October 19, 2020
ART

“Lights, Camera-maids, Action!”: Women Behind the Lens in Early Cinema

Ten seconds into this mysterious film fragment, an unidentified woman camera operator makes an appearance behind the action of a western fight scene. Footage Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bill Snyder Collection.

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BY THE 1920s, the United States had transformed into a nation of enthusiastic moviegoers. Hollywood was fast becoming the film industry’s capital as studios were built, stars born, and successful careers made in every aspect of filmmaking from lighting and writing to stuntwork and publicity. Long before film schools, the industry was populated by ambitious self-starters of all sorts, including plenty of women.

Anyone familiar with film history knows that women behind the camera are not a modern phenomenon. Recent documentaries, such as Be Natural (2018) about director Alice Guy-Blaché, who began her career in the 1890s; websites like the ongoing Women Film Pioneers Project, which collects scholarship about women working in all aspects of the early film industry; and DVDs like Kino Lorber’s Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers (2018), a collection of women-directed films gathered from archives around the world, many of which have never been released for home viewing before — document significant contributions by women in the early film industry.

But so much of film history — the films themselves, as well as information about the people who made them — is still unknown. As we become more aware of how hard women have had to fight to make movies, with the hurdles of outright discrimination and sexual harassment often creating impossibly high barriers, it is worth recalling a time when women first had careers in one of the most technical positions in the industry.

When was that time? Roughly one hundred years ago.

Maxine Dicks
“The Mansfield News Journal,” Feb 6, 1922

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Back in 1920, Ida May Park, a prominent director at Universal Film Manufacturing Company, touted the challenges and rewards of the filmmaking profession in deliberately gender-inclusive terms: “[T]here is no one, man or woman,” she wrote in a book called Careers for Women, “who might not take up the profession with a certain degree of confidence in his or her ultimate success.”

This was uncharted professional territory, after all, though Park’s optimism for women in the field would prove false. The division between men’s and women’s work in the movies was already in the process of forming as the studios became big business. Park observed that the industry was too young to have an established path to the director’s chair, nor barriers to keep anyone, including women, out of it. However, she cautioned, “Knowledge of camera operation, of lighting effects, and of all the hundred and one less important mechanical details must be gained through work in the studio itself. The difficulty of obtaining a position as apprentice or assistant is unfortunately very great.” [i]

Park was correct: camera operation was the most important skill of all.

In filmmaking’s earliest days, the camera operator was, in fact, the director. There was no division of labor when filmmaking was, essentially, a one-man or one-woman show. According to director Alice Guy-Blaché, women weren’t just capable of being filmmakers, they were better positioned to succeed at it than their male counterparts. In 1914, Guy-Blaché proclaimed that “[o]f all the arts there is probably none in which [women] can make such a splendid use of talents so much more natural to a woman that to a man and so necessary to its perfection.” [ii]

Both Park and Guy-Blaché’s confidence about what women might do behind the camera was off the mark, at least in the immediate years after they expressed it. This is evident by looking at the case of the camera operator in the decades to come, when women were marginalized from directing and most other technical roles. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, there were only two female feature film directors working in Hollywood — Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. To our knowledge, there was not a single female camera operator working for the studios in this same window.

Katherine Bleecker
“Prison Moving Pictures Taken by a Girl,” “New York Times Magazine,” November 21, 1915

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According to Pamela Hutchinson in the Guardian, the first woman to join the American Society of Cinematographers, which was founded in 1919, was Brianne Murphy, in 1980. But women have been cranking motion picture cameras since the turn of the 20th century. They were far from the dominant sex in their profession, but they filmed many a short film, feature, and newsreel. During their most active time period of the ’10s and ’20s, the press — writers both male and female — treated camerawomen as novel, over and over again. For the brief window in which women got to be “cameramen,” as they were often called, they were not allowed to forget that they were also women.

In a 1916 issue of Picture-Play, author A. J. Dixon began his profile of Grace Davison with a question: “How many of you ever heard of a woman cameraman? That such a person exists will doubtless be a surprise to the majority of people in the film business, as well as to those outside of it.” [iii]

Grace Davison
“The Only Camera Woman,” by A.J. Dixon, “Picture-Play,” January 1, 1916

Almost a decade later, in June 1925, screenwriter June Mathis wrote a column in The Film Daily about women’s participation in the industry. In “The Feminine Mind in Picture Making,” Mathis acknowledges many women working in scenario writing, art directing, set dressing, and even editing, but adds that she has yet to find “a woman turning a camera crank. For some reason or other they have balked at this.” [iv]

Why didn’t Mathis know better?

