Little is known about the early life of Minna Keene beyond that she was born Minna Bergmann in Arolsen, Germany on April 5, 1861. At age 26, she married Caleb Keene in London. Her new husband was an artist apprentice and brother of painter and photographer Ezra Keene. It is believed this family connection coupled with the young bride’s artistic inclinations that led to her interest in photography, first as a leisure activity and later as a source of income. According to Carol Jacobi, curator at Tate Britain, in the latter portion of the Victorian era, affluent women with the means to afford cameras, equipment, and chemicals were drawn to photography in large numbers. It also proved to be a more welcoming profession to members of the opposite sex.
By her mid-30s, Mrs. Keene was entering local photographic competitions and was an active member of the Chelmsford Camera Club and Southsea Exhibition. Her 1902 her portrait, Der Herr Wirth, won first prize at a London completion, and was lauded for her stylized use of light and full exposure, which combined to produce evocative soft lighting. This award-winning effort was achieved with a Dallmeyer Rapid Rectilinear lens and an exposure time of six seconds. Living with her husband in Bristol, Mrs. Keene rose steadily up the ranks, reflected by her coveted membership into the prestigious Royal Photographic Society in 1903. That same year, she and her husband relocated to South Africa, where they opened a showroom in the capital city of Cape Town. Mrs. Keene became enamored of the Boer settlers, who proved to be more willing subjects than many of the indigenous regional inhabitants. In 1907, several of her Boer photographs were exhibited at London’s Lyceum Club, which were critically praised for the photographer’s “pictorial insight,” while also lauding her effective applications of light and shadow. Mrs. Keene’s respect for the Malay culture is credited with persuading some women and children to pose for portraits, despite strict religious conventions that forbade any type of photographic representation. Mrs. Keene sought to portray everyday life as art, as evidenced in her famous portrait, The Gossips, which captures two ordinary women sitting around a table ‘dishing the dirt.’ However, her mastery of light and shadow elevated the portrait into an extraordinary early twentieth-century work of art. She also excelled in photographing fruit and in documenting various literary works, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem, “Proserpine.”
The Keenes relocated to Canada in 1914, where Mrs. Keene worked professionally for several years as a portraitist in Montreal and Ontario. Her portraits of children were particularly well received and earned her entrance into the London Salon of Photography, for which she exhibited until 1929. Her daughter Violet, one of her favorite subjects, became her mother’s assistant and later a noted photographer in her own right. Eighty-one-year-old Minna Keene, believed to be Canada’s first professional female photographer, died in Oakville, Ontario in November 1943.
1914 American Photography, Vol. VIII (Boston, MA: The American Photographic Publishing Company), p. 393.
1910 The British Journal of Photography, Vol. LVII (London: Henry Greenwood & Co. Ltd.), p. 670.
1999 "This Feminine Invasion": Women and the Workplace in Canadian Magazines, 1900- 1930 by Philippa Mary Brush (URL: http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk1/tape9/PQDD_0032/NQ46811.pdf).
2014 Minna Keene (1861–1943): Pictorial Portraitist by Giles Hudson (URL: https://mattersphotographical.wordpress.com/2014/12/03/minna-keene-1861-1943-pictorial-portraitist).
1902 The Photogram, Vol. IX (London: Dawbarn & Ward, Ltd.), p. 116.
1907 Photograms of the Year by Francis James Mortimer (London: Dawbarn & Ward, Ltd.), p. 123.
2016 She Takes a Good Picture: Six Forgotten Female Pioneers of Photography (URL: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/may/06/underexposed-the-forgotten-female-pioneers-of-photography).
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