Ella E. McBride was born in Albia, Iowa on November 17, 1862. She was one of three children born to Samuel B. McBride and America McIntire McBride who came to Oregon via the Isthmus of Panama in 1865. Ella completed high school in 1882 and received a teaching certificate where she became an instructor in several Portland, Oregon area schools beginning in 1889 and eventually became Principal of the Ainsworth School by 1894.
Before beginning her photographic career, McBride had developed a passionate interest in mountain climbing. Mt. Hood became the first of over thirty-seven major climbs that she would make on the west coast. In 1896 she joined the Portland mountaineering organization, Mazamas and served as their historian and secretary for the following two years.
By 1897, she met photographer Edward S. Curtis who was leading a Mazamas sponsored climb to Mt. Rainier along with his wife and several distinguished mountaineers and scientists. On that historic climb, Edgar McClure, known for developing the data to record the height of Rainier, lost his footing and died on the descent. McBride was with him when the accident occurred. Curtis was very impressed with her physical and mental agility and he recruited her to assist him on other mountaineering treks. He later recalled in correspondence with Harriet Leitch, ... “yes, she was quite a mountain climber in the days of long ago. She failed to mention that she was a member of the large party of Mazamas who climbed Mt. Rainier and that she was the only woman who reached the summit unaided. As to Miss McBride and the Curtis Studio, she was a star helper for quite some years. During that time she lived with our family as one of us. She was a second mother to Beth and Florence” (his daughters).
McBride’s ascent of Mt. Sahale in the North Cascades, was documented in the August 26, 1899 issue of Harpers Weekly, ”Clinging to the life-line, the Mazamas held their characteristic exercises at the summit. Dr. Young delivered a speech, though in the howling wind his words were hardly audible fifteen feet away. The American and English colors were raised, and then Miss Ella McBride, secretary of the club, breaking a bottle of wine over the rock, said “I christen thee Sahale!”
By 1907, Curtis convinced McBride to leave her teaching position in Portland and she relocated to Seattle to assist in managing his studio. This included operating his booth at the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909. She continued to work for Curtis in the darkroom, showroom and office until 1916 when she ended her association with him and opened her own studio. Edmund Schwinke, one of the photographers closely associated with Curtis joined McBride as partner in her studio from 1917 through 1922 even though he had relocated to Oak Hill, Ohio at the time of their association.
Wayne Albee had also joined the McBride studio by 1918 as partner and chief photographer, assisted by Frank Kunishige and Soichi Sunami. Around this time, the studio had developed a close association with the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle where they photographed many important dancers and musicians who were performing or teaching in Seattle.
The McBride studio also provided numerous illustrations for Seattle’s Town Crier magazine as well as other local cultural and commercial publications. Although she had a close relationship with Curtis for many years, she credited Wayne Albee for giving her the "photography fever”. By 1920 with the help of her assistant’s, McBride began her own foray into fine art photography. She concentrated primarily on floral subjects, a theme that brought her immediate success and recognition. The first recorded exhibition that she participated in was the 1921 North American Times Exhibition of Pictorial Photographs sponsored by the Seattle Japanese newspaper of the same name. She was the only woman and the single Caucasian represented in the exhibition. This was followed a few months later by her inclusion in the more prominent Frederick & Nelson Salon, where three of her eight floral photographs won honorable mentions in the competition.
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 sixty-seventh annual. This signaled an impressive beginning to her career as a Pictorialist since there were thousands of international entries submitted and only one hundred fifty-four selected. Twelve of these were by American photographers including her three floral studies. From this auspicious beginning and at nearly sixty years of age, she entered additional regional, national and international competitions with increasing success.
In 1922, eight of her photographs were selected for the third F&N salon where she submitted mostly landscape and figure studies including a portrait of Frank Kunishige. Her only floral entry was a still-life of two water Lilly’s titled “Life & Death”, a work that would bring her additional success over the next few years. She would exhibit in two additional F&N salons in 1923 and 1925.
Although she was not a founding member, McBride joined the Seattle Camera Club shortly after its formation and became one of their most accomplished members, ranking her among the most exhibited photographers in the world. Like her colleagues, she would sometimes include figure studies along with the florals, often using dancers and artists as models for her compositions.
Her achievements were noted in numerous photographic publications of the day and her work mentioned as among the best in many of the reviews of the international salons that displayed her work. Her Pictorialist works were illustrated in several important publications of the day including the Annual of American Photography; The Camera (Switzerland); American Photography; The Amateur Photographer; Fotokunst (Antwerp); Focus (Holland); and The Photographic Journal which was the official publication of the Royal Photographic Society, Great Britain.
The year 1927 was especially successful for McBride. In May, her work was accepted into the “First International Photographic Salon of Japan”. This was followed by two known solo exhibitions consisting of thirty of her best prints shown at the California Camera Club, San Francisco in August and again at the Portage Camera Club, Akron, Ohio, in November.
Locally, the Town Crier produced several of McBride’s Pictorialist photo- essay’s as did the University of Washington’s Tyee yearbooks in 1926 and 1928.
She was honored with a solo exhibition of her work at the Art Institute of Seattle (predecessor to the Seattle Art Museum), January 7 – January 18, 1931.
When the Depression caused her and most of the other SCC members to cease their involvement in international exhibitions, McBride put most of her efforts into her commercial studio to maintain an income. By 1932, she added a new partner to replace Albee who had moved to California a few years earlier. Richard H. Anderson (1908-1970) was born in Ohio and moved to Seattle in 1925. He attended a school of photography in Philadelphia and apprenticed at the renowned Bachrach studio. A commercial photographer, he was especially accomplished at children’s portraiture which provided a great benefit by bringing a steady stream of proud parents into their business. Over the next thirty years, McBride and Anderson maintained their reputation as one of the leading studios in Seattle. Their first location was in the Loveless Studio building where Myra Albert Wiggins also lived and worked. A few surviving photographs indicate that McBride had printed some of Wiggins’ later photographs during this time.
Besides her studio activities, McBride was involved with the Seattle Metropolitan Soropotomist Club which she co-founded in 1925. She remained an active officer and member of this professional women’s organization for nearly forty years.
As she advanced in age, McBride finally decided to retire at the age of ninety-one but only because of failing eyesight. In the local press surrounding her 100th birthday, McBride commented about 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.” McBride remained quick witted and alert until her death on September 14th, 1965, two months short of her 103rd birthday.
Following her death, the archive of negatives from her studios, dating from approximately 1917 through the 1950’s, were stored at two local photography establishments who offered to donate the collection to any interested institution. All declined except for a random selection retained by Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry. The remaining thousands of negatives that essentially documented the important social and cultural events during that period of Seattle’s history were deliberately destroyed.
McBride’s works are included in the collections of the Seattle Art Museum; The Museum of History & Industry, Seattle; The Tacoma Art Museum; The Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Minneapolis Art Institute and the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum, Logan, Utah.