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Gerhard Sisters

Biographical Essay | Resources | Image Sampler

Biographical Essay

Illustration shows portrait of Gerhard sisters sitting in profile.
[Emme and Mayme Gerhard]
[between 1900 and 1914]

When the Gerhard Sisters opened their own photographic studio in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1903, newspapers and magazines rarely hired women as staff photographers to capture late breaking news. But, photographs by Emme Gerhard (1872-1946) and her sister Mayme Gerhard (1876-1955) appeared frequently in local and national media showing buildings and gardens, engagement and wedding pictures, and portraits of progressive political and social leaders, visiting politicians, suffragettes, preachers, and entertainers. In 1904, the sisters made their best-known images by documenting Native Americans and other ethnic groups at the St. Louis World's Fair.

The Gerhards held leadership roles in professional organizations and became fellows in England's Royal Photographic Society. Their images and business acumen enabled them to attain economic independence and even travel for pleasure. They worked together until 1936 and afterwards continued to explore their own photographic specialties. They are noteworthy examples of women who integrated their responsibilities at home with their participation in the public sphere.

The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division acquired its Gerhard holdings through copyright deposits and has more than 100 photos made between 1904 and the early 1920s, primarily their work with ethnic portraits at the St. Louis World's Fair and studio portraits from the 1910s. For representative examples of the Gerhard Sisters' work, see the Image Sampler. Many of the magazines and newspapers where their images were originally published are available for study through the Library's general collection and newspaper research centers, including the subscription database services. The bulk of their surviving papers and photographs are at the Missouri Historical Society and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. (See the Resources section for additional information.)

Early Life

The Gerhard's parents came to the United States as children from Cologne, Germany, in the mid-1800s. They settled in Mascoutah, Illinois, and had moved to St. Louis, Missouri, by 1869. Their father worked successively as a teamster, butcher, and storekeeper in the large German-American community, which included a large number of photographers, retouchers and engravers.

The Gerhards began their photography careers as young women. They studied for three years with Fitz W. Guerin, the best-known St. Louis portraitist and a photographer of staged scenes. When Guerin retired in January 1903, the Gerhards acquired his studio and negatives. Their timing was perfect. Five years of renovations in the city between 1899 and the World's Fair in 1904 put the Gerhard Sisters in the heart of a new St. Louis at the height of the Progressive political era.

Although the sisters claimed to be the first female operated photography business in St. Louis when they opened "The Gerhard Sisters" studio in 1903, a guide to early St. Louis photographers shows that they followed a handful of women trailblazers, some of whom worked for more than a decade. Characteristically, early women photojournalists were self-promoters.

The St. Louis World's Fair

Their best-known works are the photographs they made at the St. Louis World's Fair, featuring indigenous people from throughout the world but especially from the Philippines which the United States had acquired as a territory in 1898.

Anthropologists at Chicago's Field Museum recognized the Fair as an opportunity to gain valuable ethnographic photographs without expensive expeditions to the several countries represented. Charles Carpenter, the Museum's staff photographer, oversaw a team of photographers--Frances Benjamin Johnston and the Gerhard Sisters--whose work was of professional quality and who used large-format view cameras.1 Jessie Tarbox Beals also photographed at the Fair but she was not part of the Carpenter team.

The Gerhards photographed Iggorot and Moro people from the Philippines and Negritos from Oceania, as well as Eskimo, Chinese, and Japanese people. Some of the photographs portray people sympathetically but others capitalize on features considered to be inferior, particularly the ones titled "Missing Link" -1 and -2 that emphasize the simian appearance of one man. In that era of eugenics studies, a newspaper used this photograph to head an article titled "Which is Man, Which is Monkey."

Some of the Gerhard's images from the Exposition seem to have been made in their studio, away from the "controlled chaos" of the outdoor displays on the Fair's Midway. One of those is a portrait of Geronimo that contains an accidental "portrait" of the photographer at work. It is reflected in Geronimo's eye and was discovered in 2009 when the Library's photo conservator realized someone was looking back at her as she worked. The "portrait" shows a woman wearing a white shirtwaist blouse with a dark skirt, the uniform of "the New Woman" of the 1890s and early 1900s. The phrase New Woman referred to feminists.2

The Gerhards photographed people of the Cheyenne, Osage, and Pueblo and Moki tribes. Some of their images, such as the portrait of Wolf Robe and Navajo Family, appear empathetic. Others of their photographs, such as the one labeled "Navajo Buck and Squaw" reflect prevailing stereotypes.

