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Five Women Artists in the Collection: Tabitha Kinsey

Foot logs provided by nature across fir bordered trout brook, 1926. Photo by Darius Kinsey, hand-tinted by Tabitha Kinsey, Whatcom Museum #1981.53.10.

The Whatcom Museum is featuring five women artists from its collection throughout the month of March—Women’s History Month—in conjunction with the #5WomenArtists campaign, organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This week we highlight Tabitha Kinsey, whose original hand-tinted work is currently on display in the Old City Hall exhibit Kinseys in Color.

Tabitha May Pritts was born in Waverly Mills, Minnesota, on May 24, 1875, the daughter of Samuel and Elizabeth (Berg) Pritts. She and her five siblings came west with their parents, who homesteaded in Nooksack, Whatcom County, Washington.

In 1896, Tabitha married Darius Kinsey, a commercial photographer who taught her the darkroom techniques of developing negatives and making prints. While Darius Kinsey’s exceptional camera work has a deserved and prominent legacy, Tabitha’s role was just as vital to the 45-year business that they ran together. They were a husband and wife photographic team.

While Darius took the photos, it was Tabitha who processed the black & white negatives, created the prints, including burning and dodging, and made the critical aesthetic decisions on final quality. The clarity and detail that the photographs are known for came from making contact prints off large negatives, including glass plates up to 20 x 24 inches.

Studio portrait of Tabitha Kinsey by Darius Kinsey, c. 1896 / Photo by Darius Kinsey, Whatcom Museum no. 1978.84.3763

Page from Kinsey sales catalog. Collection of the Whatcom Museum.

The distinctive hand-written caption and Kinsey name on the bottom of 11 x 14 prints is Tabitha’s handwriting. Written in black ink on the front of nitrate negatives, it would appear as white script on each subsequent print.

It was also Tabitha who introduced the option of custom-tinted pictures; a process in which a black & white, fiber-based photo is meticulously painted with “the best quality of water colors” to create a color photograph. Her extra work doubled the print’s retail value. Each hand-tinted photograph is a unique work of art. Even prints made from the same black & white negative, once tinted, will not be exactly alike.

The luminous effect of tinting tends to be more idealized than realistic, vacillating between intense and subdued. Some describe them as dramatic, others say romantic. It was documented that Darius preferred darkened tones, while Tabitha sought to brighten the mood of photos.

You can read more about Tabitha and Darius Kinsey and view a selection of Kinsey photographs in this online virtual gallery.

-Written by Jeff Jewell, Photo Archives Historian