Photographer: Elizabeth Withington
Dates: 1825 (USA) -1877 (USA)
Active: 1852-1877 in California
Ran Studio: Yes
Known for: Portraits and Landscapes
- Materials on Women in Photography Archive website
- Another short essay about Elizabeth Withington, also written by photo historian Peter Palmquist for the Clio Visualizing History website. This page includes several photos attributed to Elizabeth Withington.
- The short biographic sketch on the Historic Camera website that includes a list of places that have some of of Elizabeth Withington's photographs.
- I first ran across Elizabeth Withington when reading Peter Palmquist's excellent book, Camera Fiends and Kodak Girls, which offers a good selection of essays and articles written in the 1800s by and about women photographers. A highly recommended read!
- That the name of this podcast is a nod to Elizabeth Withington’s "strong black-linen cane-handled parasol.”
- The Broadway composer Jerry Herman wasn’t writing about a photographer when he wrote his song, A Sensible Woman, but some of the lyrics provide the perfect way to remember Elizabeth Withington:
“… when faced with a problem …with her eye on its target … her parasol brandished, … with wisdom, wit and élan … a sensible woman goes on!” — from the song A Sensible Woman, written by Jerry Herman for the musical Dear World
Welcome to Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols, the podcast that celebrates the wit wisdom and élan of early women photographers.
I'm your host, Lee McIntyre .
Today we'll meet a woman photographer who fashioned clever photography tools out of fashionable nineteenth century women's accessories.
More information about any of the material discussed in today's episode can be found on my website, at p3.clfoto.net. That's P, number 3, c l f o t o .net.
Today I want to tell you about a woman named Elizabeth Withington.
She was a nineteenth century photographer who fashioned clever photography tools of fashionable nineteen century women's fashions.
Let me explain.
Elizabeth Withington was born in 1825, and she opened her first studio in 1857.
She did studio portraits, but by the 1870s she was also becoming noticed for her landscape photos. Now the photos themselves were quite good, but another thing that was attracting attention were rumors about how she was *taking* her landscape photos.
The technology she was using was called wet plate photography, and that was popular for both studio photos as well as for taking landscape photos.
But it was a bit cumbersome because you had to work with the glass plate right after it was coated with liquid, before the plate got dry. It was, after all, called "wet plate photography".
Typically you had no more than ten minutes before the plate would start to dry. Once the photo was exposed, within those ten minutes, you then had to get that plate into a developing solution right away or else the photo would be ruined.
And both the coating of the plate, as well as the developing of the plate, well, those things needed to be done in complete darkness.
So when you look at history books for this period, you'll see mention of the civil war photographers. Now they were using this wet plate photography, and all of the stories about the civil war photographers talk about how when they took their battlefield photos, off on the side of the battlefield would be their dark room wagon, parked ready for them to dash into, in order to develop the image. Because typically photographers doing wet plate photography would have their own darkroom wagon. That was how you had to do it, because you needed a darkroom.
But Elizabeth Withington, well, she was not your typical photographer. A she sort of atypically would travel by public transportation, like stage coach or maybe by hitching a ride on a fruit wagon. Which meant that she would travel without a portable darkroom.
So people wondered, how could she possibly do wet plate photography? I mean, you needed a darkroom.
But Elizabeth Withington was clever. First, she considered the problem of the wet plates. Conventional thinking said you couldn't possibly coat the plates ahead of time because it would dry out too fast.
But she discovered that by carefully wrapping the coated plates in a wet towel she could extend the limit to not just ten minutes, but more like a 180 — three hours worth of time for her to coat them at home and then use them in the field.
So the first problem of needing a darkroom in the field was solved by pre-coating the plates and keeping them wet in that towel.
But then, when she got to her sun-drenched meadow and she took her photo, how in the world was she going to be able to develop the images without having a darkroom at hand?
Once again, an unconventional solution was at hand.
Because Elizabeth Whittington got the idea of taking a dark petticoat, and then turning it into a wearable "darkroom petticoat tent".
She designed it so she could slip it over her head, down to her waist, and then in total darkness be able to apply the developer solution to stabilize the exposed image, so that she could then take it back to her darkroom for final processing.
This was very creative and it allowed her to deal quickly with any of the photos that she took out in the field particularly if she had just stepped off the stage coach and taken a photo. She later wrote that she could do it so quickly that the stagecoach driver wouldn't have to wait extra for her to process her photo.
Now she became famous, as I said, for her photos as well as for her techniques, and in 1876 she was persuaded to write down the details of her techniques in an article that was called "How a woman makes landscape photographs."
In that article she describes how she uses the wet towel and the petticoat darkroom tent as photographers tools for doing landscape photos.
I mentioned a moment ago that what happens if she's standing on the sunlit field when she's taken a photo and she needs to develop it. But she also had a mention in that article of what she would do when there was too much sunlight on her camera. Because she writes about the importance to a woman photographer of a parasol.
Now parasols were common for women to carry in those days. But she says that a woman photographer "needs a strong black-linen, cane-handle parasol" , that's a necessary photographer's tool. Not just for shade for the photographer, but also for improvising a lens shade when you're out in that sun-drenched field and there's just too much light on your lens.
Elizabeth Withington also points out that a parasol can be good for steading yourself as you're walking across rough terrain to get to your photo op. In addition, she comments that it would be useful if you wanted to slide down into a ravine to assess another opportunity for a photo.
Now that's not exactly the standard picture you get when you hear about Victorian ladies with parasols, but that was Elizabeth Withington's advice to women photographers in the Victorian age.
Unfortunately Elizabeth Withington died from cancer at the age of only fifty two in 1877, just a year after her article was published. She was a professional photographer for many years, but there aren't that many of her photographs that have survived to the 21st century. But luckily her legacy is not just in her photographs, but also in her wonderful 1876 article where she explains these tips about using the petticoat and the parasol as photographers tools.
Now nowadays we don't have to really worry about the wet plates and the wet towel, but we still can learn a lot from Elizabeth Withington. Her creativity, resourcefulness, and can do spirit in solving the problems posed by the technology that she was faced with — well that provides inspiration to photographers of any time period.
By the way, the name of my podcast is actually a tribute in-part to Elizabeth Withington , and her advice to women photographers about the use of a strong, black linen, cane-handled parasol.***I'll include a link to the text of her 1876 article in the show notes for this episode. They're located on my website at p3.clfoto.net. That's letter P, number 3, dot C. L. F. O. T. O. dot net.
Well, that's it for today.
Thanks for stopping by, and until next time, I'm Lee McIntyre, and this is Photographs, Pistols, and Parasols.