The Gerhards also photographed activities on the fairgrounds. An Arapaho group appears outside a structure made of branches at the Fair. Other scenes show interiors of Cheyenne houses, and action scenes of the Hopi Snake and Eagle dancers. The Gerhards' photographs provide rare ethnographic documentation as some of the dance scenes were soon restricted from photographers.

Eskimos had been popular at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and also appeared in St. Louis. The Gerhard photos taken in St. Louis include one of Nancy Columbia, who was born at the Chicago Fair, and "Ester," who is wearing a photographic broach showing Nancy Columbia.

The Gerhards lost many of their valuable images in a February 1905 fire in their studio that destroyed more than 300 of their glass plate World's Fair negatives. Mayme valued them at $10,000 at the time.3

Working Partnership

Like many other entrepreneurs, the Gerhards' personal history was vague until the advent of electronic databases. Even their first names were spelled more than one way Emme or Emma and Mayme or Mamie. Emme was more artistic; Mayme excelled in business. Their temperaments so complemented each other that they felt they worked as one. Energetic, enthusiastic, and optimistic, they built on the techniques learned from Guerin, but they developed their own style. They abandoned conventional ideas about studio lighting in favor of natural light, bringing the characteristics of the home to the public arena. Their studio was described as soft and warm with an inviting and restful atmosphere.

The relaxing ambiance and nuanced lighting of their studio allowed sitters to look as if they were at home--in front of a fireplace, talking in the corner of a room. The sisters studied portraits painted by Old Masters that seemed to capture a subject's essence, even though they had to overcome the challenge of their short acquaintance as opposed to the extended time needed by the painter. The photograph of suffragette Laura Clay exemplifies this intimate style of portraiture. The Gerhards also made photographs of other women campaigning for the suffrage movement on their stops in St. Louis. In their studio they used natural light but they mastered artificial lighting to photograph weddings, gathering and events around the city.

Combining Personal and Professional Lives

In about 1899, Emme married Albert W. Rhein, a stationery engraver. They lived in St. Louis with Emme's parents and Albert's brother Russell G. Rhein, also a photographer. Emme worked as a photographer's helper. On Oct. 12, 1906, Emme and Albert had a son Gerhard while living in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. In the 1920 census, Emme was listed as a widow, living with her son in the home of her sister, Mayme. Emme's husband, however, was listed as divorced, and living in a St. Louis household that included his sister Alice, a photo retoucher.

Mayme Gerhard, married Thomas Goodale Hawley, a dentist who was formerly a photographer himself. The couple lived at 1824 Lami Street in St. Louis, sometimes with some of Mayme's siblings. The extended Gerhard family worked as photographers with Emme and Mayme employing their sisters and brother in the photo studio occasionally. The sisters were economically self-sufficient, raised children who became self-supporting, and had the means to travel as far as England and Hawaii.

Professional Activities

The Gerhards attended photography conventions at least as early as 1905 in Boston, and photography periodicals report their attendance at conventions in major cities across the United States through 1920. Mayme frequently served as an officer in the organizations while Emme provided most of the speeches, demonstrations, and photographs for exhibitions. Her 1916 talk, "Portrait-Lighting with Mercury-Vapor Lamps," was published as an article under both their names by the Cooper Hewitt Electric Company, Hoboken, N.J.4

The Gerhards held office and won prizes in the Missouri Photographers' Association and the Missouri Valley Association but were most involved in the Women's Federation of the Photographers' Association of America. Organized in 1910 as a resource for the increasing number of women entering the photography field, the Women's Federation existed for only nine years but played an important role in educating and promoting the works of women photographers. It held exhibitions of women's photographs at annual meetings and organized lectures, demonstrations, and exhibits throughout the country in studios run by women. When the Women's Federation merged with the Photographer's Association, Mayme Gerhard was the first woman to hold national office, and she was also made an associate of Britain's Royal Photographic Society in 1913.

