latest style of the art. The price will be moderate, and no pictures charged for, unless satisfactory to the owner.”

Jane Wilson may have learned photography, in Chatham or Newcastle from a man named Aaron Sproul who had been advertising a bit in the Chatham Gleaner and elsewhere. He placed an ad in that paper on 19 August 1864, about six months before Wilson’s career in Chatham began. In his ad, Sproul, giving his address as Newcastle, notified the public of his leaving the photographic trade in this way: “A Great Bargain: The Subscriber will Sell his SALOON and Fit Out for Photographing and Ambrotyping, and Stock enough to take Thirty Pounds worth of Pictures, and instructions in the Art if required for Fifty Pounds. Any person wishing to purchase, will do well to call at the Saloon, and satisfy themselves that it is a good investment”.

Wilson may well have taken up Sproul’s stock, trade, and perhaps his offer of “instructions in the Art”.

Her “melaneotypes” are today known as ambrotypes - positive images on glass, often presented in a folding case.

The subjects of Wilson’s photos are unidentified and the only link to Wilson is that each bears pencil inscriptions on the back which explain that they were taken by “Mrs. Wilson” in Chatham. They are in the older style of carte-de-visite portraiture in that they are full-body portraits and, at least one of them features slight tinting of the cheeks of one of the ladies.

A.B. Vining was another early NB photographer, active in Chatham, Fredericton, and Saint John in the late 1840s, and it was his wife who could be credited as the first woman working in the photographic trade in New Brunswick. Although she does not appear to have been a photographer herself,  she apparently coloured daguerreotypes.

Miss Emma J. Whitlock seems to have been one of NB’s other earliest female photographers. Born about 1843, she was the daughter of St. Andrews attorney, Samuel H. Whitlock, and Margaret Whitlock.

In the 1867 Hutchinson directory she advertised a photography studio on William Street in St. Andrews. Emma died at the age of 46 in 1890 of pneumonia at her brother's residence on Water Street.

One of New Brunswick’s best-known 20th century photographers, Madge Smith of Fredericton, sold hand-coloured photographs throughout much of her professional career and likely worked as a colourist at Harvey Studios before she opened her own shop. Smith’s collection of 1,275 negatives is held by the Provincial Archives of NB where it is entitled P120 Madge Smith photographs.

Ladies in photography often were somewhat hidden figures – photographers themselves often had their studio named stamped or embossed on their work, particularly post-1860, colourist/hand tinters were not commonly recognized for their work. Hand tinting was not exclusively “women’s work”, but it was likely predominantly carried out by women artists, in New Brunswick, at least.

By the way, the first practical photographic process, the daguerreotype, was introduced to the world in January 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre at the French Académie des Sciences in Paris.

The next time you say “CHEESE” for the camera remember that some photographs were preserved on tin since 1839. Many of these tintypes may be found in a family album. Furthermore ladies hand tinted photos long before coloured digital photos were even thought of.