fig. 6: "Taken by La Nina" (impressed in velvet case liner)
(name of photographer unknown)

100 Years of California Photography by Women

© Peter E. Palmquist

There is a rich and unique history of women photographers in California, one of the few regions where the history of women in photography has been studied. This history begins possibly even before the California gold rush when a young woman (approximate age twelve to fourteen), by the name of Epifania Gertrudis "Fanny" Vallejo, made a daguerreotype likeness of her mother which was mounted in a ring and worn by her father General Vallejo. The first professional woman photographer, Julia Shannon, advertised herself as a daguerreotypist and midwife as early as 1850. Today, nearly one-hundred and fifty years later, California can take a well-deserved pride in the accomplishments of women photographers at every stage of its statehood.

Beginning in the early 1970s, I began to record every mention of the work of California-based women in all aspects of the photographic trades: photographers and operators, photo-finishers and card-mounters, retouchers and colorists, even amateur imagemakers. These studies resulted in two directories of women photographers in California: Shadowcatchers I has no less than eight hundred and fifty women active before 1900; Shadowcatchers II contains information on one thousand and sixty-five women working in photography between 1900 and 1920. A third volume (not yet published), which will document women photographers between 1920-1940, already fills a five-drawer file cabinet.

The eight women profiled here represent typical, but diverse examples of California women working in photography between 1850 and 1950. Julia Shannon was a pioneer who advertised within a year after the first male photographer; Julia Rudolph and Abigail Cardozo specialized in commercial portraits; Eliza Withington made wonderful landscape stereographs by the wet-collodion process; Elizabeth Fleischmann was California's first X-Ray photographer; Anne W. Brigman was a pictorialist and member of the Photo-Secession, Laura Armer was a fine-art photographer, painter, filmmaker, and author who photographed Native Americans, and Emma Freeman photographed Native Americans as well. However, these women represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg and together merely allude to a long and fruitful tradition of women's involvement in California photography.

Ed. Note: Photographers are organized in both an alphabetical index and an annotated chronological list, according to when they were active. In either case, click on the photographer's name to access her bibliography and gallery or essay.

Laura M. Armer Anne W. Brigman
Abigail E. Cardozo Elizabeth Fleischmann
Emma B. Freeman Julia A. Rudolph
Julia Shannon Elizabeth W. Withington

Julia Shannon, (Mrs.) (active 1850-1852).

Julia Shannon, a San Francisco midwife, was California's earliest known female photographer. (The earliest known male photographer in California opened his studio in January 1849.) Although we know that Shannon advertised as a daguerreian photographer, almost nothing is known about her work. It is likely that she did portraiture, but no known example of her work has survived to this day.

In January 1850, Shannon advertised: "Notice - Daguerreotypes taken by a Lady. Those wishing to have a good likeness are informed that they can have them taken in a very superior manner, and by a real live lady too, in Clay Street, opposite the St. Francis Hotel, at a very moderate charge. Give her a call, gents." (San Francisco Alta California, January 29, 1850.)

By May of 1850, Shannon had relocated her establishment to rooms "opposite the hospital" and offered her services as a midwife in addition to photography. In the May 1851 San Francisco fire, Shannon lost two houses worth $7,000. By 1852, she was listed only as a midwife.

Elizabeth W. (Kirby) Withington (active 1857-1876).

Elizabeth W. Withington was born on March 17, 1825 in New York City and died on March 4, 1877 in Ione City, California. A photographer active in Ione City (Amador County), California, Eliza W. Withington traveled overland from St. Joseph, Missouri in 1852 to join her husband on a ranch in rural Amador County, California. She was accompanied by the oldest of her two daughters. Interestingly enough, the hardships of her crossing were chronicled in the journal of Lorena Hays, a fellow migrant.

Shortly before 1857 Withington returned to the east coast to learn photography. While she was in New York, she also visited the famous Mathew Brady photographic gallery. In January of 1857 she returned to California and opened her "Excelsior Ambrotype Gallery," in a rented house in Ione City. In addition to photography she also offered lessons in "Oriental Pearl Painting," a l9th century parlor art popular among women. A local newspaper editor described her gallery as having "a large and well arranged skylight" and that: "She is an accomplished lady and most excellent artist." Later that same year she was reunited with her second daughter, who migrated cross country to be with her mother. In 1861 she gave birth to a son, but, tragically, he died at just five months of age.

By 1871 she was living separately from her husband (her two daughters had also left home) and she was concentrating on using the wet collodion process to make stereographs depicting local towns and mining activities.

Preparing for these trips, Withington packed a uniquely devised kit of travel-ready camera equipment, including all the supplies she would need for developing photographs in the field. Among her home inventions was a "dark, thick dress skirt" used as a makeshift developing tent, and a "strong black-linen cane-headed parasol" for shading her lens - and as a walking stick for "climbing mountains and sliding into ravines."

In 1876 her fascinating article, "How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs," was published in the Phildelphia Photographer. Withington died of cancer in March 1877; she was 51.