Women did not balk at camera cranking. But for some reason, their efforts in this area were perpetually invisible. In 1921, prolific filmmaker Lois Weber was casually referred to as “an expert camerawoman.” [v] The same year, Celia Brynn misrepresents the “early days of motion pictures” as a time when “woman’s place was in front of the camera,” before work beyond acting was available to anyone other than the “masculine gender.” She declares, “The restless sex was not supposed to know much about the stuffing of the movie pie.” [vi] But this, too, is incorrect: women had already had their hands in the “technicalities,” a phrase Brynn uses to partition women’s participation in moviemaking, of many a motion picture pie.

Dixon’s confident anticipation of surprise, and Mathis’s and Brynn’s lack of awareness about the existence of camerawomen (Brynn acknowledges knowing of only one) is an interesting piece of a larger story about the erasure of female participation in this essential role in film production. When women performed this job — where they were sometimes called a camera cranker, woman cameraman, or even camera-maid — they were repeatedly saddled with labels such as the “first of their kind.”

This amnesia is especially intriguing given the number of women who actually touched, held, cranked, loaded, and unloaded motion picture cameras during the industry’s earliest decades. But while female directors, photoplay writers, set decorators, costumers, and editors became part of the fabric of film production in the early 20th century, the idea of the woman cameraman failed to take hold.

Perhaps this was because camera operation was the most technical part of the motion picture business. Not to mention that cameras could be big and heavy, making the work of carrying them seem easy to justify as being out of women’s grasp. But the women who performed this job relished the profession and perhaps also its unconventionality. They donned masculine jodhpurs, posed with hand to the crank and eye to the viewfinder, and smiled as they tucked camera equipment under their arm to pose for a photograph documenting their work.

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In 1914, Katherine Synon used technical capability as a hook for her profile of Mutual Film Company actress Francelia Billington. What set Billington “distinctly apart from a score of other leading women” is that “she can also operate a motion picture camera, even for the plays in which she is appearing.” [vii] Synon wrote that “[a]lmost any day at the studios it is possible to see a brown-haired, gray-eyed, olive-skinned girl of remarkable grace and extreme prettiness standing back of one of the big cameras, turning a crank as she keeps close watch on the scene that a group of players are enacting.” Noting that she “prefers camera work to posing,” Synon lets Billington explain her job in her own words: “I’m so accustomed to operating the machine now that I forget that there is anything unusual in it, […] but I suppose that it is still a novelty to see a girl more interested in a mechanical problem than in make-up.” [viii]

Francelia Billington “Photoplay,” November 1915

Billington’s affinity for her work, as well as her preference for things “mechanical” over things “make-up,” makes a strong statement, despite her acknowledgment of her own novelty. She has, no doubt as a result of great effort, become a natural at camera work, mastering the trade and casually bragging about that mastery. The frequency of her labors — “almost any day at the studios” — is a counterpoint to her own sense that what she was doing was unusual.

Two years later, Dixon’s 1916 profile of Grace Davison incorrectly bills her as “The Only Camera Woman.” Dixon tells the story of his discovery of this allegedly singular female: a friend told him of a “young lady — and a very pretty one, too — working with the Astor Film Corporation as camera man […] I looked at him in amazement when he told me that a woman had directed the picture. ‘Stop your fooling!’ I wisely shook my head at him.” Dixon marveled that “here was a real novelty within one hour’s ride, on the train, from New York,” where Davison worked for the Astor Film Corporation in Long Island. Like a mermaid spotted on the Montauk shore, Dixon has to see it to believe it.

In July of the same year, an article ran about actress Vivian Rich performing in the nude for a forthcoming Mutual Films picture, The Enchantment. She initially refused to do the nude scene, refusing all pleadings from her male director, Carl Le Viness. The compromise that compelled Rich to strip for the silver screen was that there would be no men “within a mile of Miss Rich when the scenes were being photographed.”

The only way to achieve this was, of course, through the use of an all-female crew. Though the camera operator is unnamed in this article, she is described as “an expert camera-woman, who has been frequently engaged by various studios for this work.” [ix] How many films had this unnamed camera expert shot? We will likely never know.

Several months later, a photograph of Margery Ordway shows her wearing decidedly masculine, directorial attire including a cap, jodhpurs, and riding boots. Her left hand rests atop a 35mm motion picture camera. In the background of the photo, an unidentified male director appears to be instructing two actors. But make no mistake, Ordway is the focus of the image, which bears the headline: “THIS IS THE NEW FALL STYLE IN CAMERA ‘MEN’.” Anticipating a bewildered reader, the caption clarifies: “Meaning, the style you could fall for. Nor is this a masquerade get-up. Margery Ordway, regular, professional, licensed, union crank-turner at Camp Morosco, has gone into camera work as nonchalantly as other girls take up stenography, nursing, husband-stalking.” [x]

Margery Ordway, “Photoplay,” October 1916

The dismissive sexism in this characterization of Ordway’s work — It’s not a costume! She actually turns that crank herself! — exists alongside the notion that being a woman crank-turner is as natural as other allegedly conventional (husband-stalking!) female pursuits of the professional and personal variety. At least Photoplay did not forget its own past by calling Ordway the lone pioneer.

