Many residents of Muscatine and outlying areas will remember Helen Bamford. She owned her own photography studio in Muscatine for several years, specializing in portraits, and was the photographer for many high school yearbook pictures, weddings, children, and family portraits.
Her obituary in the Muscatine Journal of November 3, 1995, opens with, “Helen Bamford will be remembered as a pioneer for starting her own photography business in Muscatine in 1948.”
She started out as a receptionist at the J. A. Chamberlin Photography Studio in 1924. In 1948, she opened the Helen Bamford Studio on Iowa Avenue in Muscatine, later relocating to 106 E. Second Street. It was the first studio owned and operated by a woman in Iowa, and she operated it until her retirement in 1978. The Journal continued, “at a time when most portrait studios were owned by men, Helen Bamford had a very successful business which she started and managed herself.”
Ms. Bamford described her interest in photography as beginning when she received a camera as a gift when she graduated from high school. This started her love of photography for enjoyment and profit.
Prior to working for the Chamberlin studio, she would bring in her own film for development. She later speculated that Mr. Chamberlain thought she was such a camera fan, he offered her the job as a receptionist. She credited her early years working as a receptionist for the Chamberlin Studio as a learning ground for the profession and the business.
When she opened her own newly remodeled studio in 1948, she had the latest photographic equipment. The studio also included frames and specialized in the framing of photographs. She worked alongside her assistant, Ellis U. Branson.
Throughout her career she earned many awards including the Medlar Award for Iowa’s best Portrait in 1968. In 1971 at the awards ceremony of the Professional Photographers of Iowa, she won second place in Direct Color, Portraits of Children, and an “excellent” award for Direct Color, Portraits of Brides.
In the 1950s George Michael joined her photography studio. When Helen retired in early 1978, she sold the business to him. He kept the Bamford Studio name but relocated it to 209 East Second Street in 1984.
Helen Bamford was born on November 16, 1902, in Muscatine, Iowa, to Frank and Mary Dietrick Bamford. She had one sister, Ida Bamford Housman.
She was a member of Wesley United Methodist Church and the Miriam Circle of the church. She was also a member of the Muscatine Business and Professional Women’s Club, the Professional Photographers of Iowa, and the Professional Photographers of America. She was a booster of the Miss Muscatine Pageant, photographing all contestants and winners until her retirement in 1978. Her hobbies included flowers and working in her garden. She was known for her hats, some described as outlandish with feathers and other accessories on them. She was described as a private person and very frugal.
Ms. Bamford’s papers and photographs are archived at the Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. According to the Muscatine Journal in 2005, her papers and photographs are, “thus far the most extensive documentation of an individual woman photographer of this type in the archive.”
Thanks to Jennifer Howell and Musser Public Library for their invaluable assistance in researching this article.