Julia A. Rudolph (active 1852-1890).

Also known as Miss Julia A. Swift and Mrs. Julia A. Raymond, Julia A. Rudolph was active in Nevada City (Nevada County) beginning in 1856. Mrs. Rudolph had been trained as a daguerreian artist before her arrival in California. Born Julia A. Swift, she received early education as a public schoolteacher in Litchfield, Connecticut. She obtained her teaching certificate on May 15, 1839, the same year as the electrifying announcement of the invention of the daguerreotype process.

From 1852 to 1855, Julia worked for a daguerreian, Daniel D. T. Davie of Utica, New York. In April 1856, she arrived in Nevada City, where she took over the G. O. Kilbourn Gallery on Commercial Street. At that time she called herself "Mrs. Julia A. Raymond." In July her gallery burned to the ground, yet by September, she had completely rebuilt it and was back in business as a portrait photographer. By October she had reverted to her maiden name, Julia A. Swift, "formerly Mrs. Raymond." She continued her photography business until her marriage in 1860 to a local druggist, James F. Rudolph. By 1865, she had opened a second gallery in Sacramento, and between 1865 and 1888, she shifted her gallery alternately between Sacramento and Nevada City.

Julia Rudolph's remarkable thirty-six-year tenure as a California photographer was seldom surpassed by a photographer in any era. Numerous surviving examples of her portraiture also attest that she was a skilled professional photographer and businesswoman.

Elizabeth Fleischmann (active 1896-1905).

Elizabeth Fleischmann was born about 1867 and died in 1905. Active in San Francisco, Fleischmann was a true heroine. Not only did she pioneer in a previously unknown occupation - X-ray photography - but in her lifetime achieved world-wide recognition for her extraordinary skill and dedication to this life-saving science. Tragically, Fleischmann was among the very first to die from the (then unknown) effects of X-ray radiation poisoning.

In June 1900, the San Francisco Chronicle dedicated an, entire page to Fleischmann's accomplishments in "radiograph work." The interview was prompted largely by her X-rays taken of wounded soldiers returning from action in the Philippines during the Spanish American War. Many of these men suffered severe medical problems; these special cases were sometimes taken to hospitals in San Francisco where they were X-rayed by Fleischmann. Often working around the clock, Fleischmann was consistently praised for her uncanny ability to "take the radiographs at just the proper angles." "We have never failed to go straight to a foreign body imbedded in the human anatomy which is shown by her radiographs." Army surgeons (and others) frequently marveled that so delicate a work could be performed by a mere woman - "this little lady."

At this time, Fleischmann was also working at the forefront of experimentation with the application of the X-ray to dentistry and for cancer therapy: "Miss Fleischmann has several cancer cases under treatment and the foremost physicians of the city are watching these with the deepest interest," noted the Chronicle reporter.

Five short years later the Chronicle sadly reported the "Death of a Famous Radiophotographer." Her untimely demise was obviously due to the direct result of exposure to unshielded X-rays: "But so intent was she in the performance of her work that she was careless of her own health. She acquired the reputation [as] the most expert woman radiographer of the world, but she sacrificed her arm in the pursuit of that fame. The arm was amputated last January [and] she never fully recovered her health, though she endured all suffering with heroic fortitude. Death came as a relief..." (She was about 38 years old.)

Abigail E. (Dean) Cardozo (active 1897-1907).

Also known as Mrs. 'Abbie' Cardozo or Mrs. A.E. Cardozo, she was born on July 25, 1864 in Grizzly Bluff (Humboldt County), California, and died in 1937 in Ferndale (Humboldt County), California. Cardozo was a commercial photographer and gallery owner active in Ferndale, California. She was the sixth of nine children born to George Washington Dean (1827-1887) and Sarah Langston Dean (1831-1886). In 1878 on her 14th birthday, she was forced into marriage with Oscar L. Chapman, a man whom she hardly knew and who was nearly as old as her father. They had a number of children but only three survived infancy. She left her husband in 1889, charging him with mental cruelty, but retained custody of their three daughters: Della, Bella and Stella. This separation was viewed locally as "outrageous," but Cardozo was apparently undaunted and with three daughters to support, she quickly found part-time employment - first as a clerk and later in a local photography studio. She was extremely proud of her new found independence and was described as being a "clever, energetic, charming woman." In 1894 with the divorce settled in her favor she married Levi Nathaniel Cardozo (1864-1951), a local storekeeper, "charming and fun," but somewhat of a town loafer.

By April, 1897 she had entered into a brief business partnership with George Crippen. Their goal was to produce stylistic photographic portraits: "Equal in every respect to the best anywhere." Unfortunately, after a few months the partnership floundered and Cardozo and Crippen became business rivals. In 1898 she purchased the "Post Office'' Gallery (so-called because it was next door to Ferndale's Post Office) and not only competed favorably with the three other galleries in town (all operated by men), but successfully outlasted them all. Her advertisement in the local newspaper left no doubt as to her determination: "She has not been engaged in photography since her childhood, but she invites a comparison of her work with the work of others, simply this and nothing more."

