De Montfort University, England
The Negative is the Narrative
Among the many stories concealed within the Victoria and Albert Museum’s photographic archive are narratives that define the unexamined role of women in the nineteenth-century institution. My proposed paper discusses one of these hidden stories, that of the V&A's first female Official Photographer, Isabel Agnes Cowper. Cowper, whose photographic contribution has only recently been discovered, ran the Museum’s photographic service beginning in 1868, remaining in the position until she resigned in 1891.
Through the prism of a single negative made by Cowper, I reframe existing gendered institutional histories, defining the practices of object photography in the Museum and demonstrating the multiple ways photographs accrue and make meaning within, and as an agent of, the complex museum ecosystem. In the process, I reassemble Cowper’s career, substantiating her professional reach and agency to argue that women played an important role in 19th century institutional photographic practices, challenging Roger Fenton’s and Charles Thurston Thompson’s monopoly of a rich lode of photographic history.
This proposed paper problematises not only our understanding of institutional photographic practices, but also the status of 19th century professional women and the visual ecosystems to which these women contributed. More broadly, critical engagement with Cowper’s negative demonstrates the utility of the material approach to excavate latent historical biographies embedded in photographic archives, the negative evidence of, and metaphor for, the absence of Cowper and her female peers in prevailing understandings of institutional photographic practices.