Mrs. J. B. Lewis, Woman Photographer

March is Women's History Month, and while I feel like there are many things we need to celebrate, the sheer amount of women's achievements throughout history are certainly something that should be recognized and applauded! I thought it would be fitting to showcase a photograph of a woman, taken by a woman photographer.




There used to be a photograph and ephemera shop in Roanoke that I would frequent, and they always had the neatest items for sale. They unfortunately closed a while back, and I can't help but thinking that Roanoke lost a small gem when that happened.


I bought this photograph there, and have been holding on to it ever since (this was way before bustle even became a reality). It was so unusual to me because of the name of the photographer in the lower left hand corner - Mrs. J. B. Lewis. A woman photographer - in New York, no less - with her own studio space.


The more I researched this woman, a dramatic story arose, making this photograph even more intriguing.

Mrs. J. B. Lewis, or Harriet H. Lewis, most likely learned photography under her husband, James B. Lewis, who was also a photographer. In 1875, her husband partnered with Louis Alman, an Italian immigrant and stereoscopic photographer, at 172 5th Avenue, New York City.


Only five years later in 1880, J.B. was no longer a part of Louis Alman & Co. It's unclear what happened to him, but Harriet took over the vacancy her husband left.

Harriet became a well known New York society photographer, essentially stepping in to her husband's place with Louis Alman. Unfortunately, not long after Harriet's installment did trouble arise.


New York Daily Tribune, May 15, 1880. Courtesy of the Library of Congress


In 1880, there was a bit of scandal involving Harriet, a gentleman by the name of William S. Molo, her business partner Louis Alman, and a slander suit. A bit of 'he said, she said' occurred, with Molo filing suit against Alman for declaring Harriet was having 'intimate relations' with Molo, with him living at hers, being 'wholly supported by her.'


Additionally, the New York Daily Tribune wrote a brief article on a different situation on May 15, 1880: William Molo apparently sent a letter to Harriet by messenger boy, and Alman, proprietor of the photography company, snatched said letter from the boy's hand, reading a private correspondence. Silly, in my opinion, to be entangled in a court case over this; however, the article seems to imply that relations between Alman and Harriet had degraded over the 5 years they were in business, and the partnership between the two was in the process of being dissolved.




Harriet and Alman parted ways, and by 1882 Harriet had opened a studio studio with Krueger & Co. at 1216 Broadway.


New York Times, March 5, 1882

Harriet was still a photographing at the same location in 1886, but unfortunately, I can't find too much else past that. It's also unclear when she took out the studio solely for herself.





On the reverse of the cabinet card it identifies that Harriet (or her help) photographed out of two locations - the one on Broadway and a second location out of the Indian Harbor Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut, a wealthy refuge from the city for New York's elite. This hotel, built in 1871 by William Marcy "Boss" Tweed, was ostentatious for the time with 500 guest rooms, a Yacht Club, champagne at every meal, and a slew of servants and French chefs to cater to the guests. As a socialite photographer, this would have been the perfect spot from which to work, as New York's wealthiest sought out Greenwich. The hotel and all its outbuildings were demolished in 1895.


This image, unfortunately, isn't of Mrs. J. B. Lewis, but we do know the woman photographed was a socialite of some sort based on Harriet's reputation as a society photographer. All it says on the reverse is 'Mother's sister.' Her relatively unadorned outfit, although a little drab looking in sepia, was bespoke. The bodice is a cuirass bodice, popular from around 1876-1883. A cuirass is defined as 'a sheath-like bodice that fits tightly over the hips producing a long-line dress silhouette.' This explains the lack of adornments, as the darts and long, tight silhouette created by such a garment was much sought after. With this style of dress and accessories, along with the knowledge of when Harriet moved to 1216 Broadway, I would date this photograph c.1882-1883.



The style and construction of the garment is much like one in the collection of the Albany Institute of History & Art, New York, including the same style neckline, the pleating at the skirt, and the lace detail at the cuff of the sleeves. The only difference is the patterned fabric on our young woman's skirt and lapels, as well as the shortened cuirass over the hips instead of the unique cut at the right.


While we've been discussing the career of one woman in the 1880s, be reminded that this wasn't an option afforded to many women at this time. And while she most certainly had mentors helping her along the way, she also paved a path for herself in a male-dominated world. So during this women's history month, celebrate the women who have come before you - crushing milestones, saying 'yes' when everyone else may have been telling them 'no,' and creating paths towards women's rights and equality.

22 views0 comments