Today a vast majority of people have a camera at the tips of their fingers because of the smartphones glued to our bodies. Whether it’s to snap a selfie or to document a protest coursing through the streets of Seattle, it’s easy to capture a single moment thanks to advancements in consumer technology. For photographers working in the early 20th century, crafting the perfect photo required manual adjustments to the iris plus trial and error. Ella E. McBride was one of those putting in considerable effort.
“So many of our cameras now do all the work for us,” said Curator Margaret Bullock. “We don’t really realize it’s making all these adjustments that they were having to do themselves either through the camera, through the lens they used, through the way they lit it or even in the darkroom there’s all kinds of manipulation.”
“Captive Light: The Life and Photography of Ella E. McBride” at Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) puts some of those manipulation techniques on display. It was an intentional effort by McBride and her contemporaries to elevate photography from a mechanical skill to fine art. In an untitled photo taken in 1922, McBride captures a muralist painting a scene of three women. Most of the photograph is dark, and it requires peering closely to discover the fine details. According to Bullock, it’s an example of her mastering the highlight; because she’s focused the light on his arm, it’s one of the first things the viewer sees.
“She wanted to kind of emphasize him and that act of painting, act of creation, and so there’s a little highlight right on the back of his head,” said Bullock. “That kind of very careful thought about setting up that light is what makes her images so powerful.”
In “From a Kitchen Garden” (1925) McBride uses a soft focus on flowers in a vase. The effect gives the photograph an ethereal quality. The position of the light draws your eyes to the right of the frame. Conversely, in an untitled photograph of cherry blossoms from 1925 everything is in focus. Much of her work is of flowers and portraiture.
McBride’s trajectory into photography is a reminder that we don’t all need to subscribe to the Mark Zuckerberg brand of success and build an empire before turning 30. It’s never too late to start anew and McBride is a perfect example of taking on a new challenge and excelling.
McBride was born in Albia, Iowa, in 1862. When she was a toddler, her family began a long journey to the West Coast. The transcontinental railroad was still under construction, so they first journeyed to New York via a covered wagon. A steamboat took them to the Isthmus of Panama, and they then boarded a train, then boarded another steamboat. They initially arrived in San Francisco, and by 1870 the family had settled in Wadsworth, Nevada. In 1882 McBride graduated from Portland High School. Her family couldn’t afford to send her to college so she became a teacher. Later, she became a principal.
Outside of work McBride enjoyed spending time outdoors. In an accompanying catalogue of the exhibition, McBride’s love for exploring is discussed in detail. The photographer said, “My long vacations gave me opportunity to play a lot, and every summer found me in the mountains. My hobby was mountain climbing, and every year I was able to add one or two peaks to my list of conquests.”
McBride joined a mountain climbing association and in 1896 ascended Mount Hood. Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Baker followed. During her climb up Mount Rainier in 1897 she met celebrated photographer Edward S. Curtis. His work focused on the American West, and he’s known for his photographs of Native people. Within a few years of their initial meeting she began assisting him on photography projects. By 1907 she moved to Seattle and joined his staff. Within a few years she opened her own commercial portrait studio. Her clients included Cornish School of the Arts. At this point she still hadn’t taken up photography, despite the encouragement of the artists working in her studio.
“Finally, one day in 1920 at the age of 58, she decides while they are out on break she’s going to try taking a photograph herself,” said Bullock. “She creates this lovely image of flowers in a bowl and just falls in love with the whole idea of art photography and being a photographer herself.”
Bullock said within a couple months the photograph was in an exhibition and she began submitting work to exhibitions all over the world. During that time of American photography, the predominant style was pictorialism. Within a couple years she became one of the most exhibited photographers in the world. Her career lasted about a decade, until the Great Depression changed life dramatically for Americans.
“She has to put all her time and attention into keeping the portrait business going and keeping her livelihood going and can’t afford to send artwork all over the world,” said Bullock. “She drops out of the photo circuit, and from that point on she goes back to being a commercial photographer. She runs a studio until she’s 91.”
In 1965 she died at 102 years old. Bullock said she didn’t have a personal family to preserve her work but a family she knew, the Andersons, found homes for some of the negatives and prints. The Museum of History and Industry, the University of Washington and Seattle Art Museum are among the recipients. About 150 photographs have been preserved. Exhibition co-curator David Martin has spent decades researching McBride.
TAM’s exhibition of McBride’s work honors her contribution to photography. The nearly 60 sepia-toned works on display showcase her full immersion into the craft and her passion for it.
“Her photographs speak of her creative talent, her deep appreciation of beauty, her adventurous and curious spirit,” Bullock wrote in the catalogue. “They also evoke the community of artists of which she was a part, who gathered around a shared aesthetic vision and furthered the evolution of a new artistic medium.”
WHAT: “Captive Light: The Life and Photography of Ella E. McBride”
WHEN: Runs until July 8
WHERE: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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