Reading Alistair’s account of how scanning an ‘unprintable’ photograph by Olive Edis revealed a war smashed landscape decades after its hasty exposure is a reminder of how photography has changed since the introduction of computers. However, what this act of digital archaeology has also demonstrated is that photography is still fundamentally all about surfaces; thin layers of paper, glass, plastic, gelatin and metal – that either enable us to see an image or – in the case of Edis’ attempt to record the glistening mud pits of Ypres – keep it from us. For as much as Edis’ astonishing work can be defined by the character of those who posed for her it is also the product of a fascination with the surface of the image itself. In particular, how different materials can reflect and diffuse light and how a photograph’s presentation of these effects can elicit certain emotional responses in those looking at them.
The process of learning how to capture and reproduce these effects is clearly discernable in the experimental self-portraits that the Edis sisters took of themselves dressed in various elaborate outfits at the beginning of Olive’s career. I use the term experimental because these photographs are as much about the photographers experimenting with materials – lace, silk, satin, fur and the oilskin – and the effects they produce on the glass plate and print – as they are about recording their evolving identities as independent women. It is no coincidence that from very early on, Edis concentrates on perfecting the photography of these tactile fabrics as they perform an important function in her portraits – they work to vivify the flat surface of the photograph and capture our attention.
This effect is wonderfully apparent in the beautiful gem like portrait of Edis with fisherman’s sou’wester hat, taken in the early 1900s. The contrast between the dark folds of her scarf and the glistening oilskin that frames the smooth oval of her face, gives this carefully lit image a peculiar sense of depth that draws you towards it. Getting closer to the print you become aware of its astonishing detail and tonal subtleties – which in turn prompts a haptic response and makes you want to touch its gleaming surface. This effect is no accident and Edis has the look on her face of somebody who has just worked out a very complicated magic trick and is now thinking of how best to use her newfound skill.
Scroll through Norfolk Museum’s online image archive of Edis’ work and you can start to get a sense of the dedication, practice and experimentation necessary to produce photographs as vivid and engaging as the portraits of ‘Lotion Tar’ Bishop, Canon Baldwin, Henrietta Barnett, Halilu and Hermione Hammond.
What connects these pictures, and what makes her Imperial War Museum work still so immediate and arresting is Edis’ ability to use texture to communicate a sense of a living presence, a felt as well as an observed world. The mink stole of a society lady, the fur of a family pet, the starched linen uniform of an army nurse, the shoveled piles of sugar on the floor of a Golden Syrup Factory, the polished wooden top of a dining table, the coarse woolen weave of a fisherman’s gansey, a playwright’s unruly eyebrows, a king’s Brylcreemed side parting – all are depicted by Edis with the same beguiling luminosity that captures our attention and fosters our empathy by tempering the distance between us and the subject.
Through changing times Edis continued to work with glass plate negatives and platinum prints – two techniques that fell by the wayside during the 1930s as cheaper and more flexible alternatives became available. However these techniques enabled Edis to produce images of such clarity and tonal range that only now, thanks to digital high definition screens, scanners and projectors, we can start to rediscover the genuine brilliance of her luminous photographs.
Dr Nick Warr is Curator of Photographic Collections, Dept. of Art History and World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia