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Turn of the Century Women Photographers in California



The bohemian art circles of the San Francisco Bay Area included prominent women artists and writers. But living far way from the ‘art scene’ there were women working in photography with different inspirations, capturing the life of Native Americans at the turn of the century, becoming the first X-Ray photographer in California, and managing their own successful portrait studios. These women overcame cultural and gender bias in order to take their photographs. Some, as we can see due to untrustworthy husbands, were motivated to support their families financially with their photography, while others saw it as a religious mission.

The following two women are examples of non-commercial women photographers working to capture and share a time, a way of life, and an understanding of a different culture. These biographies are provided by Purdue University, and the author is Peter Palmquist.

Nellie Tichenor McGraw
(active 1899-1906).


Nellie Tichenor McGraw was born about 1877 and died in 1948. McGraw was an amateur photographer, schoolteacher and lecturer. She was photographically active on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, Humboldt County, CA, 1899-1901 and at North Fork, Madera County, CA, 1904-1906. After receiving a high school education, McGraw became interested in missionary life. She wanted to go to China, but her parents objected and she settled for a "home" mission. Her first job was as a teacher in the Presbyterian Mission School at Hoopa. While there, she used her camera to record the daily lives of school children, friends, and life on the reservation. Following her period at Hoopa, she purchased a Kodak Autographic Camera, which made postcard size negatives. She continued to use this camera during her tenure in Madera County. After 1906, McGraw traveled over much of the United States as a lecturer-hoping to "save" the Indians from "drink, immorality and the Roman Catholics" (personal communication, Joel W. Hedgpeth, April 1984). A number of her negatives are in the Phoebe Hearst Museum, University of California, Berkeley. Two albums of her photographs remain with her family (Palmquist 1991b: 223-224).

Emma Belle Freeman
(active 1907-1925).


Emma B. Freeman was born in Nebraska in 1880 and died in San Francisco in 1928. Freeman went to San Francisco to study painting. She operated a small art store but was driven out by the earthquake and fire of 1906. Freeman and her husband settled in Eureka, California, where she became interested in native culture.

Between 1910 and 1920 she used her camera to produce a Northern California series of Indian portraits. Freeman often intermixed native costume - such as Yurok dance regalia and Navajo blankets - to create romantically conceived ideals of the "Noble" Indian. She frequently hand-colored her photographs and added allegorical details to enhance her compositions. Though sometimes shunned for her Bohemian lifestyle, Freeman did much to improve public sympathy for the Native American in Northern California. In 1915, for example, her principal model, Bertha Thompson (Princess Ah-Tra-Ah-Saun), was selected to head the parade at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, which was held in San Francisco.

An album of Freeman's photographs is in the California State Library, Sacramento, CA. Other examples may be seen at the Newberry Library, Chicago, IL (Palmquist 1977).

First Woman of X-Ray Photography in Claifornia
Elizabeth Fleischmann: A Tribute
by Peter E. Palmquist


Who was Elizabeth Fleischmann? Thus far, her biographical record is quite sparse. She was apparently born in El Dorado County (perhaps Placerville, California). By 1880, however, the family had moved to San Francisco where they were listed in the census of that year. Her parents were Jacob (employed as a baker) and Kate Fleischmann; both born in Austria, ages 47 and 40 respectively. There were a total of five children: Estelle (age 16), Elizabeth (15), Minnie (12), Mathias (10), and Milton (7). Apparently the family had moved to San Francisco for financial reasons since it was said that the children were "early thrown upon their own resources." Although Elizabeth was listed as being in school, her 16-year-old sister was already employed in the same bakery where her father worked.

Elizabeth was first listed in the 1882 San Francisco directory. This was about the time that she was attending her senior year at the Girl's High School on Bush Street. She did not complete her senior year. Instead, Elizabeth went to work to assist her family with their troubled finances. By 1894 the family had expanded its outlook. Elizabeth's father now operated a variety and cigar store on 16th Street. One of her brothers (Mathias R.) had become a manufacturing agent and another (Milton P.) worked as a salesman in the clothing and furnishing industry. Both brothers, however, were involved in music and were frequently listed as musicians in the city directory. At this time, Elizabeth was listed as a bookkeeper for the firm of Friedlander & Mitau (manufacturers of ladies' and children's underwear). She resided with her family at 1017 Oak Street.

In the winter of 1895 Roentgen announced his fateful discovery of the X-ray to selected members of the scientific community and subsequently to the international media. Elizabeth - probably nearing 30 years of age at this time - became quickly interested in these magical rays which were capable of "penetrating all woven fabrics as if they were mere vapor, piercing the flesh...[and] passing through cords and muscles and bones with varying facility." Her interest in the application of the X-ray to medicine was undoubtedly influenced and supported by her brother-in-law, Michael J.H. Woolf (a San Francisco physician with offices at 229 Geary Street). Dr. Woolf, an Englishman, was married to Elizabeth's older sister Estelle. Interestingly, in 1895, he was listed as having both his medical office and residence at 1017 Oak Street, the same address as the Fleischmann family.

In less than a year, Elizabeth had mastered the technique of radiophotography and opened the very first X-ray laboratory in California. Located at 611 Sutter Street this facility soon came to be regarded as the best equipped radiology lab in the American West. Her advertisement in the San Francisco city directory was as follows: "FLEISCHMANN ELIZABETH MISS / radiographer, X-Ray Laboratory, 611 Sutter, hours 9 am to 12 am and 2 to 5 pm, tel[ephone] Green 391, r[esidence] 1606 Post." After 1901 she added the phrase "Sundays and evenings by appointment," and listed her residence as 615 Taylor Street.

