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The Women Behind Foundational Photography in North America

Daguerreotypes from the mid-19th-century offer insight into women’s roles in a rapidly industrializing and increasingly colonized world. An excerpt.

Colleen Skidmore 4 Jul 2022TheTyee.ca

Colleen Skidmore is a professor emerita at the University of Alberta.

[Editor’s Note from UBC Press: The following excerpt from ‘Rare Merit: Women in Photography in Canada, 1840–1940’ delves into the unknown history of the first woman photographer to set up shop in North America. In ‘Rare Merit,’ Colleen Skidmore presents, for the first time, the exceptional range of women's work in photography in Canada, proving that women’s practices and images — knowingly omitted from founding narratives of photographic history — were diverse, compelling, widespread and influential. Whenever and wherever women photographers lived, travelled and worked, their impact undermined the status quo.]

On July 7, 1841, the first women to work as a professional photographer in North America opened up shop. Mrs. Fletcher, “professor and teacher of the photogenic art,” announced her enterprise in the Mechanic and Farmer, the local newspaper of Pictou, Nova Scotia. Evoking the novelty of the medium, she enticed the skeptical and the curious by praising the “extreme perfections, beauty, and wonderful minuteness” of the daguerreotype.

A month later, she closed shop and boarded a steamship bound for the St. Lawrence River. On Aug. 6, 1841, she reappeared, announcing the opening of her second Canadian portrait studio, this time in Quebec City, centrally located in Upper Town. A month later she again moved on, to Montreal, and again she strategically situated her daguerreotype rooms in the heart of the city, on Place d’Armes next to the Union Bank. In both cities, Fletcher used the same wording for local newspaper readers. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” specifically, were “invited to call.”

No trace remains of Mrs. Fletcher’s daguerreotypes, as is true for those produced by her female successors in Canada. This loss creates an immutable gap in our knowledge and understanding of the foundational years of photography as a visual, social and technological phenomenon. It makes knowledge about early women photographers all the more elusive, for as the images disappeared so too did memory of their creators and their roles in the development of the medium as a visual practice and a business pursuit in Canada.

These are some of the questions that can be explored, despite the loss of visual artifacts, because Mrs. Fletcher made the fortuitous decision to advertise her service and wares: Who were they, and where did they operate? How and why did they enter the profession, and how did they fare? What did their images look like, and why did they look as they did? Who were their clientele and who were not? How and where did their daguerreotypes circulate, and what meaning did they create for those who viewed them? In what ways did women and men photographers interact in their new commercial profession?

Mrs. Fletcher's advertisements offer a slice of insight into women’s strategies, experiences and significance in the early history, practice and influence of photography in an industrializing, colonizing and capitalist world. The manner in which she ran her business, the challenges she faced, and whom she targeted as clientele can be gleaned and analyzed. There is also much that cannot be known and questions that cannot be fully answered but that nonetheless need to be kept in mind when drawing conclusions about the practices of early women photographers.

How did Mrs. Fletcher and her colleagues, both women and men, view her own and other women’s opportunities and barriers? How did she and other women negotiate their gender with patrons and with colleagues? What were the social profiles of those who patronized her rooms? And how much money did she make?

She described her business as “lucrative” and offered to instruct “enterprising young ladies” in its secrets. Was she indeed as financially successful as she claimed? Her ads are also more broadly instructive, as they identify a range of social, economic and aesthetic factors that can be explored to determine how such factors informed or were perhaps themselves shaped by women’s practices in photography between 1840 and 1940.

Fletcher’s business was transnational, competitive and entrepreneurial. It was public and professional; the work of making a daguerreotype, let alone running a business (marketing, building a clientele, delivering a final product to positive response), was complex and specialized. The product — a portrait — was at first a luxury item but soon became a meaningful discretionary expense for a burgeoning middle class.

In time, it became an indispensable tool for claiming and portraying social status. Market demand for both the service and the goods produced by daguerreotypists grew as exposure to the new medium spread, in part through the work and words of photographers like Mrs. Fletcher. Her business, and by extension Fletcher herself, were positioned in the public mind as modern and progressive, engaged as she was with technology, travel, advertising and education.

The “professor and teacher of the photogenic art” was a literate woman who was intelligent enough to master the technology and wealthy enough to pay for the necessary training and equipment. She was also a person of ambition and aspiration to financial return from her own professional pursuits, an especially challenging objective for women in mid-19th-century North America. Furthermore, she not only promoted the medium to consumers but enabled other women to take it up as an occupation by teaching them the process. And so, though she was the first woman photographer in the profession, she was not alone for long.


Adapted from the book ‘Rare Merit: Women in Photography in Canada, 1840–1940’ written by Colleen Skidmore and published by UBC Press. All rights reserved. For more information, visit the UBC Press website.  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality, Media

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