The Intrepid Helen Messinger Murdoch

Editorial Staff Opinion

My interest in Helen Messinger Murdoch began almost three decades ago during my early years as the curator of the Royal Photographic Society in Bath, England. It was there that I fell in love with autochromes—beautiful, translucent, early color images on glass resembling miniature stained-glass windows. There were several thousand autochromes in the society’s collection, among them some glorious examples by Murdoch—intriguing, astonishing scenes of Egypt, India, China, Japan, and Hong Kong taken in the tumultuous year of 1914. It still seems incredible to me that a woman could have traveled the world using a primitive and cumbersome form of photo-technology at such a dangerous time.

In those ancient pre-Internet days, I was unable to discover much about Murdoch until I found a letter in the files from Mary Murdoch Annis, a grandniece in Massachusetts, dated 1975, offering the society more examples of her relative’s work. Apparently no photographic collections or museums in the United States were interested. I wrote back expecting silence and was amazed to get a response almost by return post. Eventually I was able to acquire for the RPS four hundred Murdoch autochromes that had been in an attic for forty years, along with photocopies of Murdoch’s letters and journals relating to her 1913–1914 trip around the world.

I have often used Murdoch’s work in lectures, where it invariably gets a lively response, and though I have long wanted to write a book about her, the facts of her life have been difficult to track down. This much I know: Helen Messinger Murdoch was born in Boston in 1862 to a family with artistic and intellectual interests. Her mother, Caroline Dorcas Smith (b. 1817), was a talented watercolor artist, as was her father, Joseph Murdoch (1810–1884), who worked as a fire insurance broker and, in 1862, enlisted in the 45th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The family were active members of All Souls’ Unitarian Church in Roxbury. The youngest of five sisters and one brother, Helen Murdoch initially trained at the Cowles Art School from 1885 to 1887 under Abbott Fuller Graves (1859–1936) and exhibited her work widely.

Although it would later be eclipsed by New York, in the late nineteenth century Boston led the way in the practice of photography as a fine art in the United States. By the turn of the twentieth century, photography was still resolutely monochromatic, and there was no easy way of getting natural color into a photograph unless it was added afterwards using pigments and a brush. Murdoch had taken up monochrome photography in the late 1890s (a photograph of hers is mentioned in the Boston Evening Transcript of October 26, 1898) after borrowing a camera from one of her sisters. In 1907 color fever was in the air when the Lumière brothers of Lyon, France, produced their full-color autochrome plates and demonstrated them to an eager public in Paris. Despite the initial difficulties in obtaining the Lumière plates in the United States, Murdoch was to use the autochrome process in her photography for the next twenty years. (The Photo-Secession photographers—Stieglitz, Steichen, White, and Coburn—all had a brief period when they too were color mad but soon lost interest in the autochrome.)

The autochrome process involved using microscopic grains of potato starch dyed red-orange, green, and blue-violet as tiny light filters. These were dusted onto a sticky glass plate with crushed carbon black added to fill the interstices between the grains of color. The plate was then coated with a photographic bromide emulsion. When exposed in a camera, light went through the colored grains before registering an image on the photographic emulsion. The autochrome’s huge advantage over other more complex color processes of the time was that, like a black-and-white negative, it came in various sizes and could be used in any plate camera.

Any competent photographer used to processing black-and-white negatives could soon learn how to process and develop an autochrome plate. The minute colored grains tended to form clumps visible to the naked eye, creating a pointillist effect that became one of the autochrome’s greatest attractions. The result was luminous and lush, putting an impressionist palette at the photographer’s fingertips. The romantic appeal of the autochrome has no doubt been enhanced by the fact that it captured a world that came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War I.

In 1911, armed with her autochrome camera, Murdoch sailed to the Mediterranean with her sisters and then went on to London where she became a member of the Royal Photographic Society that year and a fellow of the society in 1912 (an unusually rapid promotion). She exhibited in the society’s annual Colour Exhibition and rented space at Ethel Henry-Bird’s 80 Wigmore Street Gallery, using it as a portrait studio and to exhibit her photographs.

During her next visit to London, in 1912, Murdoch relocated to the Halcyon Women’s Club, a venue recently launched for women graduates in medicine, science, and the arts by the British photographer Agnes Beatrice Warburg. Warburg’s brother John Cimon Warburg was an autochrome aficionado, probably the most respected one in Britain at the time. Keeping a room at the Halcyon as her base, Murdoch made photographic expeditions into the British and French countryside and then exhibited plates of her travels and commissioned portraits at the Halcyon, the RPS, and around the United Kingdom.

