Fishermen, photograms & forward-thinking

By Phoebe Wingate, NMS Teaching Museum Trainee: Education.

Life as a Norfolk museum trainee means many things: often plunging into the deep end without much pause for breath, rapid development of plate-spinning skills and regularly waving goodbye to your better half as you head off for yet another weekend event.  These are, however, more mild discomfort than major irritations: during my first five months of the programme I have had the luck to be involved in some fabulous projects.

One such project started last month with a trip to Cromer museum, home to the largest collection of works by the extraordinary photographer Olive Edis.  Born in London, she took up photography in 1900 after a cousin gifted her a camera and subsequently became Edis’ first subject. In 1905 Olive and her sister, Katherine, opened their first studio in Sheringham and began what was to be an incredible career.

I have only recently been introduced to her work but instantly developed a liking for it – for a while I fancied myself as an amateur photographer with a particular interest in (but sadly lack of talent for) portraiture. Whether Royalty, Prime minister or fisherfolk, regardless of class Edis’ had an ability to put her sitters at ease (no mean feat given the preparation required for portraits in the early 20th century).  This she coupled with an exquisite command of light to produce glorious photographs such as fisherman ‘Lotion’ Tar Bishop.Tar Bishop

This particular trip was to learn how to make photograms so the youth engagement team at Time & Tide museum, in turn, could develop a workshop for young people linking in with the Edis exhibition.  Jeremy Webb was to be our patient guide for the day and helped us convert the Cromer museum education space into a darkroom.

Photograms are the most basic form of photographic image, bypassing the need for a camera: you set up whatever objects you like (ideally with varying degrees of opacity) on top of photographic paper and expose it to light for about 45 seconds. The paper is then developed, stopped, fixed, washed and dried.

Meg and Emma

We set to with our first attempts using a number of objects; from glass paper weights to beaded necklaces, feathers and mesh, while Cromer museum contributed some acetate negatives of some Edis photographs. It had been over 20 years since I last stepped into darkroom and yet as soon as the paper was dropped into the developer, the excitement and anticipation came rushing back…it really does feel like magic with an image appearing before your very eyes.

Glass Plate process

The first efforts were varied – it is easy to get carried away and overload the image using all of the items at your disposal – but the creativity of the process was instantly apparent and the room buzzed with excitement as we compiled our objects for a second go.

Starting a career in a field dominated by men, the first woman to be employed as a war photographer, Edis used techniques not seen before in the industry and even patented her own designs, she was forward-thinking, progressive: a pioneer. By late afternoon, as I paused to look around the room everyone was engrossed using the skills they had learnt during the day; building on them and trying new approaches; I couldn’t help but think what an inspirational person to have at the centre of a project for young people.