Minna Keene: a neglected pioneer

  • Malcolm Corrigall Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the DST-NRF South African Chair in South African Art and Visual Culture, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa
Keywords: Photography, South Africa, pictorialism, gender, racism,, Cape Town


Born in Germany in 1861, Minna Keene lived in Cape Town during a prolific phase of her photographic career. Whilst at the Cape (1903-1913), she achieved international acclaim as a pictorialist photographer. Her photographs of South African subject matter were shown at exhibitions across the world. She was quick to recognise opportunities to translate her photographic success into financial profit and was one of very few women to operate a photographic studio in early-twentieth century South Africa. Keene actively circulated reproductions of her photographs as self-published postcards and in popular publications. Through these interventions, she made a substantial contribution to popular visual culture at the Cape and was celebrated by local and international audiences. Despite her pioneering status, she has been overlooked in the existing literature on South African photography, and, although she has received limited attention in Euro-American histories of photography, much remains unknown about her life and work, especially in relation to her time in Cape Town. Drawing on multisited research, I present a biographical account of Keene which analyses the ambivalent gender politics in her photographs as well as her uncritical adoption of colonial categories of race.