A generation later, Zaida Ben-Yusuf (1869–1933), an English photographer with Algerian and German parents, moved to New York in 1895 with Cameron on her mind. From her Fifth Avenue studio, Ben-Yusuf became one of the most in-demand photographers in the city. Like Cameron, she imbued photographic portraits with the creative and atmospheric qualities of painted ones: interpreting what is seen, not just showing it. Ben-Yusuf even realized a dream that Cameron held: to make art and support herself doing it.
A woman of color with a troubled, financially unstable life in England, Ben-Yusuf came to America as a milliner. She told the critic Sadakichi Hartmann in an 1899 profile that her ambition was to be the “Mrs. Cameron of America” by photographing as many notable figures as she could. Her illustrious subjects included the novelist Edith Wharton and Theodore Roosevelt, before he became president.
Ben-Yusuf was also one of the first women to turn the camera on herself repeatedly, which she did in 10 portraits, starting with Portrait of Miss Ben-Yusuf
(1898). At the time, this wasn’t seen as cultivated subject matter—
, for one, was only photographed by other photographers. But Ben-Yusuf became one of the first photographic curators of her self-image. Selfie pioneer? One could make a case.
These women, among others, achieved incredible bodies of work in short spaces of time. Cameron was a photographer for just 12 years before her family left England and she ceased to show her work; Hawarden died young; and Ben-Yusuf closed her shop before her 40th birthday. Yet they changed the way photographers—and even future painters—looked at their subjects. Photography presented one of few arenas in which these women could innovate, and they used the medium to express unique and nuanced perspectives on their worlds.