During this period, laws regulating fair use of photographs were evolving and Mayme carefully guarded the studio's business interests. The April 1, 1916, issue of Photo Era, published an article that quoted a letter the Gerhard Sisters included with their dues to the Copyright League, "Enclosed find check for $2, in payment for one year due the Copyright League. We cannot begin to tell you how much the League has helped us, and incidentally, how much money we have received from violation of copyrights." The article expanded saying "Only a comparatively short time ago our pictures were considered fair and easy booty by newspapers and other publishers. Whenever they wished to use them, no questions were asked, no payment was given--THEY JUST TOOK THEM."5

The Gerhard Sisters joined the push to have photography considered as artistic expression rather than mechanical reproduction, as their 1916 letter to the editor of Bulletin of Photography shows. They cited seeing their local museum displaying Indian pottery, lace, and mummies, and New York's Metropolitan Museum exhibiting snuff boxes and the Pittsburgh Art Museum showing several rooms of amateur art while the St. Louis Museum refused since 1914 to exhibit their photographs because it defined them as mechanics. They implored the Photographer's Association of America to take up their cause.6

The sisters found their occupation still dominated by men in 1917 when Emme told a reporter, "We know that being women we must expect to do our work as well and then a little better than men if we would be recognized and accepted and compete upon equal terms with men." She acknowledged gender discrimination in photo contests, continuing, "Our first prizes were not won until our entries went in without other identification marks than numbers."7

Photography clubs denied women membership as did advertising organizations. In June 1917, when the Associated Advertising Clubs of the World held its thirteenth annual convention in St. Louis, women were permitted to attend even though the local chapter excluded women from membership. Mayme Gerhard was one of three local women "honored by the National Program Committee by being placed on the program for the women's conference."8

Final Years

The Gerhard sisters maintained studios at several places in St. Louis until Emme left in July 1936 to study "the art of the primitive" at an artist colony near Mexico City for a month before relocating to New York where she lived with her son, Gerhard R. Gerhard, a lawyer in Port Washington, N.Y. She exhibited regularly at the International Salon of Photography in the United States, Canada and Western Europe and her photographs generally received awards. In 1938, she was made a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of England. Emme died in 1946.

Mayme operated the studio with her daughter Vera Hawley Smith until 1941 after her husband died in 1935 and Emme left St. Louis. As Mayme Gerhard Hawley, she died in St. Louis on Oct. 16, 1955.


The Gerhard Sisters figure among those who pioneered the "New Woman" idea of 1900. The Gerhards shaped their own lives and, by doing so, helped make photography a profession for women. They maintained a middle-class lifestyle and were able to employ their siblings as well as other office assistants. They raised self-sufficient children--Emme's son became a Harvard trained lawyer who argued before the Supreme Court and Mayme's daughter a professional photographer.

The two women provided publicity to those on the front lines of bringing voting rights to women, and they participated fully in professional organizations for photography and advertising. They helped dispel perceptions that women's work was inferior. The quality of the Gerhard's work has held up over time. Their photographs at the World's Fair interest researchers more than one hundred years later. They left an inspiring legacy well worth rediscovering.

1Eric Breitbart, A World on Display: Photographs from the St. Louis World's Fair, 1904. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997), e10-11.
2 Wikipedia: "The New Woman was a feminist ideal that emerged in the late 19th century. A new woman pushed against the limits set by male-dominated society, especially as modeled in the plays of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen."
3 "Phone Failed to Save Art Works: Fire in Gerhard Sisters' Photograph Studio Wrecks Valuable Negatives, World's Fair Views Gone." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 17, 1905, 2.
4 Photo Era 36 (May 1, 1916): 258.
5 Photo Era 36 (April 1, 1916): 198.
6 Bulletin of Photography, May 24, 1916: 459, 662.
7 Marguerite Martyn. "St. Louis Women Who Have Made a Notable Success in Business," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 10, 1917, p. 23.
8"Women Share in Convention on Advertising." St. Louis Post Dispatch, June 3, 1917, C3.

Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2011. Last revised: May 2011.
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