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.