Ella E. McBride was an internationally noted fine-art photographer, as well as an avid mountain climber, environmentalist, and civic leader. For about eight years she ran the photography studio of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), and for more than 30 years operated her own successful Seattle photography studio. During her nearly 103 years, she maintained successful professions in the fields of art, education, and business. She was an adventurous, creative woman who embodied the pioneering spirit associated with the American West.
Born in Albia, Iowa on November 17, 1862, Ella McBride was one of three children born to Samuel B. McBride and America McIntire McBride. Her father was a carpenter who specialized in cabinetry and wagon making. After forming a business with his brother-in-law, Thomas Hampton, the family headed west. At the age of three she accompanied her parents and younger sister on the long, tedious journey that would lead them to their final destination in the Pacific Northwest.
From Iowa, the family traveled to New York City where they boarded a steamboat to the Isthmus of Panama. Upon arriving, they traveled by train across the isthmus, taking another steamer to San Francisco. From there, they traveled again by boat to Portland, Oregon, and finally a riverboat to Albany, Oregon, where they lived for a few years until settling in Portland.
Ella McBride and Goon Dip
In her early years, Ella met a young Chinese immigrant named Goon Dip (1862-1933). He had left his native China as a 14-year old boy to seek his fortune after news of the California gold rush reached his small village in Southern China. He initially arrived in Portland, Oregon, and then traveled to Tacoma, where he had paternal family members. After spending a few years as a laborer, he was sent back to his native land because of increasing anti-Chinese violence. Returning to China, he married a woman whose family had ties to the Pacific Northwest. When he made a second attempt to come to America a few years later, he returned to Portland, without his wife and soon found himself without any prospects for employment.
Feeling defeated, he was losing hope when he met Ella McBride who would soon become his lifelong friend. Sensitive to his plight and being of the same age, she persuaded her parents to take the young man into their home as a housekeeper to provide him with a place to live and some much needed income. Sharing an adventurous spirit, the two became close friends as she assisted the young man with learning the English language and helped him adapt to the customs of his adopted country. After many years of struggle and hard work, Goon Dip became an extremely successful businessman in Seattle and was eventually appointed Chinese Consul. He honored his beloved friend by naming his youngest daughter after her.
Ella graduated from Portland’s Public High school in 1882 and continued to educate herself well enough to receive a lifetime teaching certificate upon completion of Oregon’s required examinations. She became an instructor in Portland schools and eventually became Principal of the Ainsworth School in that city. Her teaching career lasted for nearly 25 years.
As a young woman, Ella had several creative and athletic interests. She belonged to a Spanish Guitar Club, a Bicycle Club, and developed an enduring passion for the natural grandeur of the Pacific Northwest. Being tall and broadly built, she soon caught “Mountain fever” as she described it, and in 1896, joined the Portland mountaineering organization Mazamas (meaning “mountain goat”) and served as their historian/secretary from 1897-1899.
Her initial conquest was at Mt. Hood, the first of more than 37 major climbs that she would make on the West Coast over the next 10 years.
In 1897, she met photographer Edward S. Curtis, who was leading a Mazama-sponsored ascent to Mt. Rainier along with his wife and several distinguished climbers and scientists. In that historic party, McBride was joined by Philemon Beecher Van Trump (1839–1916) who, along with Hazard Stevens (1842-1918), were the first recorded individuals to climb the highest point of the mountain in 1870. Fay Fuller, the first woman to make the ascent in 1890, was also in the party. On that ill-fated climb, Edgar McClure, the noted Chair of the Chemistry Department at the University of Oregon, lost his footing and died on the descent, marking the first recorded tragedy on the mountain. McClure had gathered measurements using mercurial barometers and it was from his data that the height of Mt. Rainier was recorded at 14,528 feet. This measurement was the standard for 17 years and is now accurately calculated at 14,410 feet.
Her intense passion for mountain climbing led her to describe the experience as making her “feel like Santa Claus and Napoleon Bonaparte.” Besides Rainier, she eventually conquered Mt. Williamson in the Sierras; Mt. Whitney; Mt. Everett; Mt. Dana; Hoffman Peak, and in 1899, Mt. Sahale (lower North Cascades). Her christening of Sahale with a bottle of Manhattan Cocktail (they had no champagne) was published in the August 26, 1899, issue of Harpers Weekly.
Ella McBride, Photographer
After forming a friendship and bond through their mutual mountain climbing experiences, Edward Curtis convinced McBride to leave her teaching position in Portland and relocate to Seattle to assist him. She accepted and by 1907 she was working in his darkroom and showroom, and became manager of his studio. She also managed his booth at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition the following year and became so close to Curtis’s wife and children that they considered her part of the family. However, his constant marital and financial problems eventually led McBride and Curtis’s daughter Beth to attempt to purchase the studio. He refused and in 1916, the year of his divorce, she ended her business association with him and opened her own commercial studio. Edmund Schwinke, one of the photographers closely associated with Curtis joined McBride as partner in her studio from 1917 through 1922 despite the fact that he had relocated to Oak Hill, Ohio, at the beginning of their partnership.
Wayne Albee (1882-1937) of Tacoma had also joined the McBride studio by 1919 as partner and chief photographer. Albee, an important and influential “lens artist,” was the main person McBride credited for her involvement as a fine-art photographer. Others associated with her studio included the brilliant Pictorialist, Frank Asakichi Kunishige (1878-1960) and Soichi Sunami (1885-1971), who would become a major force in the field of dance photography. Directly after opening, the McBride Studio became associated with the nascent Cornish School of the Arts. This institution brought many of the greatest dancers of the twentieth century to Seattle to perform or teach. Her studio also provided numerous illustrations for the Town Crier and other local cultural publications.
By 1920 with the assistance of Albee and Kunishige, McBride began her own experiments in fine-art photography. Her main interest for subject matter centered on floral studies, for which she seems to have had immediate success. Her love of flowers likely stemmed from her recollection of the abundant flora in the foothills of Mt. Rainier. She later recalled, “we were just right out in the rain and picked flowers and the flowers were just gorgeous. it was just a blaze of flowers, you couldn’t step without stepping on flowers or pitch a little tent without the floor covered with flowers” (Molenaar Audio Interview).
It was also this love of flowers that caused her to join a group of early environmentalists who began writing letters and signing petitions to the federal government demanding the preservation of the natural beauty of the mountain. The government responded by designating Mt. Rainier as a National Park in 1899.
Developing as an Artist
As an artist, the first recorded exhibition McBride participated in was the 1921 Frederick & Nelson Salon in Seattle. This major department store sponsored an annual photographic competition that began in 1920, long before the construction of the city’s art museums. She was 59 years of age at the time and she pursued her new passion with the energy of a woman half her age. That same year she was also included in the North American Times Exhibition of Pictorial Photographs, also in Seattle. Of the 25 artists, she was the only non-Japanese and the only woman included.
The following year, McBride entered a more intimidating competition sponsored by the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. Her work was accepted into this prestigious salon for their 67th annual. This was quite an impressive beginning to her career as a Pictorialist since there were thousands of international entries submitted and 154 selected. Twelve of these were by American photographers including the three floral studies by McBride. From this auspicious beginning, she entered additional regional, national, and international competitions with amazing success.
It is interesting to note that Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), one of America’s greatest photographers, was working at the Curtis Studio at the same time as McBride. They certainly would have crossed paths and it is likely that McBride’s floral subject matter may have had an influence on Imogen as they pre-date Cunningham’s celebrated flower studies of the mid to late 1920s.
In 1924, some of McBride’s Japanese-American colleagues formed the Seattle Camera Club. Her association with the Seattle Camera Club allowed her to participate in their extremely successful local exhibitions and introduced her work to numerous international competitions as well.
Influenced by her friends and colleagues Albee, Sunami, and Kunishige, McBride would sometimes produce figure studies, including at least one male nude, along with her famous florals. From the Cornish School connection, she was able to procure dancers and artists as models for her compositions. One of her most renowned photographs was titled The Incomparable, which depicts the legendary ballet dancer Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) in an elegant and painterly pose. The photograph was hung in several prominent salons throughout the world and was reproduced in the 1927 Annual of American Photography.
Perhaps her most famous print and certainly her most exhibited was A Shirley Poppy, 1925. This extraordinary composition was included in many international salons and won several awards. McBride’s achievements were noted in numerous photographic publications of the day and her work was often mentioned as among the best in many of the reviews of the international salons that displayed her work. During the 1920s she was listed as among the most exhibited Pictorialists (art photographers) in the world.
Besides Anna Pavlova, Ella McBride photographed modern dance icons such as Charles Weidman (1901-1975), Ted Shawn (1891-1972), Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968), and Adolf Bolm (1884-1951) of the Ballets Russes. According to family legend, she was purported to have photographed Hollywood icon Fred Astaire (1899-1987) and although an extant snapshot depicts McBride in her home with a portrait of Astaire hanging prominently on the wall, there is no surviving original to substantiate that it was her work.
In some of her photographs, McBride utilized several unique props such as a carved wooden elephant and several antique Chinese wine jars. These objects were originally displayed in the Chinese pavilion at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and given to her by her friend Goon Dip as a token of their friendship after the completion of the Exposition.
When the Depression caused her and most of the other Seattle Camera Club members to cease exhibiting, McBride put all of her efforts into her commercial studio in order to maintain an income. Her business partner Wayne Albee had since moved to California and her assistant Soichi Sunami moved to New York where he became the chief photographer for the Museum of Modern Art from its opening in 1929 until his death in 1971.
By 1932, she brought a new partner into her studio, Richard H. Anderson (1908-1970). A highly skilled portrait photographer, Anderson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and moved to Seattle in 1925. He studied photography on the East Coast and worked in the prestigious Bachrach Studios before his association with McBride. He proved to be a perfect match for her as he was especially adept at photographing children. McBride and Anderson became a beloved portrait studio in Seattle for many decades and she was accepted into the Anderson home as one of the family. Their first location was in Seattle’s Loveless Studio building at 711 Broadway E where Myra Albert Wiggins (1869-1956), the Northwest’s first internationally known artistic photographer also lived and worked. The studio, which also functioned as her home, next moved to 133 14th Avenue E in 1939 where it remained open until 1966.
As she advanced in age, McBride finally decided to retire at the age of 91 but only because of failing eyesight. In the local press surrounding her 100th birthday, McBride commented that she was being paid $1.00 a year as a consultant to Anderson. "You know what that means, I’m to keep my nose out unless I am consulted” (Almquist).
Besides her studio activities, McBride was involved with the Seattle Metropolitan Soroptimists, which she cofounded in 1925. She remained an officer and active member of this professional women’s organization for nearly 40 years.
McBride retained her quick wit and indomitable spirit until her death on September 14, 1965, two months short of her 103rd birthday.
Following her death and the closing of the McBride & Anderson studio, her archive of negatives, dating from 1916 through the 1950s, were stored at 6303 Roosevelt Way NE and then to 1752 NW Market in Ballard. In 1972, the photography studio holding the negatives offered to donate the entire collection to any interested institution.
Unfortunately, all declined except for a selection retained by Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry. The remaining tens of thousands of negatives, which essentially documented the important social and cultural events of that period in Seattle’s history, were destroyed.