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.




What I learned as a project intern, by Rachel Kidd

As a Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies student at the University of East Anglia (UEA), the opportunity to spend my work-placement supporting the Olive Edis project was unmissable. I feel very fortunate have been a part of its development, culminating in the opening of the fantastic new displays at Cromer Museum.

One of my tasks has been conducting face-to-face questionnaires with visitors to gather their feedback about the new gallery. What was striking, and no doubt is a testament to Edis’s rich and varied portfolio, is how visitors have repeatedly expressed a meaningful and often personal engagement with the work. It was thought-provoking to see that different people responded to surprisingly varied aspects, including (to name but a few examples): the changing roles of women that these images reflect; the costumes and clothing used by her sitters and by Edis herself; what the collection can tell us about the life of the photographer and of the photographic techniques of the time; or, of course, how they capture the personality of the enigmatic fishermen.


For me, this is an interesting reflection on one of the unique qualities of photography. By its nature it is an index of reality but the images offer us only a fragment of that reality and are necessarily an interpretation of it. Whilst the photographer frames her subject to tell a certain story or bestow the image with the desired aesthetic quality, the meaning of the photograph is not fixed. As recent debates will tell us, layers of interpretation are added throughout time, influenced by aspects such as the photograph’s mode of display, the context it is placed in, and the perspective of those who are viewing it.

Edis’s photographs have become an intrinsic part of North Norfolk’s cultural heritage and, linked to photography’s potential for varied interpretations, they have become valuable for a range of historical purposes.  Sheringham Museum for example, is currently hosting a fascinating display of European fishing ganseys. Here, the museum’s colourised Edis portrait of Sally Middleton served as an important reminder that ganseys were not only worn by fishermen and that there is evidence of patterns being adapted for different members of the family. Edis sold this portrait as a postcard and later exhibited it at the Festival of Britain but for Sheringham Museum, the detailed quality of the image and the addition of colour enabled volunteers to recreate the gansey-like knitting pattern of Sally’s waistcoat, adding an important local connection to the exhibition.

large_cr09773At the Girl Guide Archive Resource Centre in Coltishall, which looks after a large collection of historically important items relating to the history of Girl Guiding in Norfolk, Edis’s group portrait of Commissioners taken in 1919 was of particular interest. Not only does it serve as a useful tool in demonstrating style of uniform used in this era and help with the identification of items in the collection, but visitors to the centre have been asked to record their thoughts and feelings about the image, coming up with a wide range of questions and responses.

It’s been a fascinating experience to learn about Olive Edis, and I am excited to see the new perspectives that people will continue to bring to this wonderful collection.