In “Enter the Camerawoman” from 1917, Dorothy Dunn is credited as “the only woman staff photographer in the motion picture field,” who “covers her assignments on the same basis as her male confreres.” Employed by Universal Newsreels, Dunn “operates a motion picture camera with skill and takes pictures wherever she is sent, regardless of the danger involved” — lest anyone think that she was only sent to cover tea parties and rose gardens.

Dorothy Dunn “Moving Picture World,” June 9, 1917

Dunn began her motion picture career as an actress, but

[p]ossessing a mechanical turn of mind, she spent her leisure hours in the studio studying the mechanism of the camera. Deciding there was more excitement covering fires, riots, parades, celebrations, wrecks and the numerous events that the news pictorial men are called upon the photograph, she gave up the screen to gather material for it. [xi]

Self-taught, driven by a desire for more than performing, Dunn did precisely what Ida May Park would advise just a few years later when she explained how to get the necessary experience to become a camera operator. Asked about her success, Dunne “declares that she finds the profession of camerawoman perfectly delightful.” [xii]

Dunn’s highly visible career did not stop Fox Studios, however, from referring to Louise Lowell as the “first ‘cameramaid’ in motion pictures,” a full two years after Dunn had blazed the trail. [xiii] Whether this reflects the convenient amnesia of marketing or earnest myopia, it’s the repeated refrain that all women camera operators were doomed to encounter when they were discussed on the printed page.

In 1918, actress Gladys Brockwell was photographed behind an imposing tripod and 35mm motion picture camera wearing an outfit nearly identical to Ordway’s. Deeming her an “energetic little Fox feminist,” this article focuses on the “present crisis that inspired Miss Brockwell to discover just how many of the purely masculine jobs a woman could perform if it became absolutely necessary for men to leave for duty ‘somewhere in France.’” [xiv] With World War I inspiring this imagination of America without men, the article theatrically details Brockwell’s forays into “men’s work.” This article was likely as much about publicity and posing (a real “masquerade get up” this time around) as actually doing, but it’s a reminder of how the camera was categorized as a man’s tool.

Gladys Brockwell “Oakland Tribune,” September 15, 1918

The following year, Fox Newsreel’s Louise Lowell’s profile proclaims that, “All women will surely wish her success in both of the men’s fields which she has entered, flying and photography.” [xv] The motion picture camera may have been increasingly becoming a man’s tool, but women were still certainly using it when and how they could — even if only women were wishing them well in this enterprise.

Louise Lowell: 1) “Motion Picture Magazine,” January 1921 2) “Photoplay,” February 1920

In Hollywood, over the course of the 1920s, women were indeed being squeezed out of key technical roles, including directing. Angela Murray Gibson, who made at least nine short commercial films, chose to do so out of her own North Dakota Gibson Studios, where nobody could tell her what she could or could not do.

In 1926, an article about the hot topic of women entering male spheres of work calls Gibson “the only woman producer of films in America.” [xvi] Gibson wrote, produced, edited, starred in, and also photographed these films — sometimes with her mother’s help. In 1926, the Bismarck Tribune described her as a “director-cameraman” for “her own movie company.”

Most delightful of all is that Gibson left an Easter Egg behind in the form of her Library of Congress copyright registration for The Wheat Industry, dated February 21, 1921. The film is now considered lost, so this record is the only way to experience the film. As was the convention in her day, Gibson submitted select frames from the film — which were essentially still photographs — from each of its scenes in order to obtain copyright protection. The second pair of these images shows Gibson carrying her own motion picture camera gear, looking over her shoulder toward the camera that was actually filming, which was likely in her mother’s capable hands. “Photographed by Angela Murray Gibson” is typed onto the page. The final scene uses six frames for the copyright registration — one of a bag of flour, two of bread loaves (one whole, one sliced), two of children happily eating bread, and one of Gibson, staring directly at us, hands on her camera.

Angela Murray Gibson: Library of Congress Paper Print Fragments, 1921, Registration for The Wheat Industry

Let’s be clear: Gibson’s film is about the wheat industry. It was released as an educational film. What on earth would images of the filmmaker carrying or using camera gear be doing in such a film?

The only reasonable answer to this question is that Gibson considered her role — as “director-cameraman” or “camerawoman” or “camera girl” — as significant enough that she wanted to document herself doing them. This camera-maid was not going to be invisible.

When Gibson’s smallpox-themed romantic comedy (yes, that’s right), That Ice Ticket, screened at the opening of the 1,400-seat State Theater in Casselton, North Dakota, in 1921, the local press reported that Gibson used a French camera with a German lens on American film. [xvii] Someone clearly wanted people to know that she knew what she was doing with the “technicalities.”

