Women in History – Anna Atkins and Louise Serpa

As someone who enjoys snapping photographs, especially of flowers and landscapes, I’m so pleased to share about two women photographers who made an impact in the world of photography.

The competition is stiff for the title of first female photographer, but most agree Anna Atkins, a British artist and botanist, was the first.

She was born in Kent, England, in 1799. Her mother never recovered from “the effects of childbirth” and died in 1800. Anna was close to her father, John George Children, who was a chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist. He invented a method to extract silver from ore without the need for mercury. Thanks to him, Anna received an unusually scientific education. Her detailed engravings of shells were used to illustrate one of her father’s books.

In 1825, she wed John Pelly Atkins, a London West India merchant. The couple had no children, so Atkins pursued her interest in botany. She was elected as a member of the London Botanical Society in 1839.

Atkins learned the technique of calotyping (an early process in which negatives were made using paper coated with silver iodide) and applied it with her plants. She would go on to publish the first book in history comprised of photographic images, all taken by her hand. Using photosensitive paper exposed to sunlight, she recorded images of algae and seaweed in 1843, resulting in unique and beautiful images.

She produced a total of three volumes of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in the next ten years. Today, less than two dozen copies of her books are known to exist, one of which is located at the New York Public Library.

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Louise Serpa was an influential and incredible force in the world of rodeo photography.

Louise was born in 1925. Growing up as a New York debutante, Louise’s love for the west began when her mother took her to Nevada to get a divorce from her father. She discovered wide-open spaces. As a teen, she spent a summer at Wyoming dude ranch and fell in love with a roper, right along with the world of rodeo.  She returned to East and attended Vassar College where she studied opera and graduated with a degree in music. During World War II, she sang and danced as part of the USO.

After a brief marriage ended, Serpa moved to Scottsdale, Arizona in the early 1950s where she met and married Tex Serpa. She and Tex held a number of jobs, including running a family sheep ranch. She divorced Tex in the 1960s and moved to Tucson with her two daughters. While joining friends at a rodeo, Serpa was surprised no one was taking photos of the children at rodeos. Since photography had been an occasional hobby for her, she decided to give it a try. She discovered she could sell the images she captured for 75 cents each and began learning the craft. She shot rodeos for the next 50 years.

Serpa was the first female photographer to receive a Rodeo Cowboy Association card (now the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association), allowing her to take pictures inside professional rodeo arenas.

She had an incredibly unique eye and could snap images that appeared to defy gravity. Serpa also got close to her subjects. She was once charged by a bull and sustained broken ribs and a split sternum. But she stood up and finished shooting before going to the hospital.

In 2012, she passed away.

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Read more about the influences of women photographers on my character Celia McGraw, in Capturing Christmas.

 

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