It’s been three weeks since the project got going in earnest, and we’ve been busy thinking about Edis and how best to bring her work to a wider audience. Yesterday the Olive Edis project team took a trip to London to visit two exhibitions of female photographers whose lives and work bear striking similarities to Edis’, but also present an interesting contrast.
The first show we visited was Julia Margaret Cameron at the V&A, an exhibition of over 100 photographs from the V&A collection marking the bicentenary of the birth of the most famous female photographer of the 19th century. Julia Margaret Cameron was born in 1815, and took up photography as a hobby when she received her first camera as a gift at the age of 48. She went on to become one of the most celebrated female photographers in history. Like Edis, she was famous for her portraiture, often posing her sitters as characters from biblical, historical or allegorical stories.
The exhibition itself was a treat for a fan of Cameron’s work, which I confess to being. Don’t spread it around, but I’m a bit of a sentimentalist at heart. We particularly liked the brilliantly simple #victorianme booth outside, which allows you to take your own Julia Margaret Cameron style portrait by posing behind specially filtered glass. Here are Exhibitions Co-ordinator Ali and I giving it a try – it’s very effective, don’t you think?
It’s easy to spot links between Edis and Cameron, which is why we wanted to take a look at this show. They were both female, both pioneers of photography, both working in portraiture, and sadly, both forgotten by history until relatively recently. But many of those comparisons can only be made with hindsight, from a modern perspective. Are there any contemporary links to be made?
As we looked around the exhibition, we found ourselves wondering how aware Edis would have been of Cameron’s work – if at all. Cameron was “rediscovered” in 1948 when historian Helmut Gernsheim published the first study of her work, so would she have been at all familiar to even a professional photographer like Edis, some 25 years after her death in relative obscurity? We really don’t know.
There are obvious visual parallels between Cameron’s staged portraits and some of Edis’ personal work – consider for example this image of Edis’ sister Katherine (right) compared to Cameron’s The Angel at the Sepulchre (left):
Could this be considered an homage, conscious or otherwise? Or is it just a coincidence? The image of the Madonna as a female ideal has been a popular subject since the 5th Century, but Julia Margaret Cameron was one of the first people to explore these themes through photography, rather than on canvas. We don’t know much about Edis’ early life or education, but as the daughter of a successful London doctor, we can assume she would have had access to the museums and galleries in the city, and so may just have been familiar with the iconography through more traditional art forms. It’s nice to imagine that Edis was inspired by a former female pioneer in her field, but it is perhaps unlikely.
Interestingly, the image of Katherine Legat as a modern day Madonna is quite unusual for Edis, and unlike her usual style. There are a handful of Cameron-esque studies of Olive and her twin sisters Katherine and Emmeline (Millie) as young women in our collection, but this photograph, taken in 1919 when Edis was 43, is somewhat unexpected. Edis was much more realistic in her approach to portraiture than Cameron, perhaps because studio photography was her business, rather than a purely artistic endeavour. After the death of her father in 1905, Edis moved to Sheringham to set up her own studio, and as she remained unmarried until 1928, she was entirely reliant on her own income for the first 23 years of her career.
Edis’ real skill lay in bringing out her sitter’s personality. Her portraits show the subjects as truly themselves, not as characters posed to suit an artistic vision, the way Cameron chose to show her sitters. She had a unique talent for putting people at ease – something which cannot be said for Cameron. Tennyson apparently referred to her long suffering subjects as her “victims”!
Edis, on the other hand, put her success down to having “sympathy” with her sitters:
“I have looked in despair at some persons who have come to my studio in Sheringham, but after I studied them awhile and talked to them I have always discovered an attractive aspect. You see, there’s a great deal in being in sympathy with your sitters.”
– from an interview with The Evening World, 1920
Her series of portraits of North Norfolk fishermen are a perfect example of this talent:
How Edis managed to persuade these tough, no-nonsense fishermen into her studio, I don’t know! But she did, and what’s more, she captured these gorgeous portraits on camera. (I am extremely fond of ‘Lotion Tar’ Bishop and his laughter lines.)
On reflection, while it’s interesting to consider Cameron’s possible influence on Edis’ work, I think the links between the two are not clear. There’s no way to know if Edis was even aware of the woman we now consider a pioneer of early photography, and the way the two approached portraiture were really very different. From my point of view though, I hope that at least one element of their respective stories will eventually match. Like Cameron, Edis has been all but forgotten in the years since her death. All it took was one good book – watch this space!
That’s quite enough wondering (and wandering) for now. In my next post I’ll move on to the afternoon of our trip to London, when we visited the excellent Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum, and compare Edis and Miller – two war photographers showing the lesser-seen sides of conflict.
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