Between pictorialist photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen lies the extraordinary photographer, Alice Boughton. There is a lot of information about her personal life which remains a mystery, but she was an important artists during her lifetime who worked within an impactful photography movement. She became an important contributor for the pictorialist movement and the Photo-Secession. The intricately crafted and soft photographs of Alice Boughton, even if not as well known, are extremely extraordinary in their craft and composition. So much, that many have collected and admired her work. Throughout her life, Boughton’s was well known throughout New York City and later, her work would be exhibited internationally and admired by many. Alice Boughton’s photographic work was influential during her time, she promoted and embodied not only the pictorialist movement, but also the importance of photography as a fine art.
Alice Boughton was born on May 14, 1866 in Brooklyn, New York. She began studying art and photography at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in the 1880’s. While at Pratt, she studied with one of the most renowned female photographers of the time, Gertrude Kasebier. Approximately while Boughton was still in school, she became an assistant for Kasebier. During this time, Kasebier was a member of the Photo-Secession movement, which was led by Alfred Stieglitz and F. Holland Day to promote photography as a fine art artistic medium. Since Boughton was immersed in this movement she became inspired by Kasebier’s fine art work in the Photo-Secession. This inspiration led Boughton to open her own studio in 1880. The studio was located on East 23rd street in New York, which she had for around forty years.
Around 1901 Boughton traveled to Rome and Paris where she pursued more education in photography. She also worked with Gertrude Kasebier in her summer studio. In 1902, while in Europe, Boughton won an honorable mention for her photography at the Turn International Decorative and Fine Arts Exhibition.
Alice Boughton found her own artistic, photographic voice by photographing soft-focused portraits of children and female nudes in natural settings. To help achieve the soft, and low contrast of her images, Boughton experimented with different printing methods such as platinum and bromide printing. She was truly interested in photography as a fine art medium, which is expressed in her life’s work. Her images became an important aspect to the pictorialist movement. This movement was established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as an important movement in the photography world in which photographers rejected the straight-forward point and shoot aspect of photography.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Boughton met Alfred Stieglitz, an american photographer that advocated for photography as a fine art. It is not exactly known when Boughton met Stieglitz, but he admired and supported Boughton’s pictorial photographs. In 1902, Stieglitz’s admiration and support led to him including Boughton’s work in the first Photo-Secession exhibition at the New York’s National Arts Club. He then later welcomed her into his exclusive Photo-Secession group. Stieglitz featured her images in his famous quarterly, Camera Work in the April 1906 issue. The images chosen were accompanied by an article she wrote about the endless limitations of photography as a fine art medium. After her work was featured, Boughton had an exhibition at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession with C. Yarnall Abbott and William B. Dyer. During this time, her work was also exhibited internationally in London, Paris, Vienna, and New York.
After her work had been exhibited widely, Alice Boughton became a sought-after portrait photographer. Many of her sitters included prominent people of her day such as Ellen Terry, William and Henry James, Myra Hess, Arthur Davis, Julia Ward Howe, Dr. Abraham Jacobi and much more. She also photographed many prominent literary and theatrical figures like English actor, author, filmmaker, and playwright, George Arliss. Boughton also dabbled in photographing landscapes in the United States and in Europe. Around 1920, she started to share her studio with different artists like Ida Haskell, who was an instructor at Pratt, and had taught Boughton and Kasebier while they were in school. In 1926, Alice Boughton traveled to Europe with Haskell--but their exact relationship is unknown.
As Boughton grew older, she closed her studio and threw away thousands of her photography prints. She moved and retired to Brookhaven where she later died of pneumonia at age 77. Boughton’s work has been collected by the British and United States National Portrait Galleries, the George Eastman House, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Even if some aspects of her life remain a mystery, Alice Boughton’s images are a beautiful representation of an early twentieth century photographer who focused on the fine art aspect of photography. She was a prominent pictorialist contributor to the Photo-Secession, which helped photography become recognized as an artistic medium. She not only became influential in her work, but an influential female artist during her time. Alice Boughton embodied the early 20th century “New Woman.” These were women who were breaking gender norms, dominating the workforce, becoming active members of society, and creating beautiful and impactful art, all of which Boughton succeeded during her lifetime. Alice Boughton embodied the freer, educated, feminist woman who contributed to the photography field as a female during a time when women were pushing the limits of a male-dominated society.
Written by Alexis Hagestad
Thumbnail Image: Dawn, c.a. 1909
Images in Article: Library of Congress. Washington, D.C. | National Portrait Gallery, London