Early experimentation with X-ray photography had taken place elsewhere in California; notably the work of O.V. Lange of Berkeley and J.P. Spooner in Stockton. However, most of these experiments were conducted along the lines of novelty rather than as a serious attempt to use the ray professionally. A spot check of San Francisco city directories reveals that Fleischmann was seemingly the only person to advertise radiography through at least 1910, and it was not until 1917 that a listing for X-ray equipment and repair can be found. The implications are that, even if physicians (in San Francisco hospitals) made use of X-ray equipment, Fleischmann was not only California's earliest radiologist but was so by a margin of many years.

Fleischmann's sudden public visibility appears to fly blatantly in the face of traditional social convention - any woman, let alone a young Jewish woman - operating as a professional, was certainly uncommon in 1896. It is perhaps indicative of her strong personal resolve that when she married in 1900 she hyphenated her name, "Fleischmann-Aschheim."

Portrait Services The Indomitable Abbie Cardozo
by Peter Palmquist


Abigail ("Abbie") E. Cardozo (1864-1937) was forced into marriage at age 14 by her parents; her husband was nearly twice her age. When she opened her first photography business at age 33 she was divorced with three teenage daughters to support, yet she not only competed favorably with the three other galleries in town - operated by men - but successfully outlasted them all.

Abbie was active as a studio photographer in the small coastal town of Ferndale, California (nearly 300 miles north of San Francisco), from 1897-1907. Ferndale's main claim to fame was the fact that it was the "furthest west town in America." Its population was about 1,000, and its principal business was dairy farming. The dominant ethnic groups were of Danish, Portuguese, Swiss, and Italian origins. Rural in the extreme, Ferndale easily fits today's notion of a "frontier town," or "cultural backwater," even though it was the largest community in the immediate area.

Abbie's life easily serves as a case study of one woman's survival in the male-dominated setting of the American West. She was the sixth of nine children born to George Washington Dean (1827-1887) and Sarah (Langston) Dean (1831-1886). The Deans came to California in 1850 and settled in Grizzly Bluff, a community of about 15 families, in 1853. Abbie was born here on July 25, 1864. She was married on her 14th birthday to Oscar L. Chapman. (She used to recount that she hardly knew him before their wedding day.) The couple had a number of children, but only three survived infancy: Della (b. 1879); Bella (b. 1881); and Stella (b. 1883). Abbie left Chapman in May 1889, charging him with mental cruelty. He in turn entered a counter suit accusing Abbie of intimacies with other men.

Despite the grave difficulties of her early life, Abbie developed an increasingly strong sense of personal identity and independence. Her separation from Chapman was viewed by local society as outrageous: after all, "How could she support her children?" Undaunted, she found part-time employment, first as a clerk and later in a local photography studio. She was especially proud of her newfound independence, both as a working woman and with the men of her choice.

By 1894 Abbie's divorce had been settled in her favor (Chapman was later murdered by gunshot in 1906). She then married Levi Nathaniel Cardozo (1864-1951). Both were 30 years of age. "Jack" Cardozo was a Ferndale storekeeper, "charming and fun," but somewhat of a town loafer.

By the 1890s Ferndale already boasted a long heritage of professional photography. In fact, more than 30 photographers and studio firms practiced their trade in the community between 1870 and 1906. In 1896, for instance, druggist/photographer Clinton C. Lasley and his wife, Rosie, came to Ferndale. Clinton operated the Ferndale Drugstore while Rosie took over most of the photography duties in their adjacent gallery. Abbie and Rosie became close friends, and Abbie easily observed the advantages of becoming a boss of her own photography business.

The Lasleys soon left, and by April 1897 Abbie had entered into a brief partnership, in portrait photography, with George Crippen. Their goal was to produce stylistic photographic portraits, "Equal in every respect to the best anywhere." After a few months the partnership floundered, and Abbie and Crippen became business rivals along with two other existing studios. By February 1898 Abbie had purchased the "Post Office" Gallery (so called because it was next door to the Ferndale's Post Office). Her advertisement in the Ferndale Enterprise notes her new location and reminds her clients that "she has not been engaged in photography since her childhood, but she invites a comparison to her work with the work of others, simply this and nothing more."

Abbie's portrait photographs, however, were soon among the finest and most innovative of their kind to be offered on the north coast. Instead of the standard (full-face and "stilted") poses common to the period, Abbie developed a special flair for stylish arrangements and poses for her subjects, especially women. One key to her success was the perception that there was a great need for professional hairstyling in Ferndale. She traveled to San Francisco for the latest instruction in this art and was soon able to advertise "free hairdressing with each studio sitting." She also nurtured her growing skill as a painter, painting her own studio backdrops as skillfully as she retouched her portrait negatives. A bamboo chair, various false balustrades, and wall drapes completed her inventory of studio props.

Abbie's portrait business began while the cabinet card was still de rigeur for studio photography. The cabinet card measured about 4" by 6" inches and was the 5" by 7" photograph of the day. Abbie, however, took great pride in introducing new lines of innovative mounts and photographic styles to her clients. This modernization featured ovals and square images on a wide variety of mounts and was a great departure from traditional style portraiture. She introduced photo folders about 1902.

Those who knew her described Abbie as a "clever, energetic, charming woman." These qualities may help to explain how she was able to keep her head above water in a town where turn-of-the-century conventions and small-town gossip could be fatal. She also had many friends. Her major failing seems to have been the habit of marrying unsuitable (at least for her) husbands.

In 1903 she started divorce proceedings against her second husband, charging him with failure to provide for reasons of idleness, profligacy, willful desertion, adultery, and extreme cruelty. Again Abbie won and Jack drifted out of her life.