Across the Globe: The Life and Career of Minna Keene

Unknown, Portrait of Minna Keene, 1908. Platinum print

Unknown, Portrait of Minna Keene, 1908. Platinum print, 20.2 x 15.6 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

During a pivotal shift in Western attitudes towards women as professional practitioners of photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pictorialist and commercial photographer Minna Keene (1861–1943) emerged as a seminal contributor to international visual culture. Introduced in 1839, photography was initially considered a profession suitable for men, but not women. A shift in social attitudes – alongside the introduction of wet-plate and dry-plate photography, which simplified the medium – made photography more accessible to women in the latter half of the Victorian period. Despite such shifts, few women photographers achieved the same level of recognition as their male peers. Keene was one of the exceptions. A determined artist and businesswoman who grasped opportunities as they arose, Keene succeeded in running studios in England, South Africa and finally Canada. Her photographic oeuvre ranged from still life and portraiture, to picturesque/pastoral views and typological studies.

Born in 1861 in Arolson, Germany, Keene (née Bergmann) moved to England around the late 1870s or early 1880s, where she worked as a governess and met her husband, artist and decorator Caleb Keene. In the 1890s, Caleb gave Minna her first camera, which she trained on botanical and natural specimens. Before long, she began distributing her work in England by submitting her photographs to amateur photography exhibitions and periodical competitions. Recognizing the commercial potential of her photographs, Keene registered her studies for copyright in 1903. A number of these images were published as illustrations in British textbooks and remained in use for several decades.

 Minna Keene, Fruit Study, c.1905. Carbon print

 Minna Keene, Fruit Study, c.1905. Carbon print, 25.6 x 31.6 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

In 1903, Keene also self-published a book, Keene’s Nature Studies, consisting of still lifes and plant studies, which she republished with additional photographs in 1905 and 1906. It was highly regarded as visual reference material for artists and students. Many of the photographs echoed the compositional and symbolic elements found in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish still life paintings. In Fruit Study, Keene’s composition of a brimming basket of fruit, leading the eye to an almost empty decanter, signifies the passage of time and the transient nature of life. Throughout her career, Keene would continue adapting various styles and practices prevalent in Western visual culture to suit her own artistic and commercial sensibilities.

In 1903, the Keenes and their two children emigrated to Cape Town, South Africa. Throughout Keene’s early years in Cape Town, she continued photographing botanical specimens while expanding the scope of her subject matter and developing a visual style inspired by pictorialism – an approach to photography that focused on aesthetic and interpretative representation rather than realistic documentation. According to scholar Malcolm Corrigall, she opened a garden-studio at her home and began producing portraits of Cape Town’s affluent community. Keene’s amalgamation of a pictorialist aesthetic with commercial ambitions differentiated her work from other photographic studios in Cape Town and also from the work of most pictorialists, who at this time believed photography was an art form, not to be tainted by commerce.

Minna Keene, Harvesters, c.1905. Carbon print, and Our Malay Washerwoman, 1903–13. Gelatin silver print

Minna Keene, Harvesters, c.1905. Carbon print. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Photo: NGCMinna Keene, Our Malay Washerwoman, 1903–13. Gelatin silver print. The Minna Keene and Violet Keene Perinchief Collection, Ryerson Image Centre, Gift of the Sturrup Family, 2020. Photo: Ryerson Image Centre

Simultaneous to the establishment of her first studio, Keene photographed South Africa’s Sub-Saharan and Muslim populations, many of whom constituted Cape Town’s working class – a practice she would again undertake after immigrating to Canada in 1913. These photographs reflect a typological or ethnographic practice popularized by anthropologists in the 1860s and early 1870s and a genre popular with colonial white audiences at the time. Viewers today recognize the racist implications and “othering” effect of such photographs.

Like other popular “ethnographic” photographs of the time, such as Gertrude Käsebier’s 1898 Portrait (formerly The Red Man) and Edward S. Curtis' images of Indigenous peoples of North America, Keene’s typological photographs evidence an imbalanced power dynamic between the photographer and subjects, the latter having no autonomy over their representation. The subject becomes an anonymous figure, representing a collective “type” rather than a unique individual. Aware of the demand for this kind of image, Keene registered a company in 1906 to publish and distribute her photographs of South Africa’s peoples and views of Cape Town as postcards. These postcards were widely consumed by white settlers in European colonies, as well as in Europe, and were shown in transnational amateur photographic salons, particularly in London, England. As such, Keene’s photographs functioned within a broader visual culture, geared towards white audiences and seeking to confirm hegemonic beliefs about racial differences.

Minna Keene, Street Scene, London, c.1907. Carbon print

 Minna Keene, Street Scene, London, c.1907. Carbon print, 21.8 x 29.9 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Within a few years, Keene was admitted as a Fellow to the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) and was invited to join the Linked Ring, a British photographic association. She was one of the few women to be recognized in these societies, and the first woman from South Africa, and only the sixth, to become a Fellow of the RPS.

