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  Helen Messinger Murdoch, Photographer

Helen Messinger Murdoch was born in 1862 (although some sources state 1860) in Boston, Massachusetts. Very little is known about Ms. Murdoch’s personal life or education, before the dawn of the twentieth century, when monochromatic photography was prevalent. When she first began pursuing photography in the 1890s (apparently borrowing one of her sister’s cameras for her first efforts), she was less than impressed by the monochrome’s lack of color. Brushing pigments onto the original print often made it more closely resemble a painting to a photograph. One of Ms. Murdoch’s photographs were referenced in the October 26, 1898 issue of the Boston Evening Transcript, which suggests that despite her displeasure with the monochrome technique, her works were nevertheless receiving attention.

A decade later, when the Lumière brothers introduced the first autochrome plates to a receptive Parisian audience, Ms. Murdoch’s professional life changed dramatically. The potato starch dyes could easily infuse glass plates with bursts of color. The negatives were available in different sizes and were easily compatible with any variety of plate camera. Any photographer who could process black-and-white negatives could quickly learn the autochrome plate method. Like her Photo-Secession contemporaries, Ms. Murdoch fell in love with the autochrome; but unlike Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, her commitment to the technique lasted nearly two decades. She sailed to London in 1911, and within two years was a member of the Royal Photographic Society. She rented studio space at the 80 Wigmore Street Gallery, but later moved to the Halcyon Women’s Club, where she continued her autochrome studies under the mentorship of photographer John Cimon Warburg.

Ms. Murdoch embarked upon a photographic world tour in 1913, which produced black-and-white negatives, autochrome plates, and lantern slides. Hers were the first images by a female photographer to appear in National Geographic Magazine (although they were not published until 1921). In her travel journal, she bemoaned the difficulties in making autochromes beneath the blazing Indian sun; the difficulties in finding cold, clean water to wash her plates; and frequent climate-related exposure problems. With war imminent in Europe, Ms. Murdoch sailed to San Francisco, where her autochromes were featured in a lecture series entitled, “The World in its True Colors.” She also used her autochrome camera to assist Dr. Aldo Castellani in documenting various skin diseases.

The First World War may have temporarily halted Ms. Murdoch’s extensive travel, but was responsible for introducing her to a new passion – aviation. In the coming years, she would photograph various aviation events and take portraits of naval flyer and Arctic explorer Richard E. Byrd, Jr.; husband-and-wife pilots Charles and Anne Lindbergh; and famed aviator Amelia Earhart. Her first aerial autochrome was made in 1928; and the following year, Ms. Murdoch returned to the United Kingdom, where she resided until 1933. Her extensive globetrotting left her virtually broke, and it is rumored that she subsisted primarily upon tea, toast, and the generosity of her London friends. Ms. Murdoch’s RPS colleagues named her an honorary fellow (which waived membership dues for the rest of her life) and collected funds that allowed her to return to Boston. In 1944, she relocated to Santa Monica, California, to be near her nephew, geology professor Joseph Murdoch. Ninety-three-year-old Helen Messinger Murdoch died in Santa Monica, California on March 29, 1956; and in her obituary, the Los Angeles Times briefly chronicled her contributions to color photography. Approximately 600 of Ms. Murdoch’s autochromes and lantern slides are part of the extensive collection of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain; and some black-and-white prints reside in the private collection of Mark Jacobs, in Madison, Wisconsin.

2013 Autochromes, Aviation and Adventure: International Women’s Day 2013 by Colin Harding (URL:

1914 Camera Craft, Vol. XXI (San Francisco, CA: Camera Craft Publishing Co.), p. 611.

1918 Christian Register, Vol. XCVII (Boston, MA: Christian Register Association), p. 288.

2015 Exhibit Pays Tribute to Early Female Photographers (URL:

2013 Helen Messinger Murdoch (1862 – 1956) by Mark Jacobs (URL:

2010 The Intrepid Helen Messinger Murdoch by Pamela Glasson Roberts (URL:

2015 Jewel City edited by James A. Ganz, et al. (San Francisco, CA: University of California), p. 15.

1921 The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. XXXIX (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society), pp. 279-288.

1922 Official Register and Directory of Women’s Clubs in America, Vol. XXIV (Shirley, MA: Helen M. Winslow), p. XIV.

2017 Seizing the Light: A Social & Aesthetic History of Photography by Robert Hirsch (New York, NY: Routledge), p. 185.

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2020-05-14 17:51:30

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