In 1892, the year before Louisa Herrmann signed the Women’s suffrage petition, her life was turned upside down. Louisa’s is an inspiring story for girls of all ages. Curator Historical Photography Lissa Mitchell shares her story.
‘The most up-to-date and complete studio in the colonies’
From 1892 until 1908 Louisa Herrmann operated the large and successful Herrmann photographic studio in Wellington employing many staff. As a woman running a business of this size at the time, Louisa was unusual.
Newspaper articles from 1897 described Louisa’s studio as the most modern photographic studio in the colony – lavishly furnished with large windows letting in natural light and the modern convenience of electric lights throughout the building.
The first floor included the studio (where photographs were taken) along with a waiting room, toilets, and dressing rooms for customers, while the top floor housed the photographic processing area. On the top floor Louisa had separate toilets installed for her female employees – a small addition that would have made a huge difference to their working lives.
Solo mother and businesswoman
So how did Louisa Herrmann come to be running one of the most successful studios in the colony during the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
In 1890, Louisa married Richard Herrmann, one of her employers from the Connolly and Herrmann studio where she worked as an assistant. Richard had just opened his own photographic studio in Cuba Street and Louisa assisted by hosting female customers to the studio (an announcement advised that ‘Mrs Herrmann is always in attendance and will be happy to receive lady visitors.’).
Two years later in July 1892 Louisa gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Inez, but sadly two months later Richard died from typhoid leaving Louisa a widow with a new baby and a business.
Despite her situation and driven by the need to provide for her daughter, Louisa decided to continue to operate the photographic studio herself.
Around this time Louisa signed the Women’s suffrage petition – as a young mother trying to recover from the loss of Richard and starting to run a business she must have had a strong understanding of the need for greater women’s rights.
35,000 photographic negatives
Many of the photographs taken by the Herrmann studio were published in illustrated newspapers, such as the New Zealand Graphic, that were operating at the time. When Louisa retired in 1908, after 18 years in business, 35,000 of her negatives were offered for sale being an amazing record of everyday people and celebrities of the colony.
However we don’t know where these have ended up. It is a sad reflection on New Zealand’s historical record that Louisa’s story of self-determination and resilience and her photographic work have been lost, and a strong reminder of the need to keep including the work and stories of women in our histories.
If you have photographs by the Herrmann studio (or any other studio operated by a woman photographer) I’d love to hear from you. Comment below, or get in touch on Twitter.