Karen Hellman and Antares Wells
J. Paul Getty Museum, USA
Ongoing Research into Early Women Photographers in the Getty Museum’s Collection
Women were everywhere in the making of photography in the nineteenth century, though it might not be readily apparent when reading histories of the medium or exploring online museum collection databases. The Getty Museum collection is known for its strength in early photography, and many now-iconic single prints by male photographers are well documented. In contrast, there are significant gaps in the documentation of early photographic work by women. Attention in recent years to the critical importance of diversity and inclusion in museum collections has encouraged us not only to acquire more female makers—both early and contemporary—but to re-examine existing holdings.
Reassessing the collection with an eye to uncovering the work of early women photographers has revealed many makers previously recorded as male or whose work was misattributed. The proposed presentation explores our ongoing efforts to locate early women makers in the collection and the specific challenges presented by this kind of research. Given that women often worked behind the scenes in photographic studios or utilised the business premises of male partners for their photographic practice, they are often unrecorded in official business registers, necessitating a reliance on a variety of other sources for the basics of object and maker documentation. Beyond this, uncovering women’s photographic work among existing holdings is complicated by the particular status of nineteenth-century photographic albums in the art museum—a space that, in many ways, continues to privilege the singular art object over the complex networks in which many women practiced photography. Using case studies, the proposed presentation discusses these challenges and foregrounds the significance of recent scholarly publications on early women makers for the reattribution of works in the Getty Museum’s collection.