Perhaps the best punch line of all to the Gibson story appeared in a 1928 issue of Screenland, a version of which was also published in the Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World: “The distinction of having the first news reel camera girl belongs to Kinograms, the news reel released by Educational Film Exchanges, Inc. She is Angela Murray Gibson of Casselton, North Dakota.” [xviii] And so Gibson became another false first in the endless parade of misreported camerawoman pioneers.

Angela Murray Gibson: “Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World,” March 10, 1928, Page 31

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Early camera operators are among the most challenging film industry roles to document. Researching a time before credits were regularly used to attribute labor on films, it is hard to figure out who did what — male or female. Finding this information, when it is even findable, requires scouring archives and digging for clues in old trade periodicals and newspapers. If camerawomen got married and changed their names, and maybe also their professions, they become even more likely to slip through the cracks of historical inquiry.

Of around 600 documented American motion picture camera operators working before 1930, it appears that around 25 of them were women. [xix] While this is a small percentage of the total, it makes these women — not to mention others who are, hopefully only temporarily, lost to history — all the more intriguing even though there is relatively little supporting material about their lives and careers. Some of this loss can be attributed to the state of surviving material from the silent era more generally, but it does not explain why so much of these women’s lives and work remain obscure. Louise Lowell, Margery Ordway, and Dorothy Dunn — among others — have disappeared in Houdini-like fashion, leaving little trace.

In most industries, when inroads are made into a segment of the workforce by a new group — especially one that considers itself well suited to the work — it usually begins a trend of more of the same group entering the profession. However, in this case of the camerawoman their numbers appear to drop year by year over the course of the 1920s in particular.

Though there are more mysteries than answers at this point, the traces of these camerawomen pioneers remind us of how important it is to keep digging and to make visible the contributions made by women to this industry in particular. Surely camera-maids like Angela Murray Gibson would have been pleased to know that the breadcrumbs they left were leading us back to them all these years later.

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Marsha Gordon is a professor of Film Studies at North Carolina State University and a fellow at the National Humanities Center, where she is writing a new book, Leftover Ladies: Ursula Parrott and the Reinvention of the Modern Woman. She is the author, most recently, of Film Is Like a Battleground: Sam Fuller’s War Movies (Oxford University Press, 2017) and co-editor of Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (Duke University Press, 2019).

Charles “Buckey” Grimm is an independent film researcher with over 35 years experience examining various facets of the motion picture industry, specializing in the silent era. His current effort is to document the lives and careers of cinematographers active during the silent era.

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[i] Ida May Park, “The Motion-Picture Director,” Careers for Women (1920), 225–227.

[ii] Alice Guy-Blaché, “Woman’s Place in Photoplay Production,” The Moving Picture World (, 195.

[iii] A. J. Dixon, “The Only Camera Woman,” Picture-Play (January 1, 1916), 59.

[iv] “The Feminine Mind in Picture Making,” The Film Daily (June 7, 1925), 9.

[v] “Film Editing — A New Profession for Women.” Oakland Tribune (June 5, 1921).

[vi] Celia Brynn, “Ladies’ Day,” Picture-Play Magazine (June 1921), 73.

[vii] Katherine Synon, “Francelia Billington, Who Can Play Both Ends of a Camera Against the Middle,” Photoplay (December 1914), 58.

[viii] Ibid., 59.

[ix] “Vivian Rich is Filmed in Nude Photoplay,” The Sunday Telegram, Clarksburg, West Virginia (July 2, 1916), p. 3.

[x] Photoplay (October 1916), 103.

[xi] “Enter the Camerawoman,” The Moving Picture World (June 9, 1917), 1609.

[xii] “First Camerawoman with News Weekly,” The Moving Picture Weekly (May 26, 1917), 11.

[xiii] “Fox Claims She’s Frist ‘Cameramaid’,” Great Falls, Minnesota Daily Tribune (November 2, 1919).

[xiv] “Gladys Brockwell,” Motion Picture Magazine (February 1918), 36.

[xv] Boise, Idaho Evening Capitol News (October 22, 1919).

[xvi] “The World is Woman’s Only ‘Sphere Now,’ These Stories Show.” Allentown Morning Call (January 17, 1926).

[xvii] “Tomorrow is New Theater’s Opening Date,” November 27, 1921.

[xviii] Screenland (June 1928), 74.

[xix] For the past decade, independent researcher Buckey Grimm has been compiling an Early Cameraman Motion Picture Database to document the lives and careers of cinematographers from all genres who were active prior to 1930. The Women Film Pioneer’s Project has a pertinent entry on “Women as Camera Operators or ‘Cranks’,” https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/essay/women-as-camera-operators-or-cranks/

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