One image in my new book on The Gender of Photography was kindly provided by the Schlesinger Library. It depicts Henrietta "Lilla" Elizabeth Kenney (1877–1924) hand-painting a photograph for the Kenney Brothers Art Studio in Connecticut. Lilla appears to have been the spouse of one of the Kenney photographers. During the last quarter of the 19th century, many women worked with their husbands and brothers in photographic studios across America, sometimes as colorists, other times as operators, receptionists, bookkeepers, and assistants. Some women owned and directed their own studio businesses as early as the 1840s, especially in more western regions of North America, where competition from an established male fraternity of photographers had not established itself.
Although this tintype image of a female “retouching” artist is relatively late (c. 1900), the use of fine brushes and specialty oils shown here went back to the earliest days of photography. The term "retouching" included coloring as well as hand-produced “corrections” of prints and negatives with the use of inks, brushes, and blades. Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America has collected data on “Lilla” that resembles the backgrounds of many mid-century American women studio workers. Trained as a painter, Lilla divorced her first husband following years of abuse, and married a second husband who was a photographer. Working alongside her husband and brother-in-law in the Connecticut studio (without enjoying credit in the studio name or advertisements), Lilla was also a mother, suffragist, temperance supporter, and traveler.
In my chapter “The Gender of Coloring,” I used 19th-century photographic journal articles to show how, in the process of making photography “masculine,” English, French, and North American men saw that women were filling these coloring and retouching jobs in the studios, and so quickly went to work disparaging hand coloring as “impure” and therefore damaging to the medium’s reputation and prestige. Despite the popularity of tinting among customers, photography’s institutional leaders—club councilmen, exhibition judges, journalists, and others—waged a war of words against retouching techniques and their practitioners. At times, the pseudo-sexual terminology in the period’s rhetoric on “touching” was striking: Advice held that photographic prints should be “pure” and “untouched.” Images were described as spoiled, tainted, or ruined when touched by the wrong hands, in language that mimicked that used for young ladies’ reputations.
Despite male workers’ earlier interest in tinting work, the technique gradually acquired the taint of “femininity” (that is, an association with second-rate skill and low wages). Negative language used to describe it, the leadership’s rejection of it, and the partial proletarianization of the coloring profession as portraits became mass-produced during the 1860s, '70s, and '80s ensured that coloring would be cordoned off from the “masculinity” of photography. One reviewer of photography at the 1855 Universal Exposition in Paris argued that the tinted images on display were so tacky that they could only have “dazzled the eyes of women who [were] amorous of adornment and makeup,” thus simultaneously denigrating colored images and the women who (presumably) liked them. During the Brussels Exposition of 1856, the critic Humbert de Molard expressed his disgust for retouched prints in his reviews; and the council of the French Photographic Society agreed with him, banning such impure products from their annual salons.
Behind many of the anti-retouching rules and rhetoric, moreover, was the belief that tinting was not just impure but dishonest. The link between photographic “manipulation” and “femininity” strained the limits of coincidence. Where “masculinity” in photography was straight, truthful, and conquering, “femininity,” in this line of thinking, was deceptive and frivolous. A whiff of harlotry surrounded coloring, at least for the photographic elites. But whereas the science-minded councils of the early photographic societies rejected hand-tinting as an impurity—a technique they believed could only harm the virtues of the medium—portrait businesses cheerfully provided the service to please their customers.