19th century photographers in Madeira and elsewhere

ALMOST WITHOUT REALISING IT, it seems that I have developed an interest in 19th century photographers. A visit to the Isle of Wight in 2022 led to me becoming interested in the life and work of the pioneer of artistic photography – Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). She lived at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight between 1860 and 1875. It was here that she produced most of her highly creative photographs. I have written a book about her: “Between Two Islands: Julia Margaret Cameron and Her Circle”.

Five years after Julia left the Isle of Wight, my great-grandfather Franz Ginsberg travelled from the German Empire to King Williams Town (‘KWT’) in the eastern part of what was then the southern African Cape Colony. Aged 18, he arrived there with his future brother-in-law Jakob Rindl. The two men set up what became a successful commercial photographic studio in the town, which they might have chosen because many of its European inhabitants were German speakers. Although Jakob continued the studio after 1885, Franz diversified his activities by founding soap, match, and candle factories in the town.

I believe that despite becoming a successful industrialist and politician, Franz continued taking photographs as a hobby. Because of his success in KWT, other members of his family came out from Germany to work in the town. Amongst these were Franz’s nieces, Anna and Else Ginsberg. These two intrepid ladies founded a photographic studio in KWT. They were the first ladies to have opened a commercial photography studio in what was to become South Africa. Of interest, amongst each of the generations of Franz and Jakob’s descendants, there have been keen photographers including myself,

In May 2023, when we visited the city of Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira, we came across a museum that helped to bring 19th century photography back to life for me. It is the Museu de Fotografia da Madeira in Rua de Carriera. The museum is housed in what had been the premises of the commercial studio founded by Vicente Gomes da Silva (1827-1906) in 1863. The studio remained in business until 1978. In 1982, the Regional Government of Madeira purchased the building – Atelier Vicente – and used it for a museum of photography.  

Vicente Gomes da Silva became interested in photography in 1856, and by 1859 he was recorded as an amateur photographer in a local newspaper published in the June of that year. By 1863, he had made photography his business venture, and moved into the Atelier on Rua Carriera in 1865. A year later, he was appointed photographer to the Empress of Austria. His son, also called Vicente, continued the business, and was appointed photographer to the Portuguese royal family in 1903.

The museum is interesting not only because it exhibits the sorts of cameras that must have been used by my ancestors in South Africa and by Julia Margaret Cameron, but also because features that were characteristic of early photographic studios have been maintained and explained. The Atelier was opened before there was electricity on Madeira. The main studio area was arranged so that it was lit by northern light that filtered through skylights and curtains designed to make it a homogenous light source. Part of the studio’s laboratories had skylights that allowed ingress of sunlight that was required at various stages of preparing the photographic plates. At the back of the studio, there are a set of sliding panels, each painted with a different scene that could be used as a background to the people being photographed. The desired scene could be slid out behind the area where the subjects posed for their pictures. In other rooms, there are exhibits illustrating the history of cameras and photographic processes, as well as a fine collection of reproductions of images captured by some of the many photographers – both Portuguese and others – who worked in Madeira.  Some of the foreigners who took photographs on the island included British photographers such as Russell Manners Gordon (1829-1906) and Alexander Lamont Henderson (1837-1907).

Although I have no information about the appearances of the photographic studios used by my relatives in 19th century KWT, seeing the museum helped to give me an inkling of how their workplaces must have been. In the case of Julia Margaret Cameron, the places where she created images in her home, Dimbola, were far more makeshift from what I can gather.

Except for Julia Margaret Cameron, all the photographers I have mentioned, and many others working in the nineteenth century, aimed to create visually accurate images of their subjects. Often crystal clear, these pictures are fascinating but usually lifeless. What made Julia Cameron’s photography both unusual and full of life was her experimentation with focussing and processing. She used the camera not as equipment for capturing real life accurately on film but as a tool for creating works of art, in the same way as a painter uses the brush and the sculptor uses chisels. By doing this, she was far in advance of her time; experimentation with photography as a creative art form really only took off in the 20th century. The portraits and other composition that she created on film successfully captured not only their external appearance but also her astute interpretations of her subjects’ personalities.

My book about Julia Margaret Cameron can be obtained from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0BZFCVLX9/ ,

and at the museum shop at Dimbola at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight