A Constructivist's View of an Earthquake: Edith Irvine Photographs San Francisco 1906

Article excerpt

When she stepped from a packet boat onto a San Francisco dock on April 18, 1906, 22-year-old Edith Irvine made a swift decision to change her travel plans. Instead of embarking on a world tour, she stayed in San Francisco to photograph the devastation from the earthquake that had just occurred. Realizing that photographers were suspect and not welcome among the ruins, Irvine found a baby carriage and stowed her glass-plate photographic equipment inside. Thus equipped, she was protected from armed guards dispatched by city officials to prevent photographers from gathering evidence of the destruction. She then wandered the burning city for three days, photographing what she saw.(1)

Irvine took her glass plates home, stored them away, and apparently forgot them as she became a school teacher and went on to live her life. Her nephew discovered the plates in Irvine's attic after she died in 1949, and he donated them to Brigham Young University.(2)

The purpose of this essay is to use Irvine's example to contribute to a feminist "text,"(3) an articulation of female lives to elaborate our understanding of how women relate and contribute to social-historical reality, especially when the woman is considered "deviant" because she is working and is stigmatized because she does not comply with what "other people in the society are doing."(4) As a young female photographer, Edith Irvine was both "deviant" and "stigmatized." In her later years she was also eccentric, suffered from alcoholism and drug abuse, and died a suicide,(5) and yet the telling of her story adds to a collective understanding of the variability of the lives of women at the turn of the century.(6)

The few photographic histories that have dealt with specific female photographers have described their subjects as idiosyncratic, rather than significant, transitional figures in women's history.(7) Irvine could also be dealt with as idiosyncratic, but the intent here is to place her life and contribution to photojournalism in context of the turn-of-the-century transition in women's professionalism. Irvine's work also provides insights into the photographer's role as interpreter of the culture from the point of view of gender, which Gover suggests, along with class, "affects women's pictorial interpretations of their world."(8) As Ohrn discovered when compiling the photographs by Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams of the evacuation and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, stylistic approach and attitude of the photographer are reflected in the photographs they produce.(9) In this study, gender is considered for its contribution to the approach and attitude evidenced in photographs.

Photography at the turn of the twentieth century was considered an appropriate activity for women, especially if they remained in a hand-maid role, as technicians. Indeed, photography opened a new employment area for women.(10) Some emerged as professionals and owned their own studios, often in their homes. Women had been involved in photography from its inception in 1839; most who took up photography seriously were portrait photographers. The major exception was Frances Benjamin Johnston, the "Mother of American Photojournalism."(11) She, too, had her own portrait studio and contributed some of the first photographs to the publishing business, but her particular significance to photographic history was as a photojournalist. Photographs of presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and feminist Susan B. Anthony, along with her photo-chronicles of Pennsylvania coal mines and the 1892 Chicago World's Fair, established her credentials. Her self-portrait in a skirt hiked to her knees, petticoats showing, a cigarette in one hand, a beer stein in another, illustrates her Bohemian character, as well as the aggressive image she and many other women in journalism, photography, and other fields deemed necessary to gain acceptance in a man's world.(12)

Twenty years younger than Johnston, Edith Irvine made her photographic contribution from 1902 to 1906. …

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