The Isabel Project: Uncovering 19th Century Institutional Photographers, One Woman at a Time
Isabel Agnes Cowper, Carved walnut wood frame with glass mirror, Italian 16th century, 1891, Albumen print, Museum no. PH.113A-1891 © Victoria and Albert Museum
From its founding in 1853, The South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), promoted a forward-thinking policy that harnessed the potential of photography to dramatically extend the range of museum resources available to artists, students and the public. It was one of the first museums to exhibit and collect photographs and to establish a dedicated photographic studio. It features as the key institutional player in the history of photography and is a rich resource for the study of institutional photographic practices.
This paper draws upon the large number of understudied 19th century photographs and ‘photo-objects’ in the V&A collection to define the professional life of Isabel Agnes Cowper, recently identified as the South Kensington Museum's first female Official Museum Photographer from 1868-91. Cowper, excluded from the prevailing institutional narratives put forth by photography and institutional historians, has emerged as a central figure in shaping the V&A's 19th century institutional photographic practice. Now found, this paper details the ongoing interrogation of the 'photo-objects' associated with Cowper's tenure, illustrating what they tell us about her professional role as Official Museum Photographer, her networks and the breadth of her influence This paper also posits that Cowper was not an outlier, and that women played a significant role in the nascent network of institutional photographic studios emerging in Europe, problematising our understanding of the status of 19th century professional women, institutional photographic practices and the visual ecosystems to which these women contributed.
Erika Lederman is a cataloguer of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She is currently studying for a PhD at the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University and the V&A through the Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award scheme. Her research examines the role of women in 19th century institutional photographic practices.
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