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Remembering Mary Steen, Denmark's first female court photographer

Mary Steen, self-portrait 1889
Mary Steen, self-portrait 1889


October 28, 2016 /Photography News/ Born 160 years ago today, on 28 October 1856, Mary Dorothea Frederica Steen was a Danish photographer and feminist. In 1884, at the age of 28, she opened a studio in Copenhagen where she specialized in indoor photography, a difficult art at a time when electricity was not widespread. The photographs she took at the Flerons' house on Copenhagen's Vesterbrogade are among the first showing people inside their own homes. She later became Denmark's first female court photographer, working not only with the Danish royals but with the British royal family too. Around 1895, Princess Alexandra invited her to London where she photographed members of the royal family, including Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. 

Photograph of Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice inside Windsor Castle taken by Danish photographer Mary Steen in 1895
Photograph of Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice inside Windsor Castle taken by Danish photographer Mary Steen in 1895
Mary Steen also played an important part in improving conditions for female workers and encouraging women to take up the profession of photography. In 1891, she was the first woman on the board of the Danish Photographers Association. She was also active in the Danish Women's Society (Dansk Kvindesamfund) where she sat on the board from 1889–1892. Together with Julie Laurberg, she photographed the leading figures in the Danish women's movement. In 1891, she received a grant from the Reiersenske Fond, a trade association, which allowed her to travel to Germany and Vienna.

She campaigned for better working conditions for women including eight days holiday and a half day off on Sundays. She treated her own staff well, paying good wages. Her example was widely followed.

As a result of growing deafness, she closed her studio in 1918. She died on 7 April 1939.


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