Life changed when Caleb’s Cape Town decorating business failed, and he decided to immigrate to Canada in 1912. Joining him in Montreal the following year, Keene set up a studio with her daughter Violet and shortly after was commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to create publicity photographs of the Rocky Mountains in 1914–15. Although the Rockies had been photographed by various distinguished male photographers, including those of the Montreal-based commercial firm William Notman & Son, the Canadian Pacific Railway “hoped that she would provide a new way of looking at the magnificent vistas,” as Andrew Rodger notes in his 1990 article on Keene.

Minna Keene, Lake surrounded by mountains, 1914–15, carbon print

Minna Keene, Lake surrounded by mountains, 1914–15. Carbon print. The Minna Keene and Violet Keene Perinchief Collection, Ryerson Image Centre, Gift of the Sturrup Family, 2020. Photo: Ryerson Image Centre

Just as her typological photographs contributed to a broader visual culture throughout South Africa and Europe, so too did the photographs she produced during her time in the Rockies. Both Keene’s views of the mountains, as well as her photographs of Indigenous peoples in these regions, played into the settler-colonial project of nation-building in Canadian visual culture. Photographs such as Lake surrounded by mountains and Untitled depict Canada’s people as exotic and the environs as sublime, a romanticization of the country’s landscape. It is possible that these photographs would have been used by the CPR to attract tourists to the Rocky Mountains.

Minna Keene, Untitled, c.1914 and Untitled, c.1914. Both gelatin silver print

Minna Keene, Untitled, c.1914. Gelatin silver print, 24.4 x 19.6 cm; and Untitled, c.1914. Gelatin silver print, 24.9 x 18 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photos: NGC

By 1918, Keene had expanded her commercial business to include a second studio in Montreal and one in Toronto, which she ran while her daughter maintained the Montreal studios. In the early 1920s, the Keene family relocated to Oakville, where Keene opened another studio. This studio would be Keene’s final location, as she continued to operate the business until her death in 1943. During her final years, Keene was still very active in amateur and pictorialist circles, continuing to exhibit her work internationally.

After her death, Keene’s photographs largely disappeared from both public and photo-historical view. Her photographs have gradually re-emerged in the 21st century, as prominent Canadian institutions, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Ryerson Image Centre, obtained parts of her extant archive. The National Gallery of Canada acquired eight photographs by Keene in 2020, enriching its holdings of works by women photographers and early Canadian photography.

Minna Keene, Pomegranates, c.1910. Carbon print

Minna Keene, Pomegranates, c.1910. Carbon print, 49.6 x 33.9 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Keene’s Pomegranates is currently on display alongside works by pictorialist photographers William Gordon Shields and Arthur Goss. The rich sepia tones of Keene’s carbon print, coupled with the fine details of the image’s hand-worked surface, immediately engage the viewer’s attention. Juxtaposed are portraits by pioneering Canadian women painters, including Laura Muntz Lyall, Henrietta Shore and Florence Carlyle, and adjacent is Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté’s Onontaha. They all utilize symbolism in some capacity, while works by the women painters and Keene employ symbolism to comment specifically on femininity.

The attraction of Keene’s Pomegranates lies in its divergence from her usual depictions of women. Inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite movement of the 1840s, Keene emulated its notions of femininity in both her pictorialist and commercial portraits. In Pomegranates, Violet is posed as the mythological Greek goddess Persephone, inspired by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1874 painting Proserpine. In the photograph, Violet wears a bohemian dress, her neck decorated with beaded necklaces. In her hands she holds a bowl of pomegranates, its weight communicated by the grip of her fingers around the edges of the bowl. Unlike Rossetti’s passively posed Proserpine, however, Violet makes eye contact with the viewer. In Keene’s retelling, Persephone is defiant, confident, yet simultaneously vulnerable. She is independent and complicated, perhaps the kind of woman many women in this period wished to be. The power of Keene’s photograph is strengthened by her re-interpretation of the pomegranate’s symbolic meaning. The pomegranate no longer bears Rossetti’s connotation of captivity, but rather is a symbol of youth and abundance, as suggested by the overflowing bowl. Keene is viewing her daughter both as her mother and as a photographer composing a story. The subtle symbols within the image, and the vigilant handiwork evident in the print itself, reflect Keene’s pride in what she sees before her.

As Keene’s photographic work gradually re-emerges on gallery walls, it is evident that she was a talented photographer – adept at assuming popular visual styles, such as pictorialism, and mastering difficult photo-chemical processes, including carbon printing – and a contributor to early 20th-century Western visual culture. Her works serve as a vital addition to the Gallery’s Photography Collection, complementing other narratives in early photographic history.


Minna Keene’s Pomegranates is currently on display in Room A104A at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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