Alice Hughes once said in an interview, “the unexpected is always happening in photography” (source). In context, she simply was referring to the positioning of clothing or a pose of a young child in a photograph, but little did she know that statement seemed to have tapped into a deeper meaning which mirrored her own story in the photographic world. Alice was born in Notting Hill, Kensington on August 31st, 1857 and raised by her father, Edward Robert Hughes, who was a society portrait painter. She studied photography at the London Polytechnic and, what may have been expected, she began to photograph her father’s work. Through this, Alice learned more and more about her father’s techniques, gained valuable experience and a fashionable, royal clientele. She was drawn to photographing this work not only from being raised around it, but by experimenting and photographing her own friends for quite some time which helped her establish incredibly useful methods and directing techniques.
What’s most commonly noted about Alice is that she primarily photographed women and children. She touched on this by stating that “ladies, of course, make very much prettier pictures than do their husbands and brothers, and there is nothing I enjoy more than taking children, either alone or in groups” (source) With this way of shooting, she created her own niche and went against the odds of the male-dominated profession by making her name as the first gentlewoman professional photographer. Alice opened her first studio in 1891, conveniently right next to her father’s in Gower Street, London which she operated until 1910. At this studio, she photographed her first royal sitter in 1893, the Duchess of Fife with baby Princess Maud. With being a one woman show for the beginning of her career, Alice eventually expanded to employing around 50-60 women and taking up to 15 photos a day, which sounds quite easy in the modern age, but back then this was a feat due to long processing times.
Alice got to this point of success due to her unpredicted individuality when it came to her portraits. “By fusing the conventions of society portraiture with the cool, monochromatic tones of the platinum print Hughes created a new and distinctive style of photographic portraiture” (source) This elegant monochromatic printing process set her apart and drew her clients in.This process was time consuming, expensive and highly particular as she would have each print go through at most 50 different people before being sent off to her client. Alice put attention into every little detail, from the dream-like painted backdrops to the placement of a bouquet of lilies. She had particular methods for putting her clients at ease, mentioning that she would let her poodle run about in the studio as a means to capture a child’s natural, relaxed expression. With so many sittings a day, Alice had time to figure out what garments looked best and how a white dress on a woman truly carried a dateless feel to the image. All of this created Alice’s place in a very particular market of high society portraiture as she continued to photograph the same families for years and years, seeing countless babies grow up to be young adults. This market also provided for her hundreds of frontispieces for prestigious journals such as Country Life from 1898 to 1909.
Over the years she ended up selling her first studio, starting a new one in Berlin, and then back to opening a studio in London at the beginning of the first World War. Within all of these changes, the last studio was not as successful as her first, but she still remained actively shooting until retiring in 1927 to Worthington, where she passed 12 years later due to a fall. Alice was revolutionary in her field as she was a great encouragement for female professionals to open their own studios and create their photography businesses. She revived the fashion of family portraiture and created a style of her own, a style that inspired many artists after her. For further readings - Alice has an autobiography titled My Father and I (1923), although this item is primarily sold as a collectable.
Written by Emilee Prado
‘A Lady Photographer Who Never Photographs Men; A Talk with Miss Alice Hughes’ (first published in The Harmsworth Magazine, London, Vol. 11, 1899)
Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom by Anna Sparham, Margaret Denny, Diane Atkinson
Images: The National Portrait Gallery