CHANSONETTA Stanley Emmons (1858-1937) was born with an artist's eye in a woman's body in the middle of the 19th century, in spite of which she became one of America's outstanding early photographers.

Chansonetta who? We never heard of her -- she's not mentioned in even the most comprehensive histories of photography -- because she lived in the shadow of two famous brothers and worked mainly in rural New England and the South. And of course she was only a woman. We'll hear more about her from now on, judging from the quality and power of Emmons' photographs now on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Sister of F. E. and F. O. Stanley, inventors of a wildly successful dry-plate photo process as well as the Stanley Steamer automobile, Emmons was recognized as an outstanding photographic pioneer only after her death, from glass plates that survived only because of the efforts of a nephew. The few hundred plates that were saved make one grieve for the many hundreds that weren't.

Working with a bulky 1904 Century 5x7 camera and excruciatingly slow emulsion speeds, Emmons captured rural scenes and portraits that transmute moments of time into timeless images. Her laboratory skills equaled her genius for composition, and needed to. The necessarily uneven exposures of her available-light interior portraits required much "dodging" and "burning in" to bring them into balance.

Emmons was described by her contemporaries as impatient and imperious. Perhaps that was because carrying on her photography while carrying the burdens of being a wife, and then a widow and single mother, used up all the time and tact she had to spare.