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Archive 5 January - March 2001
CAMERA FIENDS AND KODAK GIRLS IN SOUTHERN OREGON 1850-1950
Reprinted with the permission of the Southern Oregon Heritage Society Article first appeared in Vol2 No.9 September 2000 Issue Southern Oregon Heritage Today (541) 773-6536
By Peter E. Palmquist
That the quality of patience is responsible for success in life has been demonstrated so often and with such force that the saying is almost trite, yet its truth cannot be more clearly shown than by a glance at the women photographers of today. Admitted into the proudest ranks of latter-day workers, she has steadily climbed by dint of hard work and patience until she can and is commanding the same attention as her fellows of the sterner sex. 1
I want to be a Kodak fiend And with my camera stand, A finding cloth about my head, And tripod in my hand. 2
Photography is easily one of the most significant inventions of modern times, yet there is a generalized perception that early-day photography was almost exclusively a male-oriented occupation. This impression has persisted despite the fact that women have been involved with the medium since its invention in 1839. Moreover, by the mid-1840s several women were already working as commercial daguerreotypists in Boston, New York, and St. Louis. Further west, a Mrs. Davis has been credited as the earliest photographer in Texas in 1843, and in January 1850, Mrs. Julia Shannon was already hard at work making daguerreotype portraits in San Francisco, California. By 1910, even the United States federal census recorded that twenty percent of America’s photographic work force was female. Today, a male student enrolled in a typical college photography course will most likely find himself in the minority by comparison to female participants.
Searching the historical record for women photographers is not unlike prospecting for gold. The data-gathering process requires a great deal of digging and considerable patience but there are many wonderful discoveries to be made. In Oregon, the ongoing process of documenting the history of the state's female photographers has relied largely on information gleaned from city directories, census records, and local newspapers. This data has been supplemented by reviewing public photographic collections for images taken by women. As of this writing, more than two hundred and fifty camerawomen have been listed for Oregon between 1850 and 1950. However, less than ten percent of this group actually operated in the area represented by the Southern Oregon Historical Society. In addition, there were a small number of women photographers working in several small towns on the California side of the border.
Who was the very first female photographer in Oregon? The historical record remains maddeningly vague, but it was most likely the wife of one of the male photographers operating in Portland or elsewhere across the state. Peter Britt, who was active in Jacksonville as early as 1856 was married by 1861, but it is not known if his wife participated in her husband's business, although his daughter Amalia ("Mollie") enjoyed a minor role as a colorist and gallery assistant. The earliest female portrait photographer in Southern Oregon, for which a significant number of photographs survive, was Mrs. Mae E. Tyler of Ashland. Born in 1851, Mrs. Tyler settled in Ashland with her husband (an upholsterer) in 1885. The following year she opened her own photographic gallery and soon began enjoying an "increasing reputation and success" until her untimely death in 1892 at the age of 41.
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