Instead of the standard full-face and stilted poses common to the period, Cardozo developed a special flare for a stylish range of arrangements for her subjects, especially her women customers. In February 1898, she traveled to San Francisco for the latest instruction in hairstyling and was soon able to offer "free hairdressing with each studio sitting." Building on her skills used to retouch portrait negatives, she also painted her own gallery backdrops.

In 1900, the old Post Office Gallery was razed and Cardozo moved to new quarters at the corner of Washington and Main Streets. In 1903, she started divorce proceedings against her second husband, charging him with failure to provide for reasons of "idleness, profligacy, willful desertion, adultery, and extreme cruelty" - once again the court ruled in her favor.

By 1905, the overall business climate had changed for the worse in Ferndale and she leased her studio to Edna M. and Edwin O. Garrett, but still continued to take an active role in it until 1907. About 1910 she married for a third time to Andrew Hayes, an inspector for the City of Oakland. She thereafter gave up her photography and began to concentrate on ceramic painting, operating her own kiln in her garage.

By 1925, Cardozo had developed Parkinson's disease which soon affected her painting ability, and she returned to Ferndale, where she remained until her death in 1937.

Emma Belle Freeman (active 1907-1925).

Emma B. Freeman was born in Nebraska in 1880 and died in San Francisco in 1928. Freeman went to San Francisco to study painting. She operated a small art store but was driven out by the earthquake and fire of 1906. Freeman and her husband settled in Eureka, California, where she became interested in native culture.

Between 1910 and 1920 she used her camera to produce a Northern California series of Indian portraits. Freeman often intermixed native costume - such as Yurok dance regalia and Navajo blankets - to create romantically conceived ideals of the "Noble" Indian. She frequently hand-colored her photographs and added allegorical details to enhance her compositions. Though sometimes shunned for her Bohemian lifestyle, Freeman did much to improve public sympathy for the Native American in Northern California. In 1915, for example, her principal model, Bertha Thompson (Princess Ah-Tra-Ah-Saun), was selected to head the parade at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, which was held in San Francisco.

An album of Freeman's photographs is in the California State Library, Sacramento, CA. Other examples may be seen at the Newberry Library, Chicago, IL (Palmquist 1977).

Anne Wardrope (Nott) Brigman (active 1894-1933).

Anne W. Brigman was born on December 3, 1869 in Honolulu, Hawaii and died in 1950 in Eagle Rock, California. She was a pictorialist and fine-art photographer active in Oakland c.1894-1930 and in Long Beach c.1930-1950. Brigman is best known for her allegorical studies of nudes and draped figures in dreamlike landscapes. She was sometimes criticized for "artistic monkeying" or for over-manipulating her negatives, sometimes even using an etching knife to remove unwanted elements.

In 1902, she exhibited five prints at the Second San Francisco Salon which signaled for her the beginning of a very strong exhibition record extending through 1923. Early on in her career, she became involved with the Photo-secession and was elected a fellow of the movement in 1906. She developed a strong friendship with Alfred Stieglitz, who actively promoted her work. She exhibited her photographs in the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (Gallery 291, New York) from 1905-1906. By 1909 she was having her work published in Camera Work, was elected as a member into the Linked Ring, and was awarded a gold medal at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition in Seattle.

She published her first book, Songs Of a Pagan, with her own poetry and photographs in 1949. She began her second book, Child of Hawaii, but died before completing it.

Laura May (Adams) Armer (active 1899-1930's).

Laura May Armer was born in 1874 and died in 1963. She received training from the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco. By 1900 she had opened a business as a portrait photographer in San Francisco and was a regular participant in photographic salons as well.

Armer made her first visit to the Southwestern United States in 1901, but it was not until 1923 that she began a thirteen-year study of the area, especially the Navajo Indians. In 1928 she directed a motion picture called The Mountain Chant which was based on a Navajo healing ceremony. Armer intended her 10-reel production to be an art piece and not solely for commercial purposes. Produced as a "silent" film, The Mountain Chant is thought to be the first film to have been accompanied by narration in a Native American language. Armer photographed many daily activities of the Navajos, including preparation of sandpaintings. (The Navajos agreed to do this for the camera, purposefully leaving out the sacred application of pollen for those paintings that were to be photographed.)

Armer also wrote six books, mostly for the "young adult" market. Her first, Waterless Mountain (1931) won the Newberry Award and the Longman, Green & Company's prize for juvenile fiction. Her last book, In Navajo Land (1962) was published when she was 88 years old.

Examples of her photographs can be found at the California Historical Society, San Francisco; the Phoebe Hearst Museum, University of California, Berkeley; and the Wheelwright Museum, Santa Fe, NM (Dicker 1977 and Palmquist 1991b:9-14). Peter Palmquist is presently working on a monograph on Armer's life and work.


100 Years of California Photography by Women: 1850-1950

Women Photographers and the American Indian

Selected Resources

Back to Palmquist Home

All text © Peter E. Palmquist