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Friday, March 29, 2019

Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa: Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson

Marvin Breckinridge filming at Great Zimbabwe ruins, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), 
1932, photograph by Olivia Stokes, EEPA 1985-009-0050

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’ve searched our archives to find the oldest collection created by a woman photographer.  That honor goes to Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson (1905-2002), an American photographer, broadcaster, filmmaker, and philanthropist.  From her journey to Africa in 1932, her work with the Frontier Nursing Service, her broadcasting experience during World War II as the only female member of "The Murrow Boys”, she was, much to her father's chagrin, anything but conventional.  

Boy holding lamb, Natal, South Africa, 1932,
EEPA 1985-009-0009

This amazing woman and her collection are the next highlighted in our Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa project.  The Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson Collection at the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives (EEPA) is primarily comprised of 78 silver gelatin photographic prints taken by Breckinridge during her trip to Africa in 1932.  Taken during an era of increasing American travel and tourism Africa, these photographs provide significant documentation of a time of great political change in Africa and the professionalization of photography - especially for women.           

Xhosa girl weaving at St. Cuthbert's Mission, Transkei,
South Africa, 1932, EEPA 1985-009-0004

Marvin's prominent family, including her grandfather, Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge, expected her to stay home and marry.  Breckinridge, however, had other plans!  In the first few years following graduation from Vassar College (1928), she worked for the Frontier Nursing Service (a group comprised mainly of women that provided medical services to remote areas in Appalachia), earned a pilot’s license (the first woman in Maine to do so), and assisted in the office of the Democratic National Committee.  In 1932 she set sail to Africa from Southampton, England, accompanying her friend Olivia Stokes and her parents, Rev. Dr. Anson Phelps Stokes and Caroline Mitchell Phelps Stokes.  Dr. Stokes lectured at various locales, working to promote the education and welfare of Africans.  

Kikuyu woman wearing dress made of tree bark,
Kenya, 1932, EEPA 1985-009-0075 

While just 26 years of age, Breckinridge showed a surprisingly sophisticated eye in her documentation of the peoples and landscapes of Tanzania, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South Africa, Egypt, Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan.  Olivia Stokes wrote about the trip in her journal, which was later published as Olivia’s African Diary: Cape Town to Cairo, 1932 (Washington, D.C.: Eastern Press, 1980) and illustrated with Breckinridge’s photographs.

Breckinridge trained the lens of her trusty Graflex camera on a variety of subjects, but seemed most interested in the peoples of the continent.  Pictures of the Baila, San, Shona, Xhosa, Kikiyu and Zulu peoples are prominent in her photographs as are “everyday” scenes, including a bride and groom at Lovedale; workers pouring gold and dancers at the Crown Mine near Johannesburg; flower vendors in Cape Town; two leading elders at Amanzimtoti; a craftsman making spears; miners with their wives in Katanga (now Shaba); schoolboys; women lining-up to receive rations in the Belgian Congo; and a Zulu woman at a market in Durban.  She later shared these photographs with Henry Field, Curator of Anthropology at the Field Museum, to assist in his research.

Wives of miners waiting in line for food rations, Elizabethville, Belgian Congo
(DRC), 1932, EEPA 1985-009-0058

Camel, Sudan, 1932, EEPA 1985-009-0098

She also documented important sites and landscapes, including the Queen Hatshepsut's room at Karnak, Luxor, Egypt; the ruins of Great Zimbabwe; Murchison Falls, Uganda; the Lualaba River; Victoria Falls, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); and a mountain at Cape Town.  Additionally, animals feature prominently in her photography, and include egrets, ostriches, camels, lions, and wildebeests.

Breckinridge's experience in Africa further ignited her desire to photograph professionally, and upon return, she enrolled in the Clarence White School of Photography in New York in 1933, taking a month-long training on photographic developing and printing.   She then worked in the office of Democratic congresswoman, and distant relative, Isabella Selmes Greenway, but soon returned to the Clarence White School of Photography for a longer course of study.  Following graduation, she began selling photographs and articles in several magazines, including LifeHarper’s Bazaar, and Town and Country.  Her film credits include The Forgotten Frontier (1930), a documentary about the activities of the Frontier Nursing Service, and She Goes to Vassar (1931), a film that provides an overview of college life at Vassar.        

Mashona woman with baby, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), 1932, EEPA 1985-009-0044

Traveling to Europe in 1939 on photojournalism assignments, Breckinridge was abroad during the start of World War II and remained only one of four American photographers in England during the first months of the war.  
Edward Murrow hired her as the first female news broadcaster for the CBS World News Roundup to report from Europe.  As the only female member of “The Murrow Boys”, an elite group of only eleven broadcasters handpicked by Edward R Murrow, she covered Great Britain, Scandinavia, and the Low Countries.  In total, Breckinridge broadcasted fifty reports from seven countries.  To learn more about her work during this period, check out  Women Come to the Front, an online exhibition curated by the Library of Congress.

While working in Berlin, she married Foreign Service Officer Jefferson Patterson. She resigned from CBS, hoping to resume her career in photojournalism, but the State Department prohibited it. The couple was posted in Peru, Belgium, Egypt, the Balkans and Uruguay.  After several years, the couple settled in Washington, D.C., where Breckinridge directed her energy on philanthropy.  Breckinridge became an active member of the Society of Woman Geographers and contributed as a trustee of various museums and galleries, including the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.  

Sudanese man, near Kassala, 1932, EEPA 1985-009-0110

We hope that you enjoy Breckinridge's photographs as more are posted online.  You can view the collection's finding aid and explore her photographs here.  We encourage you to read more about the Pioneering Women Photographers in Africa project, and explore other blogs in this series.

To obtain high-resolution images and permission for publication or exhibition, please contact the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art.

Eden Orelove, Photo Archivist
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art

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