To the Ones Who’ll Follow,
During my time, I witnessed Germany’s last emperor Wilhelm II outline a role for women, which was later adopted by the Nazis: Kirche, Küche, Kinder. This translates as ‘church, kitchen and children’ — three words that seemed to sum up the entirety of a woman’s life.
Modern thinkers might feel that the women’s movement in Germany has been, at best, weak and at its worst, non-existent. If that is indeed the case, then I feel fortunate that I was able to create a life for myself that was of my own choosing. Do not misunderstand me; I am not disregarding the desire some women have for religion, or a home or a family. I was married and even added my husband’s last name to mine. But that was a choice I made for myself, even though I did it at an age that traditional society considered late for a woman to get married. I do take issue with the fact that sometimes, the decision is made for us; our identities stamped and sealed away within narrow strictures that further the patriarchy.
I am writing to you today to give you a glimpse of my life, hoping that my story might inspire some of you to create, chase a dream or simply be curious about what life has to offer.
I was born in 1815 in Cottbus, the second largest city in Brandenburg, Germany. My childhood was rather uneventful. My first job was as a hairdresser in Dresden in 1839; I was 24 at the time. I enjoyed my job. I got to meet so many women and peek into their lives as they discussed their husbands, children and homes. Most of them were happy, or at least looked the part. Only a handful of these women had jobs; for the rest, their families were the ‘be all and end all’ of their existence. Back then, hairstyles weren’t as experimental as they are now. Yet, the element of creativity and transformation fascinated me. I suppose it’s similar to taking photographs; even without major changes, something transforms — the image, the subject, or the moment.
The following year, in 1940, I met Eduard Wehnert, a well known daguerreotypist from Leipzig. He was going to be my future husband. As I mentioned before, I am not against the idea of marriage. In fact, if you do want to get married, find someone who fuels your ambitions and pushes you to learn more, achieve more, and be more. They say a marriage should be between two equals. Yes, two people who are equal in spirit, ideas and ideologies.
Eduard had a role to play in me becoming, ‘Germany’s first professional female photographer.’ I am also considered to be ‘the first professional female photographer in the world’ as I was active for a few years before Brita Sofia Hesselius and Geneviève Élisabeth Disdéri. I am not sure to what extent these labels matter. I understand that at a time when women were relegated to the church, kitchen and children, it is empowering and inspiring to be ‘the first’ at something in a professional space. But ultimately your work is what remains and what you are known for.
Eduard introduced me to the daguerreotype and colour-tinting process. To put it simply, a daguerreotype, named after its inventor Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, is an image on a silvered copper plate. As opposed to photographic paper, a daguerreotype is heavy and inflexible. The image you get through this process is detailed and sharp. It has a mirror-like surface and therefore it’s very fragile.
In 1843, Eduard and I opened a studio in Leipzig. I think this is what catapulted me to becoming ‘Germany’s first known professional female photographer’. We had a good marriage—sharing ideas and running the business together. Unfortunately, it was short-lived as Eduard passed away in 1847. We never had any children.
After my husband’s death, I continued to run the studio on my own. Two years later, in 1849, I went to the United States where I opened two more studios: one at 62 White Street and the second one at 385 Broadway. While in the US, I received a diploma for portrait photography. I came back to Leipzig in 1851 after putting my brother in charge of my business in New York. My time in New York gave me the opportunity to photograph several notable people including the 13th president of the United States, Millard Fillmore.
In 1866, I moved my studio to Elsterstrasse in Leipzig and hired several employees. You can imagine that the business was doing well. My studio was one of the most notable addresses in the city at that time. During this time, I also dabbled in nude photography and got the chance to photograph several renowned people including the pianist Clara Schumann, composer Johannes Brahms, and lawyer and entrepreneur Karl Heine. I can understand why the women felt comfortable around me, but I was pleasantly surprised that the men were also willing to be represented through my gaze.
As with any kind of artistic practice, it’s important to keep up with current trends and implement them in your work. This way you add more skills to your repertoire and remain relevant in an industry that is rapidly advancing. I did this by immersing myself in studying stereo photography when it was invented. It is a process of pairing two almostidentical photographs or photomechanical prints together, creating the illusion of a single three-dimensional image when they are viewed through a stereoscope. Mostly, these images are on card mounts, but they can also be in the form of daguerreotypes, glass negatives, or other processes. Creativity is crucial, but I believe that you need to study form and technique so that your creativity can manifest itself in several ways.
Between 1855 and 1860, I took several architectural photographs, such as a photo of Peter’s Gate which was demolished in 1860. These are considered to be the first authentic images of the city. As you can tell, I tried my hand at a few different types and styles of photography, learning something new in the process and improving myself.
I was one of two photographers from Saxony to exhibit at the First German Industrial Fair in Munich, in 1854, where I showed paper prints as well as daguerrotypes. Today, my work sits in Leipzig’s City Museum if you want to have a look. I retired in 1883 when I was 68.
- Maintain awareness of creative trends, even if only to subvert them.
- Study the technical aspects of your craft.
- Try a few different things to see what best aligns with your interests and style. For example, I took pictures of the city although my specialisation was portraits (within that, I think my best work was the images I created of children).
- Lastly, don’t be afraid to advertise yourself and your work. The world needs to know how great you are, lest your story and creations remain undiscovered.
A Creative Non-Fiction piece by Shyama Laxman