Withington, Eliza (1825–1877)

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Withington, Eliza (1825–1877)

American portrait and landscape photographer. Name variations: Elizabeth W. Kirby. Born in New York City in 1825 (some sources cite 1823); died in 1877 in Ione City (Amador City), California; educated in photographic technique in New York around 1857; married George V. Withington, in 1845 (separated around 1871); children: Sarah Augusta (b.around 1847); Eleanor B. (b. around 1848); Everett (b. 1861, died five months later).

Elizabeth W. Kirby, called Eliza, was born in New York City in 1825. Nothing is known of her early years until 1845 when she married George V. Withington of Monroe, Michigan. The Withingtons' first two children, daughters Sarah Augusta and Eleanor B. , were born around 1847 and 1848, respectively. George, deciding to move to California, began his pioneer journey across the continent in 1849, while Eliza stayed home with their children. After he settled in Ione City, California, Eliza and Sarah Augusta (then about five) began their cross-country trek in 1852, from St. Joseph, Missouri, and ending in Ione City six months later. Eleanor would not be reunited with her parents until 1857.

Before 1857, Eliza journeyed back to the East Coast for the purpose of learning photography. She traveled throughout the Atlantic states after completing her studies and visited the galleries of the leading photographers of the day, including Matthew Brady's New York City gallery. Upon her return to California in January 1857, she opened her Excelsior Ambrotype Gallery in a rented house in Ione City, where she offered lessons in photography and oriental pearl painting, then a popular pastime for women. In 1861, the Withingtons had their only son, Everett, who died five months later. Some ten years later, Eliza separated from George.

Withington made stereographic photographs of people, landscapes, and other subjects. In stereographic photography, invented in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, two photographs of the same subject are taken from slightly different angles; when viewed through a stereoscope, they merge into one three-dimensional image. Stereoscopes were a popular form of entertainment found in many drawing rooms in the last half of the 19th century. Withington is best known for her stereographs of miners, mining operations, and the rugged landscapes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that she took near Silver Lake, California, in 1873. She resolved the problem of cumbersome photographic equipment by devising her own traveling equipment, including special provisions for field developing, in which she used her own skirt as a tent.

Withington joined the San Francisco Photographic Art Society of the Pacific in 1875 and published an article detailing her techniques, entitled "How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs," in Philadelphia Photographer in 1876; the magazine piece was reprinted in Photographic Mosaics in 1877. She died that year of cancer in Ione City.


Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. NY: Abbeville, 1994.

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California