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  • Writer's pictureVeda Dean

Elizabeth Withington: artisan and girlboss

“Just think of it -- your picture taken by a Lady!"

were the words of an 1857 editorial about the newly opened portrait studio of Elizabeth Withington. 

In 1852, Elizabeth Withington came from St. Joseph, Missouri to join her husband who was operating a ranch in Ione. She stayed for a short time before moving to New York to learn photography. She came back to Ione in 1857 to open her own portrait studio on Main Street. The studio was open four days a week for portraits and pearl painting lessons for women. 

Portrait of Elizabeth Withington

However, she is best known for her artistry in the craft of landscape photography. After her daughters left the house, Elizabeth and her husband decided to live separately. In the summer months, Elizabeth would travel around the California mountains taking landscape photographs, often utilizing public transportation, sometimes she would even hop onto a traveling fruit cart. 

"Exchequer croppings" by Elizabeth Withington

The problem with Civil War era photography is that there were many inconveniences that came with the the technique of “wet plates.” Wet Plate photography relied on a wet glass plate that the photo was captured on-- so the picture had to be captured and developed before the plate became dry. During battles of the Civil War, photographers had to travel with a “darkroom wagon” so they could quickly develop their photos before the plate dried up. Elizabeth got creative to solve this problem.

For Elizabeth, she had to pack lightly on her expeditions, so she famously utilized womens’ fashions. In the field, Elizabeth used a dark petticoat that she pulled over her head to cover the plate as it developed-- she also pre-soaked her plates in a wet towel so they were always ready to be used. In an article she wrote in 1876 titled “How a woman takes landscape photographs,” she said that she always packed a parasol to put over the lens to prevent overexposure as well as using it to steady herself as she walked through steep terrain. If that’s not girlboss behavior I don’t know what is.

Elizabeth spent lots of time near Silver Lake taking photographs and beating the heat during the summer, as many of us do today. 

Elizabeth Withington should not just be known as a pioneer of photography, but also as complete girlboss. 

Cabin in the Silver Lake area by Elizabeth Withington


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