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Isabella Bird Bishop, Photographer

Isabella Lucy Bird was born to Reverend Edward and Dorothy Lawson Bird on October 15, 1832 in Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire, England. Her father was a prominent Church of England official, and Miss Bird's childhood was one of prestige and upper middle-class privilege. Homeschooled by her mother who nurtured her intellectual curiosity, the frail young girl refused to allow poor health to become an insurmountable obstacle. By her early twenties, Miss Bird was regularly traveling from Great Britain to North America. Her first book, The Englishwoman in America (1856) was based on the letters she sent to her family describing her travels.

After the deaths of her parents, Miss Bird had the financial means to pursue her love of travel, which included extended sojourns in Australia, New Zealand, and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). She accompanied acting British consul William Green on a treacherous mule ride to the top of the Mauna Loa volcano. From there, she sailed to California and the Rocky Mountains, which she explored on horseback. In 1878, she became engaged to her sister Henrietta's physician, Dr. John Bishop, but impending nuptials did not deter her travel itinerary, which included journeys to Malaya and Japan, featured in her 1880 book, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.

Devastated over the death of her sister "Hennie", Miss Bird finally married Dr. Bishop in 1881. The doctor admitted, "I have only one formidable rival in Isabella's affections and that is the high tableland of Central Asia." She would make several subsequent trips to Asia, which were chronicled in The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither (1883). After her husband's untimely death from anemia in 1886, Mrs. Bishop once again channeled her grief in travel, again to Asia and the Middle East, and then took a solo trip through Kurdistan to the Black Sea. During her tour of Kurdistan, she earnestly studied a gifted military photographer and applied his techniques to her own amateur photographs. Always keenly interested in photography as a means of telling her travel stories, Mrs. Bishop began immersing herself in learning various technical processes.


Mrs. Bishop had the distinction of being the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, but her proposed membership the following year was met with considerable male resistance. After her text Journeys into Persia and Kurdistan was published, she continued her photography instruction by taking lessons from Howard Farmer at London's Regent Street Polytechnic. By January 1894, Mrs. Bishop was off again, this time with two cameras and a tripod in addition to her luggage. She embarked upon a three-year journey through Southeast Asia, which included a sailing trip up the Yangtze River and several visits to her beloved Japan. During this period, she produced hundreds of negatives, which would be featured in her texts Views in the Far East (1897), Korea and Her Neighbours (1898), and The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899).

By now, Mrs. Bishop was developing her own plates and toning her prints whenever she found time, usually late at night. She remarked with noticeable pride, "Photographing has been an intense pleasure. I began too late ever to be a photographer, and have too little time to learn the technicalities of the art; but I am able to produce negatives which are faithful, though not artistic, records of what I see." A more than 500-mile trek through Morocco and the Atlas Mountains in 1900 proved to be her final travel adventure as age and illness took their toll. Her life's journey complete, Isabella Bird Bishop died on October 7, 1904, eight days before her 72nd birthday.



Ref:
2005 Explorers and Exploration (Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Corporation), p. 91.

2013 Fact Sheet - Biography of Isabella Bird Bishop (URL: http://www.rgs.org/NR/rdonlyres/1E293436-3F54-460B-9020-C92F04DB48D1/0/F3FactsheetBiographyofIsabellaBirdBishop.pdf).

1977 Northlight, No. 7 (Phoenix, AZ: Arizona State University), pp. 1-9.

2011 PhotoResearcher, No. 15 (Krems, Austria: European Society for the History of Photography), pp. 13-26.


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