The Kitchen Sink, c. 1919
21.3 x 16.4 cm
Purchased 1984 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act
National Gallery of Canada (no. 20629)
Her subject matter for this photograph, a kitchen sink with an unwashed jug, milk bottle and other crockery, was shockingly revolutionary for a work of art. Watkins was the first to turn a fundamental and once exclusively female issue, the responsibility for domestic household labour, into a still life. Her composition is equally innovative - the glass bottles, kettle, spout and tap repeat a rhythm of circular and tubular shapes which alternately cast shadows and reflect light, creating an abstract pattern of subtle greys. Watkins used palladium printing paper because it produced a wide range of soft greys (as opposed to the harder contrasts of the silver print).
From the 1910s onward, women were encouraged to learn photography, especially commercial portrait photography, as it was considered a suitable female profession. The Clarence White School of Photography taught new theories of modern art, design and photography with emphasis on abstraction and formal composition. Most of the students were women. The importance of Watkins's photographs has only recently been discovered. After 50 years of neglect, they were exhibited in New York in 1984, prompting a renewed assessment of her career and influence.