Historical Heroines in the era of Instagram

29 April 2019

The RPS Journal

George Mind explains it's time to celebrate women photographers.

In 1894 the society photographer Alice Hughes was interviewed by the Women’s Penny Paper about women aspiring to work in photography. Her resounding message was that ‘there is no room for them at the bottom, but plenty at the top’ 

At that time, Hughes was running the most successful portraiture studio in London and, although she might make it sound easy for women to become successful photographers in the late 19th century, she was acutely aware of the structural injustices that exploited female employees in the photographic industry. Women’s labour was cheaper, and women were easier to keep in menial roles. When it came to running her own business, Hughes pushed against the norm, cultivating an all-female studio practice and refusing to photograph or employ men. At the height of her career she had a staff of 60 women and ensured they received comprehensive training by paying for them to study at the Regent Street Polytechnic.  

In 1894 it was a radical act for a woman to make room for herself – and other women – ‘at the top’. In fact it is still radical for a woman to carve out space in the male-dominated field of photography. It is, therefore, paramount that we make their achievements visible, both historical and contemporary.  

The RPS Hundred Heroines and Historical Heroines campaigns reflect an exciting new moment in the history of photography when women photographers’ triumphs and struggles are being recognised. 

Since autumn 2017 I have been researching the National Portrait Gallery’s collection of studio portraiture produced by women photographers in Britain between 1888 and 1938. My work is part of a collaborative doctoral project between the University of Westminster and the gallery.  


Georgina Elizabeth Ward (née Moncreiffe), Countess of Dudley, by Alice Hughes, platinum print, circa 1902, © National Portrait Gallery, London


On my first day at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) I met Terence Pepper, recently retired from his role as head of photographs but still very much a part of the institution’s lifeblood. Terence has spent his career championing women photographers. From his exhibitions ‘Edwardian Women Photographers’ and ‘Dorothy Wilding’ during the 1990s to his recent curatorial projects at the Fashion and Textile Museum he has persistently made the case for women photographers to be placed front and centre.  

Harnessing our shared passion for fighting the good fight on behalf of little-known and underacknowledged historical women photographers, together we decided to collaborate on a project to share their work. The result was Sisters of the Lens, an Instagram account we set up in January 2018. We research and post the work of women who made great photographic contributions in their lifetimes but who have been eclipsed by their male counterparts or whose commercial and amateur successes have been dismissed by historians who favour the narratives of the avant-garde. 

Terence and I were thrilled to participate in the Instagram takeover for Hundred Heroines and contribute a historical perspective to a campaign that has achieved so much in terms of giving visibility to contemporary women photographers. The impact of Hundred Heroines travels far beyond the esteemed winners of the Margaret Harker Medal – the campaign has created a platform for established and emerging women practitioners, enabling conversations and collaborations to develop, and sparking change in the photographic industry.  

Now, with the spin-off campaign Historical Heroines, the RPS is generating further critical discussions about the dominant histories of photography. The planned database of female photographers, contributed to by researchers and experts all over the world, will create a permanent space for reflection and knowledge sharing about women’s pioneering practices of photography.  

With the Hundred Heroines and Historical Heroines campaigns the RPS demonstrates its commitment to building a community with the shared mission of creating room for women photographers at the top. 


Read more about Historical Heroines in the May issue of The RPS Journal, published on 29 April. George Mind is an AHRC-funded collaborative doctoral award student (University of Westminster/National Portrait Gallery)Follow @sistersofthelens


Title picture:

Frances Elizabeth Willard by Alice Hughes, published by Eglington & Co, carbon print, published 1893, © National Portrait Gallery, London