Agency of Women

Essays

Foreword

 

Edward Chambré and Margaret Hardman lived their lives by photography. They ran their photographic business first from Bold Street, later from their house at 59 Rodney Street that featured a studio, a dressing room, two darkrooms and various post-production spaces. The ‘Hardman portrait’ became a coveted badge of social status in Liverpool, boasting a distinct aesthetic that relied in no small part upon the technical skill of Margaret and the mostly female team of assistants they employed.

 

The studio mainly produced black and white photographs, and final prints were processed to have a soft-focus, whimsical feel. Many prints were subsequently hand-coloured by a team of freelance, predominantly women hand-colourists who worked from home. These people were not personally named or acknowledged for their contribution to any artistic process, and recognition of their work was limited to their wage. However, hand-colouring photographic prints is a painstakingly technical process that draws upon techniques stretching back to the earliest days of photography around the globe. As such, the studio’s hand-colourists were highly skilled and developed individual styles of applying colour, which are discernible among the prints in the Hardmans’ photographic collection.

 

Margaret was a skilled photographer in her own right, originally hired by Edward in 1926 as a studio assistant when she was seventeen years old, only recently finished with school and ten years Edward’s junior. Beyond their photographic studio Edward and Margaret both maintained personal practices, especially around landscape photography, in which Edward was largely self-taught. He credited Margaret as an influence and teacher for his landscape work. After they married in 1932, Margaret’s role in the studio was formalised. It went far beyond the technical elements of photography; she was a charismatic woman who managed much of the client-facing side of the business, who managed the accounting and whose theatrical personal style informed the props and staging of studio photographs.

 

Margaret died in 1969, after which Edward lived a solitary life until his own death in 1988. The richness of the Hardmans’ vast archive, comprising about 150,000 objects and now cared for by the National Trust, was only fully discovered towards the end of Edward’s life. Aspects of his work, including thousands of photographs Edward made of Liverpool’s industrial development, were barely known. This reignited his renown, bringing a new wave of posthumous fame for Edward that, until recently, minimised Margaret’s influence. Through research and partnerships, such as this project with Tabitha Jussa, we are able to better understand the important roles of Margaret, of the women hand-colourists and of many other female figures upon whom Edward and the business depended.

 

In this project, Jussa, inspired by Margaret and other untold stories of the studio, draws upon the history preserved in the Hardmans’ collection and pulls it into the present day. She redresses imbalance about how the past is represented, bringing female careers visibly to the fore and removing requirements of status or privilege that connected much of the Hardmans’ clientele. Jussa maintained continuity of some aspects of the Hardmans’ process, such as using their studio and applying colour in post-production stages, though combined with use of contemporary technical equipment. Through this approach, she has created a body of work that breathes new life into photographs from the past and firmly positions a bygone era of portraiture within the social and cultural frameworks of today.

Dr Catherine Troiano

National curator, photography

National Trust

Stepping Stones

 

There is no singular female artist. There is no one template, idea, or outline of the female practitioner that we can look to in order to understand the way in which women move through the art sectors. Instead what we have is a multiplicity of experiences, voices, and approaches that have been informed and influenced by society, our education or mentors, ambitions, expectations, barriers, the artforms themselves, and the women before us. These experiences are laid out like stepping stones; not a complete path but an indicator of what already exists and what is still in the realm of possibilities.

 

In listening to the series of interviews between Tabitha Jussa and women in the arts, we can begin to understand how differently each has experienced working culture. These conversations taking place during formal portrait sessions recreate Hardman’s studio set up in which people of the city posed for portraits. In this case, however, the fundamental shift is in the relationship between sitter and photographer, the dynamic between visibility of the photographer and their duties, and in the diversity of the sitters themselves. 

 

The female workers of Hardman studio worked from home to hand tint the black and white prints, making this process invisible through its relegation to the domestic space. In this project, Jussa has expanded the visible spectrum of the photographic process and engages with her collaborators to share their experiences of working in the arts. The reflections range from having gained confidence and self awareness of their own capabilities, to praising inclusive models of leadership, to feeling that support structures were inadequate and not fit for purpose. 

 

It is in these answers that we can see that the role of the photographer is not just to take a photograph or to capture a solitary moment. In this case, it is to add voices and stories to the framework that we exist within. In seeing this breadth of responses it becomes possible to map where we fit into this space and to plot commonalities and points of intersection, as well as acknowledging the differences and difficulties that factor into individual outcomes. It also introduces an element of empathy in acknowledging and realizing that there are endless combinations and possibilities when considering what the art sector has to offer individual practitioners.

 

In response to being photographed, and in thinking about the role and nature of the selfie, many remarked on notions of control, co-authorship, and representation. From a historical perspective, it is apparent how progressive photography is, how autonomous and confident the sitters feel in the studio, and how collaborative this process was. 

 

In looking at the portraits and learning about their journeys to and through the art world, it is clear that documenting a comparably broad range of women would have been unimaginable in Hardman’s era. And while the challenges of invisibility still very much remain in today’s art sector just as they existed for the hand tinters, it is in projects such as this that we are given a way of visualizing progress and imagining how much more the future could hold. The ambition is not to fill in the spaces between our experiences, but to use our agency and to continue adding to the path and extending the range of possibilities for everyone.

Mariama Attah

Curator, Open Eye Gallery

Agency of Women

Smartphones have democratised photographic portraiture.  Long gone are the days when you would have to visit a photographer to have a picture taken of yourself, whether it be a school portrait or a family photoshoot. If you have a phone with a camera, you can do that in two clicks, often in the form of a selfie, and upload it to the world gallery that is Instagram or Facebook. 

 

Realism in art can only be achieved in one way. Through artifice. 

André Bazin

 

We also have the ability to manipulate photographs when reality is not to our liking. This interpretation of reality is now common place through the use of multiple picture taking and through the application of filters that wash away supposed imperfections until we have a picture that we are happy to present to the world. Hyper-reality, the inability to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, is chosen to achieve a sense of perfection.  We have taken control over our visual image and taken on the ability to portray ourselves as we wish to be seen, not always as we really are.

 

The portrait's purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity.

John Tagg

Even if you don’t take selfies, we still view ourselves in mirrors and reflections, more often than not on a daily basis. This is the familiar visual of ourselves, looking towards the mirror and often with good lighting.  Bathroom mirrors show us a head and shoulders view.  Hallway mirrors give a front view.  An edited viewing frame.  Yet, like the selfie, the mirrored image is not how others see us. It is after all a reflection, a wrong way round physical representation.  We view ourselves in a subtly different way than everyone else does.

 

Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.

John Berger

 

Then there is the reflection of self. Self reflection gives us the ability to see beyond the immediate vanity of self and connect with our inner self. We can always read different emotions within ourselves when we look beyond the surface, but with the ability to self-edit how we outwardly look, does this not put us in danger of disconnecting from our inner selves and emotions?

 

For this series of portrait photographs, how would the sitter react when their control of the image was seemingly taken away and placed with the photographer? Maybe some would see this as a privilege. Others however, might be daunted, even concerned at the prospect of how someone else would see them through the lens.

Tabitha Jussa

Tabitha Jussa - Freelance Artist / Photographer