Since 2019, together with archivist/media history researcher Andrew Pace, I have been researching the stories of two women photographers who ran their photo studios in Malta during the 1860s-1880s, Sarah Ann Harrison and Adelaide Conroy. Their stories are hidden beneath layers of patriarchal history, but through a lengthy archival documentation search we have almost reconstructed their biographies.
In this research we are aiming to include and expand on women’s stories within the male-dominated historical narrative of local photography in Malta, taking the perspective that photography as a discipline did not emerge gendered, rather it “became gendered”, and discover how that process was interrupted and challenged by women photographers who with their gaze interfered with the industrial, rigid categories of what can be included in “pure” photography (Hudgins, 2020). The two photographers we focus on participated in conventional photography of Carte de Visites or cabinet cards that they produced from their studios. They followed as far as photo evidence suggests the male-dominated rules of what commercial photography should be at the time, but by their existence as photographic practitioners in their own right, stamping the images with their names and utilising their gaze on mostly male subjects, they interfered with the structure of local male gaze dominated photostudio production by entering the photographic history of the islands.
Following the invention of the wet collodion process by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851, the number of professional photographers registered on the UK census grew from 50 men and 1 woman in 1851, to 2789 men and 168 women in 1861. This does not mean that women did not practice photography, but that they encountered socio-economic barriers in becoming a registered professional. Maltese census returns from the 1860s-1870s did not list names, only statistical information, such as the total number of people involved in certain professions in the parish/village. Here, artists and photographers were clumped together, a bureaucratic colonial gesture that then accepted photography as art when the global debate was still ongoing about the “art-ness” of the process.
Our estimates of how many people were engaged in studio photography are based on the census, the stamps on the verso of CdV/cabinet card images from mid-19 century, notarial documents, and two books on the history of photography in Malta (Photographers of Malta by Margaret Harker, and Photography in Malta by Kevin Casha). So far as is known, during the 1850s-1860s there were 2 female and 8 male photographers with studio spaces. However, this number does not include countless undocumented photographers who offered CdV/cabinet card services in Malta in summer on their way to other Mediterranean places. The total, of course, does not indicate the real situation, but merely points at the lack of data.
Our research focuses on finding out more about the only two women of the early photographic period in Malta, approaching their stories from the social and economic context of the time. The next woman photographer, according to Kevin Casha, who ran her own photo studio was Carmela Mejlak in Gozo in the 1930s (Casha, 2016), which is an incredible gap in women’s photographic history. In our research, we seek to find answers to a number of questions, including: why did Sarah Ann and Adelaide decide to engage in photography in Malta (we know that they likely did not come to Malta for the purpose of engaging in photography), what made the Maltese environment favourable for them to practice in their own name, in the case of Sarah Ann, and as part of a studio shared by other photographers, in the case of Adelaide?
The research is still ongoing to find answers to these questions. We also approach the research from a number of interest points. For example, taking the perspective of women working with early technology finds parallels with current media art and women artists working with AI, machine learning and neural networks (including myself as photography trained woman artist working with machine learning, amongst other tools). Indeed, Blaise Aguera y Arcas argues that early photography is as much human-machine collaboration as working with AI is today. The gendering of work is also reminiscent of the landscape of jobs in early computing, first being a job title for a woman’s occupation and then becoming a process taken over by a machine. Like with photography work, technology becomes gendered, more often male-gendered, with a perceived higher value attached (Hudgins, 2020).
The research will result in a publication. Here’s a mini taster of the stories of Sarah Ann and Adelaide.
Hudgins, Nicole. (2020). The gender of Photography. Bloomsbury.
Wilkes, Angela et al. (2014). Photography. The definitive visual history. Penguin Random House.
Harker, Margeret. (2000). Photographers of Malta 1840-1990. Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti.
Casha, Kevin. (2016). Photography in Malta. The history and the protagonists.
Sarah Ann Harrison (Roberts) who was only written into maltese photographic history because a person who collects local victorian photographs discovered a photo by her. There was initially no other information about her existence. She was one of the few women in the world at the time who owned and run photostudios in their own name. She lived in Senglea, Malta in the 1860, moving subsequently to London and then Lincolnshire in 1869/1870. On the photo is her census entry of 1871 in Boston, Lincolnshire. Her life is full of incredible turns including many deaths of loved ones, three marriages and a coffee shop business next to police HQ in London in the 1880s.
element of the only existing photograph so far
by Sarah Ann Harrison (1866)
(Giovanni Bonello collection)
Adelaide Anceschi was known by her married name Mrs Conroy. She was originally from Reggio Emilia, IT and arrived in Malta with a family of performers who all started a studio. First, she was taking/developing photographs in her husband’s studio from about 1862 in Senglea and later in Valletta. In 1875 she became the official owner of the studio and advertised in her own name. She was also a mother and arrived in Malta already pregnant during the unification of Italy. Her child was adopted by her future husband and his then-wife, who were quite unconventional Victorians.
The project would not have been possible without the support of the Arts Council Malta,
who awarded us two research support grants and a travel grant to film on locations.