In Sympathy with the Subject – looking back at Olive Edis, by Amanda Geitner

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Amanda Geitner, Director, East Anglia Art Fund

During a tour of ‘Fishermen and Kings’ Alistair Murphy encouraged us to take a closer look at Olive Edis’ focus on the eyes of her sitters.  Moving through the exhibition there is a fascinating play between those portraits in which the sitter is shown in profile, their eyes cast down or aside, and those in which the person looks straight out at you, fixing you immediately in the direct engagement of eye contact.  The exploit of gentle, natural light is the same, the quiet respect shown for the sitter, the relaxed but flattering pose. What’s remarkable is the way so many of Edis’ subjects look at you.  And of course they are looking at her and so we stand in for her, receiving that look.

What now fascinates me is what we see in the eyes of the people Edis photographed.  As they look at us it seems possible, nearly a century later, for us to feel from the expression in their eyes the effect of Edis’ charm, to see reflected back to us the empathy, ease, perhaps even friendship that had struck up between the photographer and her subject. More extraordinary is that I can sense in their eyes Edis’ respect for them, and not just an easy sympathy but a real understanding for the brilliance and value of their intellect and their labour.

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‘Lotion Tar’ Bishop, by Olive Edis

Edis’ fishermen are individuals and we have their names; ‘Lotion’ Tar Bishop, Little Dick, Walter ‘Catty’ Allen.  They are not illustrations of coastal industry – Edis could have simply chosen to represent the fishermen at their labour as a depiction of skill and craft for the interest of, but at a distance from, the viewer of the image.  But these portraits are true portraits, depictions of men in which a sense of their character seems vividly conveyed through the suggestion of a smile and the flash of their eyes.  Flattering and almost seductive (is that just me?) b
ut in an unexpected way, perhaps because we didn’t expect that a photograph might allow us to feel that we know these men just a little and that they are not only fishermen, but masterfully and entirely themselves.My thoughts about Edis and eye contact began with her impressively feminist approach to depicting the subject, in a flattering light but still absolutely themselves.
In her work there is much more than a sense of woman as an individual of value, free of an aesthetic stereotype or a requirement to please.

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Dame Adelaide Anderson, by Olive Edis

So many of  Edis’ subjects were, like her, pioneering professional women of the early 20th century and the look that Edis has drawn from them is characterised by a thoughtful intelligence and clear determination.
Dame Adelaide Anderson, Henrietta Barnett, Emily Davies, Emmeline Pankhurst and many other women photographed by Edis were changing society for themselves, for their contemporaries and for us.  For an audience today perhaps the word sympathy carries too gentle a connotation – Edis seems to me to have aligned herself to her subjects in a spirit of respect, admiration and fellowship.

We can see it in their eyes.

Amanda Geitner, Director, East Anglia Art Fund

Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis

After months of hard work from the exhibition team at Cromer Museum and Norwich Castle, Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis is now open at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery! We had a fantastic opening night and were delighted to welcome over 100 guests to the Castle on Friday 7th October, including Robyn Llewellyn, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund East of England, and three members of Olive Edis’ family – her great-nieces Angela and Heather, who we met over the summer, and Edis’ great-great nephew Rory. We enjoyed speeches from Robyn Llewellyn, Amanda Geitner, Director of the East Anglia Art Fund, and finally exhibition curator Alistair Murphy, who officially declared the exhibition open.

We really hope you can come and see the show for yourself, but in the meantime here are some of our favourite photos from the opening night. Many thanks to David Kirkham for these lovely pictures.

I’ve also been promising a few photos of the amazing merchandise that our retail team at Norwich Castle have been busy creating for the show, so here they are. Many thanks to the staff in the Castle gift shop who put together these lovely displays ready for the opening night:

But the project isn’t over yet – not even close! We still have lots to come, including the brand new permanent displays at Cromer Museum opening in March 2017, and the smaller travelling exhibition which will be touring from 2017 onwards. Look out for more updates over the next month. In the meantime, we hope to see you at the Castle soon!

What does Edis mean to you?

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Liz Elmore, Olive Edis Project Assistant

To accompany the new Olive Edis exhibition at Norwich Castle (full update on this coming soon!), Jordan, our social media guru for Norfolk Museums Service, has asked me to write the inaugural post in a series where we ask people ‘what does Edis mean to you?’, and share their thoughts on why she is important to them. We’ll be publishing regular posts from people who were involved in the exhibition, as well as photographers, museum colleagues and hopefully some others too, but as the ‘host’ for this series here on the blog it seemed only fair that I kick things off.

So here is the big question:

What does Olive Edis mean to me?

If you’ve read my other posts you will already know that to me Olive Edis is a huge inspiration as a person, not just as a great photographer. In a time when women of her standing in society were not expected to work, let alone run their own business, she forged a successful career in an industry which even today is, in some ways, still dominated by men (great article on this here). And she didn’t just carve out this path for herself, she actively encouraged other women to take up a career in photography. We have in the Cromer Museum collection a copy of an article she wrote in 1914 listing the various options for young women interested in working in the field, from retouching to studio work, and recommending what they should expect as a fair wage. (Interestingly, one piece of Edis’ advice from 100 years ago echoes some of the points made in the 2015 article I linked to above about women in photography – she suggests that many parents are more comfortable with a woman photographer for portraits of babies and children, so women have a better chance of setting up in suburban areas with lots of young families.)

One thing that I really admire about Edis is her courage. She jumped at the chance to be part of the war effort when contacted by the Imperial War Museum in 1918, with no thought for her own safety. If the tour had taken place that year as planned, Edis would have been photographing in an active war zone, but this doesn’t seem to have worried her too much. Her letters to the Women’s War Work Sub-Committee suggest that her main concerns were around having the right equipment and fitting enough glass plates into her luggage!

Her diary from that tour of Europe in 1919 also gives us a sense of her quiet confidence in her own abilities, even in the face of direct opposition – another trait I admire. Throughout the tour she met obstacles with good humour (these diary entries from 28th and 29th March 1919 are good examples!) and without complaint (again, see 28th March for a neat summing up of Edis’ unfailing amiability from her companions Lady Norman and Miss Conway).

On top of all that, she was a smart business owner. She was driven, ambitious and capable, and when Edis saw an opportunity, she took it. She built her business by writing to potential sitters and offering them a free portrait, and she was not afraid to approach people she wanted to photograph. She understood the importance of branding and advertising, creating distinctive logos and printing leaflets of testimonials from happy customers. She even mastered the art of upselling, with her own patented autochrome viewer which she would offer as an extra with her colour portraits. All round, a modern businesswoman!

What does Edis mean to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and look out for more posts on this theme over the next few months.