To have found myself looking after and exploring the collection of Olive Edis’ photography that we acquired for Cromer Museum has been the most significant period of my work at the museum over the last 30 years. To pick out one image out of the nearly 2,000 that we have is an impossible task but I will try.
As I have worked on the photographs I have often fancied that I can feel her presence in the office with me – looking over my shoulder, slowly revealing more of herself in the fragments of personality preserved in her work, like prehistoric insects in amber.
I can see her reflected in the faces of the people she photographed; in the Norfolk fishermen, the rich society women; the artists, social reformers, Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens. A multitude, unblinkingly staring into the lens of her camera; seemingly relaxed and revealing of their true selves, despite the cumbersome equipment and her almost spiritual dedication to natural light; truly candid and casual photographs emerging from what must have been time consuming and formal sittings. And there, behind the camera, is Olive: able to put all her subjects at ease, regardless of status, education or character.
Olive was a working photographer, so there are images of mothers and their babies, newly wedded brides, debutantes, soldiers home from the front, and commissions from local hotels, Whitehall, and the Canadian Pacific Railway. Perhaps most significantly she was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to go to war-torn Europe in 1919 to record the contribution of women to the war effort. While she was there she also took a series of unsurpassed images of the desolation that the war had left in its wake.
It is one of these photographs that I have chosen. Amongst the 1700 glass negatives are a number of badly exposed plates. When held up to the light they look almost like plain glass. Taken in Northern Europe in 1919, they were probably rejected as unprintable. Technology has advanced since then. After scanning this particular plate and adjusting the brightness and contrast an image appeared before me that had probably not being seen since Olive took the photograph and packed her equipment back into the car in which she was travelling; not seen for the best part of century. It is a grainy scene of mud, and ruin, the remains of the Belgian village of Ypres.
Olive wrote in her diary, Thursday March 6th 1919, the day that she probably took this picture:
“But it was Ypres that had drawn us all day long – and nothing more striking could be imagined. Not a house with a roof or a semblance of entirety – all shattered and wrecked – with a perfect paved road, to show that this was not some city of ancient history, running through it, as well it might otherwise be.”