Career of a Photography Pioneer
'Kodak Girl' turned professional epitomized 20th century's 'New Woman'
WITCH OF KODAKERY: The Photography of Myra Albert Wiggins, 1869-1956
By Carole Glauber
Washington State University Press
A fine place to study the career patterns of 20th-century professional women is in the field of photography. Although women were discouraged from pursuing vocations in painting, they were encouraged to take up photography.
In the 1890s, women's magazines ran articles commending photography, and camera companies carefully targeted the female market. In 1890, one commentator wishfully wrote: "Women with their cameras surpass all traditions and stand the equal of men."
As author Carole Glauber points out in "Witch of Kodakery: The Photography of Myra Albert Wiggins, 1869-1956," the young, fashionable "Kodak Girl," seen in print ads making pictures of exciting travel destinations, resembled the cultural ideal of the independent "New Woman" of the 20th century. Myra Albert Wiggins exemplified both the "Kodak Girl" and the "New Woman."
Born in 1869 in Salem, Ore., Wiggins remembers her childhood as "the wild, free, 'tomboy' life of a Western Oregon small-town girl." She came to the field of photography by accident, obtaining her first camera in 1889, because her brother wanted to take pictures of his sweetheart.
Like the "Kodak Girl," Wiggins was an adventurer. As a young woman, she made pictures while traveling the Oregon Coast and journeying by horse-pack train through the forests near Mt. Jefferson.
Making the best of her geographic isolation, she read widely in the photographic magazines, and she entered her photographs in the many amateur contests of the period. Her first prizewinning photograph, "Camping Out," came from one of her treks.
In 1891, Myra left her hometown to study painting with William Merritt Chase, the American Impressionist, at the Art Students League in New York. She continued to experiment with photography and began to write about it. Her 1894 return to Salem brought marriage to Frederick Wiggins, who supported her art efforts.
Wiggins continued to enter and win contests. Her photograph "The Forge," showing men working amidst smoke and steam, was praised in the magazines and acquired by George Eastman to hang in his office at Eastman Kodak headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.
Many people will recall having seen Wiggins's most famous photograph. A charming picture of her daughter, Mildred, dressed as a little Dutch girl, leaning over a steaming bowl of porridge, it was widely used by the Maltex Cereal Co. for their advertising campaigns.
Though she continued to paint, Myra achieved growing success in photography throughout the 1890s. By 1900, her pictures were shown in the Paris Exposition, and they began to be reproduced more frequently in the photographic magazines. Her signature style, Dutch domestic interiors, using models fitted out in authentic Dutch clothing, were very popular.
During the first decade of the 20th century, the vogue for soft-focus pictures of languorous women and small children lost in the world of play was supplanted by crisp, lean, geometric abstractions of modernist photography. Wiggins's esprit carried her through a rich, productive life, but not into the brave new world of modern art.
* Mary Warner Marien teaches art history at Syracuse (N.Y.) University.