She also exhibited with the Society of Colour Photographers (formed in 1907) along with the Warburgs, Violet K. Blaiklock (d. 1961), and other early color devotees, a substantial proportion of whom were women. While Murdoch was undoubtedly a “new” woman—independent, assertive, gregarious, confident, and comfortable with new technologies like photography and later aviation—she also loved British history, architecture, and tradition and showed a noticeable enthusiasm for anyone with a title.

Her trips to Europe usually lasted a few months but in April 1913, she sailed from Boston aboard the SS Canadian for her most protracted adventure to date. It would be more than two years before she saw Boston again. She had lectures to give and exhibitions of her photographs to organize in London, but she also took the opportunity to walk around the vertiginous Cornish coast lugging a selection of cameras and the heavy glass autochrome plates up and down the rugged cliff walks around Land’s End. The audience for her subsequent lecture to the RPS in June 1913 was crowded to the doors with members and friends.

It was during this London sojourn that the fifty-one-year-old Murdoch decided to embark on a world tour, probably the first woman photographer to make such a journey, photographing on both autochrome plates and black-and-white negatives. She noted in her diary that the first photograph of this trip, which she christened “The World in its True Colors,” was of Roger, the Halcyon Club cat. On December 31 she sailed from Marseille to Alexandria on the SS Prinz Heinrich. Her subsequent stops were in Cairo, Luxor, Jerusalem, Palestine, India, Burma, Ceylon, Hong Kong, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Hawaii, before she arrived in San Francisco at the end of September 1914. Her written observations along the way give a vivid picture of the experiences of a lone woman photographer: the exigencies of getting successful results from the temperamental autochrome process under the baking heat of an Indian sun, or of finding cold water to wash the plates in countries where water was extremely scarce and impure. She discusses exposure problems in a variety of climates as well as the difficulty of obtaining the plates which had to be shipped by friends and collected en route and were frequently missed. She fulminates against the customs’ duties she repeatedly had to pay on all her equipment at a variety of foreign borders. In short, her writings give us a rather wonderful character—and a great networker. Wherever she goes someone can always be persuaded to adapt a small room or bathroom into a darkroom for her or drive her miles out of their way to take her to that sunset, that volcano, that monument that she simply must photograph. She moved through the world charming and befriending everyone she met and making it all seem easy. She was one of life’s great optimists and enthusiasts, carrying all and everyone before her with her pioneer spirit. Despite a small private income, she counted her dollars and cents, drachmae, yen, and rupees, always adamant about value for money. The beauties of the vistas before her camera moved her deeply and she risked life and limb for that perfect autochrome, hanging over the edge of the bubbling Kilauea volcano in Hawaii with someone holding her heels to stop her descent into the magma, or trudging through desert or mountain for days to get the photographs she wanted.

Murdoch also put her photographic talents to practical purposes in 1914 when she made the acquaintance of Dr. Aldo Castellani (1874–1971), the Italian pathologist and bacteriologist working at the Medical College in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Some years earlier he had discovered the cause of sleeping sickness. Murdoch taught his hospital photographer the autochrome process so that he could photograph skin diseases with the aim of using the photographs as identification aids in other hospitals.

It must have been difficult to give up such a stimulating life, and Murdoch seemed reluctant to return to Boston. She lingered in California on her way back, photographing the building of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, and finally arrived in Boston by way of Denver and Chicago in May 1915.

When the war put an end to Murdoch’s globe trotting, she took up flying and focused her photographic work on aviation, becoming a member of the National Aeronautic Association. She photographed the Lindberghs, Richard Evelyn Byrd, Amelia Earhart, and aeronautical meets, and she proudly took the first Lumière autochrome of Boston from the air in 1928.

In 1929 Murdoch visited the United Kingdom again and stayed until 1933. While there she compiled travel albums of her black-and-white images (now in the private collection of fellow Murdoch admirer Mark Jacobs of Madison, Wisconsin). It was during this period that she photographed Amelia Earhart on the steps of the American Embassy in London a few days after Earhart’s solo transatlantic flight of May 20–21, 1932. Money was obviously tight and there are family stories of her living off tea and toast in a London garret and of RPS members organizing a collection to provide money for her passage back to Boston. A final gesture was to make her an honorary fellow of the RPS in 1934, thus relieving her of paying membership fees.

Murdoch moved to Santa Monica, California, in 1944 to be near her closest living relative, her nephew Joseph Murdoch (1890–1973), a professor of geology at UCLA. She died there on March 29, 1956, at age ninety-three. A brief obituary in the Los Angeles Times remembered her as an artist and pioneer of color photography. A life tremendously well lived.

PAMELA GLASSON ROBERTS is an independent researcher, curator, and writer. From 1982 to 2001 she was the curator of the Royal Photographic Society in Bath, England, where she organized some seventy exhibitions. Her book The Genius of Color Photography: From the Autochrome to the Digital Age was published in the United States by Carlton Books in August 2010.