top of page
  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Through Shaded Glass: Women and Photography in Aotearoa New Zealand 1860-1960 by Lissa Mitchell

Were only a handful of women involved in photography in New Zealand? Or had their contribution to photography been largely overlooked?

This aroused the curiosity of photographic historian Lissa Mitchell who had spent many years researching photographs made by Pākehā men in the 19th and 20th centuries. It spurred her on to unearth the identities of many hitherto unknown New Zealand women photographers.

Wanting to be as inclusive as possible, she cast her net widely to include a wide range of photographic practices in which women photographers were involved from 1860-1960. Not just the few who had gained national recognition but also those who worked in the backrooms of 19th and early 20th-century photographic studios as well as amateur photographers.

In Through Shaded Glass, which is richly illustrated with many beautiful photographs taken by these talented women, she shares their stories and provides a fascinating glimpse into their lives against a backdrop of many social and political changes.

The time frame she chose for her book, 1840-1960, was also a time of many changes in photographic equipment and processes which she has woven into her narrative.

In early photographic studios, women worked as assistants. Although these studios could not have functioned without their retouching, colouring, printing, and mounting skills, it was the man behind the camera who signed the portraits and took all the credit. It was only through searching through official records like street directories and electoral rolls that Lissa Mitchell was able to find some of these women who were involved in photography during that era and to acknowledge them.

Having gained experience in such a studio, if they were widowed, needed to escape from an abusive relationship, or from other family problems, a woman would be in a very precarious situation. With no other means of support, running a photographic studio would be the only way to provide an income for themselves and their children.

Harriet Cobb, for instance, established a photography business under her own name after her husband was declared bankrupt in 1887. This ambitious and extremely busy lady gave birth to her 15th and last child in 1892 (a year before women in New Zealand got the vote).

The lives of women working in the early portrait studios differed greatly from those of privileged women from wealthy land-owning families for whom photography was an enjoyable hobby, an outlet for their creativity, and an acceptable form of gender-inclusive science education. Photographs from their family albums reproduced in this book give us a tantalizing glimpse into their lives.

By the 1890s, for women with leisure time, cycling adventures with their cameras on hand became a popular group activity. Kodak obliged by producing more compact, folding cameras which were easy to carry and with negatives that could record faster exposures and capture fleeting moments like snapshots.

But alpine climbing for women amateur photographers was too expensive for most and was also hampered by the social mores of the day, which required that women should not go unless a male guide accompanied them. The intrepid Jessie Westland, accompanied by her husband, was the first to climb the Whitcombe Pass. She is shown resting on a rock in her climbing attire, boots, an ankle-length dress, and a hat. How she successfully managed to climb over treacherous terrain dressed like this is mind-boggling.

Amateur women photographers were also held back by the fact that it was not until the late 1890s that photographic societies and camera clubs began to allow female members to join their clubs. Once they were accepted, it opened up many new learning opportunities for them to develop their artistic skills and chances for them to submit photographs in photographic competitions. It gave many a chance to shine.

In the early 20th century, photographic studios continued to be popular. In 1909 there were at least thirteen photographic studios in Wellington, most of these in the central city. One of the most successful, the Rembrandt studios, was run by May and Mina Moore. As early feminists, they chose to employ only women to work in their studio.

Their fine-art approach made them popular with many important visiting artists and performers. Families who had a son who was off to fight in World War One also flocked to their studio to have his photograph taken.

I was deeply moved by these splendid portraits in which they used Rembrandt-style lighting against a dark background, giving these young men a classic hero-like appearance.

They would have been very precious for families to hold and touch in their absence. I could not help wondering how many of these young men perished on the battlefield.

In Through Shaded Glass Lissa Mitchell has skilfully and successfully filled a gap in the history of women’s participation in photography in the Western world.

She has amply succeeded in her aim of showing that in New Zealand, women from 1860-1960 did have access to photographic equipment and used it in all sorts of ways. It must have taken her countless hours to trace and acknowledge the 190 women featured in her book.

She is a very erudite photography historian but has written Through Shaded Glass in a very engaging and accessible way for the general reader. I found it unputdownable.

It filled me with admiration for these women who, in this first century of photography, had far fewer rights and opportunities than women do today. Many showed an indomitable spirit and succeeded against all odds.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Te Papa Press


bottom of page