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American Women: Resources from the Prints & Photographs Collections

Professional Photographers from the Post-Daguerreotype Era

Laura Le Clair & Lottie Forbes. Between 1855 and 1865. Brady-Handy Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Portrait photography was a staple of many photographers who earned a living with their cameras in the post-daguerreotype era. The corpus of their work invites exploration of the manner in which photographers' clients, who were largely of the middle class, and the photographer collaborated to convey idealized versions of their physical features and their lifestyles.

Examining the output of a single photographer affords researchers evidence with which to investigate the role the camera operator may have played in this transaction. Some examples of collections that suggest the varied approaches of professional photographers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries are given below.

Brady-Handy Collection

Levin C. Handy (1855?-1932) was apprenticed at the age of twelve to his uncle, famed Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady (1823?-1896). Handy became an independent photographer and over the years owned studios in Washington, D.C., in partnership with Samuel Chester and with Chester and Brady. The Brady-Handy Collection consists of approximately 10,000 negatives from Handy's studio, which absorbed some of his uncle's earlier studio photographs. The majority of the Brady-Handy negatives are of Civil War and post-Civil War portraits, with a small collection of Washington views. Antebellum actresses, many in costume, are well represented in the collection, as are wives and daughters of men prominent in the Washington social scene and in the conduct of the Civil War. (Most of the Library's Civil War photographs, including those made under Brady's direction, are found in the Civil War Photographs Collection.)

Searching the Brady-Handy Collection

The Brady-Handy Collection can be searched online, where it has its own listing. Retrieving online records and images depends primarily on words in the titles and notes found on the negatives or negative sleeves. Fruitful keywords when looking for portraits of women include the last name of the individual and terms such as “actress,” “mrs.,” “daughter,” and “lady.”

Charles Currier Collection

Photographs made by Boston-based photographer Charles Currier (500 photos, 1887-1910) provide a glimpse into the homes and recreations of upper-class families in that region (LOT 11337). Currier's interior views of clients' dwellings offer a detailed picture of the Victorian home and furnishings. His work also provides sparse but intriguing glimpses of women working in factories and an almshouse (whether the latter were residents or paid workers remains unclear from the very generally captioned images).

Searching the Currier Collection

All of Currier's photographs are found in LOT 11337. Very few of the individual photographs, which were printed from original glass negatives held by the Prints and Photographs Division, have been digitized or cataloged online. Onsite researchers can submit a call slip to view the collection.

C. M. Bell Studio. Mrs. Reese. Between December 1903 and March 1905. C. M. Bell Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

C. M. Bell Studio Collection

Charles Milton Bell (1848-1893) was one of Washington's leading portrait photographers during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The studio's cameras captured the likenesses of publicly prominent individuals (politicians, embassy officials and distinguished visitors from other countries, athletes and entertainers) as well as less well known people who chose to pose for a portrait alone or with family members or friends. The studio negatives include multiple views of prominent women, such as first lady Frances Folsom Cleveland and attorney Belva Lockwood, as well as many less well-known women posed alone, with their families, and with their pets.  

Searching the C.M. Bell Studio Collection

  • More than 25,800 5x7 glass negatives from the collection have been digitized and can be searched online. The collection does not have its own category in the online catalog, but the images can be found with the code bellcm, which can be used alone to view all of the images or can be combined with names or designations such as mrs., miss, girl, woman (the latter two generally for images that bore no identification).
  • Negatives that have not been digitized can be viewed on site on microfilm.

Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection

Frances Benjamin Johnston's portraiture provides expansive coverage, particularly of Washington's elite set, much as her architectural and garden photography later did for the environments frequented by members of the upper class. One of Johnston's innovations, in fact, was to photograph individuals in the comfort of their homes, rather than in a strictly studio setting. (See the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection section of this guide.)

Arnold Genthe Collection

Arnold Genthe maintained active portrait studios, first in San Francisco and, after 1911, in New York. He captured the visages of socially prominent women in both cities. The Arnold Genthe Collection (16,800 photos, 1896-1942) features the products of his prolific studio portrait work, his depictions of dancers such as Isadora Duncan, as well as his well-known photographs of San Francisco's Chinatown (which features scattered images of Chinese women and girls) and the aftermath of the city's 1906 earthquake.

Searching the Genthe Collection

Genthe's negatives and transparencies can be searched online, where the collection has its own listing.

Carl Van Vechten. Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald. 1940 Jan. 19. Van Vechten Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Division also holds some prints and albums of proofs by Genthe. Some of these have been grouped by subject matter and cataloged as LOTs. On-site researchers can submit call slips to view LOTs. Advance notice is needed to request to view photographic prints in the Genthe collection that have not yet been organized and prepared for service.

Harris & Ewing, Inc.

George Harris (d. 1964) and his business partner until 1915, Martha Ewing, ran a studio in Washington, D.C., that had a reputation for producing elegant, finely finished portraits. In addition to portraiture, the studio documented political life, social events, local schools and universities, and scenes in and around Washington., D.C. (ca. 70,000 photographs, 1905-1945).

Searching the Harris & Ewing Collection

More than 41,000 of the studio's negatives can be searched online, where the collection has its own listing. The descriptions are based on unverified caption data received with the collection, which varies from very detailed to very abbreviated. Some images came with no caption data at all.

Approximately 28,000 film negatives in the collection have not been digitized; access is through a paper finding aid in the reading room.

Carl Van Vechten Collection

The Carl Van Vechten Collection includes studio portraits of people involved in the arts, including many associated with the Harlem Renaissance (1,300 photographs, 1927-64).

Searching the Van Vechten Collection

Van Vechten's photographs can be searched online, where the collection has its own listing.

Sample Images