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.
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.
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