Inspiring stories about NZ women photographers – Louisa Herrmann (1864-1955)

Inspiring stories about NZ women photographers – Louisa Herrmann (1864-1955)

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.

Young woman, 1890s, Herrmann studio, Wellington. Gift of Derek Noble. Te Papa (O.004613)

‘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.

Corner of Cuba and Dixon streets (opp. Te Aro House), 2018, Wellington, former site of multistory building that housed the Herrmann photographic studio. Photo by Lissa Mitchell. Te Papa

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.

Herrmann studio’s portrait of the Māori leader Niniwa Heremaia [name spelt incorrectly above], also known as Niniwa-i-te-rangi (1854-1929), featured as part of an article profiling the work of leading Māori in the temperance movement. Published in the New Zealand Graphic, 24 July 1897. Source: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-18970724-132-2.

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.

Page from the New Zealand Graphic, 21 April 1900, with photographs by the Herrmann studio, Wellington. Top: Lieutenant R. J. Seddon – The Premier’s son who has gone to South Africa, and delegates from the N.Z. Pharmacy Board Conference, March 1900. Source: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19000421-738-2.

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.

16 Comments

  1. Your interesting article jogged my memory. As a 6 or 7 year old living in Wellington in the early 1940s, I remember that my mother had two friends Isla (? spelling) Bristow and Elsa Morley who ran the Bristow Morley photographic studio. Their names are not included in the Wikipedia list of NZ women photographers – but neither is Louisa Herrmann. Nor is Mrs Hamilton, mentioned on page 17 of Bill Main’s “Wellington through a Victorian lens.” (Louisa Hermann – spelt like that – is mentioned on the same page.)

    1. Author

      Thanks David. I’ll email you.

  2. Interesting blog Lissa. There was a woman photographer called Harriet Cobb taking some lovely photos in Napier in the 1890s. I came across her many years ago when I was doing some research on the suffrage movement in Hawke’s Bay.

    1. Author

      Thanks Vicky and I’m working on a post about Harriet next

    1. Author

      Thanks Dave

  3. This is a really good piece on an important woman in NZ colonial history. I’d love to see more articles on women like her in Wikipedia: it would be a great help to volunteer editors if blog posts like this had a few references, as an article would usually need more than just one citation to avoid being deleted by over-zealous admins. Likewise clear copyright statements and links for the photos would be helpful, so they could be uploaded into Commons and used in the article: I believe most of those are no known copyright, so could be Public Domain under US law. Even the Cuba/Dixon St photo could be posted under a Creative Commons license so Commons could use it. Happy to chat about this more if you like.

  4. Kirstie Ross

    Thanks Lissa – good to have the link to the petition (thanks NZ History/MCH) and to the photographs taken by Louisa in Te Papa’s collections. If only the museum knew the location of her 35,000 negatives!

  5. Fascinating, Lissa, a wonderful slice of Wellington’s past. It’s time for an updated women’s history walk of the capital city, no?…

    1. Author

      Thanks Pamela and what a good idea

  6. Thank you Lissa for this provocation for further research and reminder of how much of women’s histories has been been lost, and work like Louisa Hermanns not recognised

    1. Author

      Thanks Christine

    2. Author

      Thanks Janet

  7. Such an interesting piece – thank you

    1. Author

      Thanks Barbara

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