Woman and Domestic Photography

By Lilly Hilton

Nowadays, a lot of us rely on photos to preserve our memories, particularly those from our youth. It’s now common for our mothers to capture and save every detail of our childhoods, whether it’s in the form of a family photo album filled with awkward but nostalgic candid photos, travel photos from overseas, or even just domestic snapshots. Thus, for many, photographs are deeply personal objects that serve as physical reminders of our lives. Our family photos are commonly viewed as the keepers of our personal memories, a physical object that we can view whenever we wish. Documenting our domestic lives has become ingrained in our culture, and it all started with women.

Family group in the Isle Of Man, 1893 or 94. By Abaraphobia, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Photography’s accuracy in taking and preserving memories has been utilised since the nineteenth century, and since then it’s only evolved. Most histories of photography’s beginnings overlook the importance of women. The medium was created primarily by men, but women embraced it as their own. Whereas practically all other pastimes had been dominated by men, photography gave women a means of self-expression that was also practical. If not for Victorian and Edwardian ladies, domestic photography would not exist like it does today.

Domestic photography is commonly used to describe the act of a non-professional taking and using photos. From our births to our deaths, it has been used to document and record practically every element of our lives. However, this was not the intention when the medium was created. It comes from the artisans who employed the method to aid in the creation of their artworks, viewing photography as a light-drawing technique.

Mother, daughter, grandchildren. Late Victorian / Edwardian. By photojojo3, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

However, people were unable to help falling in love with the medium as it continued to improve over time. By making it more accessible to the general public, by the end of the nineteenth century, photography had become a hobby for many.  This resulted in a dramatic rise in amateur photography, with individuals taking pictures of their daily lives. The first Kodak camera was introduced in 1888, and it was believed that 1.5 million had found their way into individuals’ households barely ten years later. With Kodak’s more accessible camera being able to be used at home, individuals took advantage of the technology and generated a new use for it. It eventually evolved from a tool for artists to help with their craft into a tool for mundane folks to wield at leisure.

Moreover, women were able to easily learn how to operate the camera from the instructions because it didn’t require any formal academic training. Furthermore, when Kodak decided to focus their marketing on women, it transformed photography from a profession to a means of collecting and preserving family memories and domestic life. Women photographed what they could, which happened to be their daily, domestic lives. And the most prevalent thing in their lives were their family, which seem to be subject in most images found from the time. Some of them were more staged, with the family all stood in place in front of the camera, capturing everyone. Others were more candid, featuring the children playing outside in the sun, or even snow. Even the Royals engaged in photography due to its growing popularity. Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Alexandra of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1878- 1842) was rather enamoured of the pastime.

Winter scene with children, 1880s. By east_lothian_museums. Is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Even though many women, including Lady Clementina Hawarden, treated photography as more of an artistic expression and received recognition for it (1822-1865). Hawarden utilised photography to document her private life since, like so many other women of her generation, she was restricted to fulfilling domestic responsibilities in her home. Thus, Hawarden’s eight children were heavily featured in her photos, through raw candid portraits. These candid photos showed not only a world of recreation but also a deeper narrative about the development of adolescents. Hawarden’s photographs can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Unfortunately, many of the ladies who documented their domestic, routine lives at this time are impossible to be identified, leaving only the pictures we inadvertently happen across. However, these images were the beginning of domestic photography, allowing us insight into how our older generations existed.

There is almost a nostalgic feeling while looking at these images, which were taken so long ago. Moreover, there is a sensation of familiarity because many of us can remember having our images shot under similar, if not exactly same, circumstances. We can be assured that the makers of these pictures did not intend for them to be understood as historical or even relevant by those looking at them today, a century from now. They were probably taken to capture and preserve the occasion, to be able to physically look back and remember.

Victorian children, 1890s. By east_lothian_museums. Is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Pictures taken at this time were not all that dissimilar from those we take today. There are elements of contemporariness in each photo, which serve as visual reflections of how little domestic photography has evolved. In addition, we can see the origins of domestic photography in our own modern images, such as how infants are photographed playing in the garden or how granny requests a photo with her grandkids. They serve as not only reminders of our current lives, but also the lives of our predecessors, demonstrating to us that humanity isn’t changing as drastically as we imagine.

Reading:

Coe, B. and Gates, P. (1977) The snapshot photograph: the rise of popular photography, 1888-1939. London: Ash & Grant.

Di Bello, P. (2007) Women’s albums and photography in Victorian England: ladies, mothers and flirts. Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

Kuhn, A. (2007) Photography and cultural memory: a methodological exploration, Visual Studies, 22:3, 283-292.

LEWIS, E. M. M. A. (2021) Photography – a feminist history: how women shaped the art. ILEX GIFT.

McAloon, J., 2018. How Women Artists in Victorian England Pushed Photography Forward | Artsy. [online] Artsy. Available at: <https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-women-artists-victorian-england-pushed-photography-forward&gt; [Accessed 8 July 2022].

Pols, R. (2002) Family photographs, 1860-1945. Richmond, Surrey: Public Record Office (Public Record Office genealogist’s guides).

Sandbye, M. (2014) Looking at the family photo album: a resumed theoretical discussion of why and how, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 6:1.

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