matters photographical

Giles Hudson

Minna Keene (1861–1943): Pictorial Portraitist

During the 1900s women became increasingly active in pictorial portraiture. Minna Keene (1861–1943) was one of the most accomplished practitioners of the genre. Her photographs were regularly seen in the popular photographic journals, as well as in several solo exhibitions.

Born in Germany, Minna Bergmann married her husband Caleb (b. 1862) in Chelsea, London, in 1887. Caleb was a “decorators apprentice” and brother of the landscape painter cum “photographic artist” Elmer Ezra Keene (1853–1929). Minna’s first mention in the photographic literature occurs in the late 1890s, when she is found submitting work (with some success) to competitions in the art journal the Studio and to a selection of regional photographic societies, including the Chelmsford Camera Club and Southsea Exhibition.

At the time of these exhibitions Minna was living in Bristol. In 1903 (the same year in which she was elected to the Royal Photographic Society) she made the decision to emigrate to South Africa, where her husband opened a showroom in Cape Town. In 1914 another move beckoned, this time to Canada, where she resided first in Montreal, and then in Toronto, practising as a professional photographic portraitist.

As the editor of Amateur Photographer helpfully noted when reviewing an exhibition of her photography in 1914, “Mrs. Keene’s work may be divided broadly into three periods, one in which she dealt extensively and cleverly with flower, fruit, and natural history studies, of which, however, very few examples are shown in the present collection [a comment also applicable to the selection of images reproduced above]; the second period including striking and characteristic studies of native and Boer life in South Africa; and the third period, in which she has produced with considerable success portraits of celebrities resident in or visiting South Africa.”

This trajectory of personal photographic development was not unusual among women and constituted a transition from simple studies to portraits with more sophisticated use of lighting, composition and focus. An early article “On Flower Photography” which Keene wrote for Photography in May 1900, for example, is illustrated with straightforward photographs of daffodils, a lily, cherries and hawthorn berries. These were, nevertheless, evidently valued for their simplicity and faithfulness, since they were chosen by the publisher Burleigh and Co. to illustrate a series of educational textbooks, prior to the publication of which, in January 1903, Keene registered 30 specimens for copyright protection.

Examples of Keene’s photographs of native and Boer life in South Africa were shown at the Lyceum Club in London in April 1907 (“native” extending to Malay as well as Zulu residents of Cape Town). These pictures of the “tag-rag-and-bobtail of the nations”, “racial types in South Africa”, or “wayside models”, as they were variously described, were “obviously pictorial” according to the British Journal of Photography. At the same time Amateur Photographer commented that “it must not be supposed that these are simply photographs without artistic presentment or pictorial feeling, because the reverse is distinctly the case. Mrs. Caleb Keene has the pictorial insight and the feeling of design in a remarkable degree, and these qualities were freely exhibited in her work”. In a majority of the studies she achieved this pictorial effect by the use of strong contrasts of lighting, often portraying her subjects in shadow by placing them in front of a bright window.

When Keene’s South African photographs were shown again in an exhibition of “Pictorial Photographs by Colonial Workers” at the Amateur Photographer “Little Gallery” in 1909, it was her success in overcoming the unwillingness of the subjects to be photographed that drew attention. The “better-class Malays”, who apparently were the “most interesting people in Capetown”, objected on religious grounds to being photographed, it was reported, although at the same time some Malay mothers were “becoming quite European in their eagerness to have their children’s ‘pictures’ taken”. So attractive to the South African tourist were the “types of native races”, it was pointed out, that even on the distant veld well-supplied photographic darkrooms were springing up to cater for the demand.

Mrs Keene’s pictorial portraits of South African celebrities (and others) were exhibited from 16 March to 18 April 1914 in a “one-woman” show at the A.P. Little Gallery in Covent Garden. Most were shown as carbon prints and were said to meet what by then had become some of the key critical criteria of pictorial work: “individuality”, “sensitiveness to an inner meaning”, and the expression of “attitude and feeling”.

These mature works are certainly beautiful and charming. In treating women Keene often includes flowers or fruit in the composition, recalling the nature studies that first brought her to attention as a photographer. Her portraits have a softness of tone and focus, and make use of dappled patterns of light and shadow in the backgrounds. As well as pictorially decorative, they seem to offer a palpable insight into their subjects’ character and temperament, this often being achieved by the way the sitters fix the camera with their gaze. Along with the women’s elegance and sophistication, the portrayal of which is aided by the rich dress fabrics and tasteful accessories they wear, the portraits also communicate the pleasure of outdoor life, in the bright, warm climate of the Cape.

By the time of the 1914 exhibition Keene had been elevated to the fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society and had also joined the London Salon of Photography. She continued to exhibit at the Salon until at least 1929, and in international exhibitions in New Zealand, Budapest, Pittsburgh and Tokyo. In the later years of her life she was assisted and ultimately succeeded as a photographic portraitist by her daughter Violet (1893–1987), Mrs Harold Edgar Perinchef.

Reproductions from halftones in Amateur Photographer, 1900-14

Further Reading

Minna Keene, “Racial Types in South Africa, and the Flora of the Country”, Photographic Journal, vol. 49, no. 5 (May 1909), pp. 249-252

Andrew Rodger, “Minna Keene, F.R.P.S.”, The Archivist, vol. 14, no. 1 (Jan-Feb 1987), pp. 12-13

Helen McAllister-Ross and Stephen Butt, “Elmer Ezra Keene”, Newsletter, The Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, no. 81 (Spring 2010), pp. 5-6

Cite this article:

Giles Hudson, “Minna Keene (1861–1943): Pictorial Portraitist”, Matters Photographical ([], 03 Dec 2014)


4 responses to “Minna Keene (1861–1943): Pictorial Portraitist

  1. Helen McAllister-Ross 25/09/2016 at 7:46 pm

    Thank you for this informative article on Minna Keene. Her photographs with her unique use of light are still beautiful, timeless. Minna was my great grandmother ( you referenced me in footnotes). I truly appreciate you keeping her alive in your article.

    • Giles Hudson 25/09/2016 at 8:17 pm

      Great to hear from you Helen. I’m glad you liked the article. I was looking at one of your great grandmother’s photographs in an exhibition in Tate Britain just the other day – her famous Pomegranates – a beautiful work – one of many. Giles

      • Helen McAllister-Ross 26/09/2016 at 1:35 am

        I just heard about the exhibit…and I have been living in London for the last year (on and off) and missed it. I have a copy of Pomegranates in my home. That is her daughter Violet in the photo.

  2. Mick McMurray 31/10/2016 at 9:19 pm

    Really interesting article. I have just acquired one of her portrait pictures, unfortunately not in brilliant condition but the quality of the image shines through. Haven’t been able to identify the sitter, male reading a book – so perhaps a literary figure. Any suggestions to help identify the sitter gratefully received, no problem with contacting me by email – Thanks for the article, been into photography all my life and even though I have go e digital I still marcel at the quality of image the early photographers produced.

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