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  Elizabeth W. Withington

Elizabeth W. Kirby was born in New York City on March 17, 1825. At the age of 20, she married farmer and shingle maker George Withington, who decided to feed his gold fever by moving to California in 1849. Two years later, his wife and young daughter joined him. Looking for ways to supplement the meager family income, Mrs. Withington noticed that the farming and mining areas were also fertile photography ground. In 1856, she returned to New York to study photography at Mathew Brady's illustrious gallery, and early the following year, she opened her Excelsior Ambrotype Gallery in Ione City, California. She did not have to travel far for inspiration - it was all around her in the forms of the abundant stagecoach lines, railway stations, mills, breweries, restaurants, miners and farmers. A female photographer was a novelty in those days, and curious locals were soon lining up to have their pictures “taken by a Lady!” Specializing in the wet collodion plate process, Mrs. Withington captured breathtaking stereoscopic views of Silver Lake, California and its surrounding areas. She also indulged her artistic inclinations by teaching 'Oriental Pearl Painting' to the ladies, a popular parlor activity during the nineteenth century.

By 1871, Mrs. Withington and her husband were living separately. With her two daughters now grown, she could focus solely upon stereographic photography. Her mastery of wet collodion platemaking is evident in her mining town stereographs. In 1875, she became a member of the Photographic Art Society of the Pacific, and the following year, her article, "How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs," was featured in the Philadelphia Photographer. She described the arduous tasks of preparing at least 50 albumenized 5 x 8 plates, making sure to place blotting paper between them to preserve them during transport. Her supplies included the obvious chemicals, a negative box, iron and wooden fixing and developing trays, and a Newell bathtub, all of which had to be moved gingerly over rigorous terrain by a stagecoach. Mrs. Withington preferred Morrison lenses for landscapes and a Philadelphia box camera she lovingly referred to as “the pet.” She carried a black linen parasol more for practicality than fashion, to protect her views from sun and wind.

Sadly, shortly after her article was published, she learned she had terminal cancer. Elizabeth W. Withington died on March 4, 1877 in her adopted hometown of Ione City, less than two weeks shy of her 52nd birthday. She left behind an impressive body of work that immortalize the pioneering spirit of the Old West. Her photographs can currently be found in the collections of the Amador County Museum in Jackson, California; the Women in Photography International Archive in Arcata, California; the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York; and the Princeton University Art Museum at McCormick Hall in Princeton, New Jersey.

1998 100 Years of California Photography by Women 1850-1950 by Peter E. Palmquist (URL:

2014 Elizabeth W. Withington by Peter Palmquist (URL:

1990 How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs by Eliza W. Withington (URL:

1874 The Photographer's Friend, Vol. IV (Baltimore: Richard Walzl), p. 126.

2005 Silver Cities: Photographing American Urbanization, 1839-1939 by Peter Bacon Hales (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press), pp. 107-108.

2003 Women Artists of the American West edited by Susan R. Ressler (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.), pp. 339-340.

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2014-09-29 19:52:58

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