Just one image in two thousand, by Alistair Murphy

alistair

Alistair Murphy, Curator of Cromer Museum & ‘Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis’

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.

battlefield-at-ypres-1919-by-olive-edis

Glass plate negative of Ypres 1919, by Olive Edis

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.”

Advertisements

In Sympathy with the Subject – looking back at Olive Edis, by Amanda Geitner

amanda-geitner

Amanda Geitner, Director, East Anglia Art Fund

During a tour of ‘Fishermen and Kings’ Alistair Murphy encouraged us to take a closer look at Olive Edis’ focus on the eyes of her sitters.  Moving through the exhibition there is a fascinating play between those portraits in which the sitter is shown in profile, their eyes cast down or aside, and those in which the person looks straight out at you, fixing you immediately in the direct engagement of eye contact.  The exploit of gentle, natural light is the same, the quiet respect shown for the sitter, the relaxed but flattering pose. What’s remarkable is the way so many of Edis’ subjects look at you.  And of course they are looking at her and so we stand in for her, receiving that look.

What now fascinates me is what we see in the eyes of the people Edis photographed.  As they look at us it seems possible, nearly a century later, for us to feel from the expression in their eyes the effect of Edis’ charm, to see reflected back to us the empathy, ease, perhaps even friendship that had struck up between the photographer and her subject. More extraordinary is that I can sense in their eyes Edis’ respect for them, and not just an easy sympathy but a real understanding for the brilliance and value of their intellect and their labour.

lotion-tar-bishop-by-olive-edis-glass-plate-negative-date-unknown

‘Lotion Tar’ Bishop, by Olive Edis

Edis’ fishermen are individuals and we have their names; ‘Lotion’ Tar Bishop, Little Dick, Walter ‘Catty’ Allen.  They are not illustrations of coastal industry – Edis could have simply chosen to represent the fishermen at their labour as a depiction of skill and craft for the interest of, but at a distance from, the viewer of the image.  But these portraits are true portraits, depictions of men in which a sense of their character seems vividly conveyed through the suggestion of a smile and the flash of their eyes.  Flattering and almost seductive (is that just me?) b
ut in an unexpected way, perhaps because we didn’t expect that a photograph might allow us to feel that we know these men just a little and that they are not only fishermen, but masterfully and entirely themselves.My thoughts about Edis and eye contact began with her impressively feminist approach to depicting the subject, in a flattering light but still absolutely themselves.
In her work there is much more than a sense of woman as an individual of value, free of an aesthetic stereotype or a requirement to please.

dame-adelaide

Dame Adelaide Anderson, by Olive Edis

So many of  Edis’ subjects were, like her, pioneering professional women of the early 20th century and the look that Edis has drawn from them is characterised by a thoughtful intelligence and clear determination.
Dame Adelaide Anderson, Henrietta Barnett, Emily Davies, Emmeline Pankhurst and many other women photographed by Edis were changing society for themselves, for their contemporaries and for us.  For an audience today perhaps the word sympathy carries too gentle a connotation – Edis seems to me to have aligned herself to her subjects in a spirit of respect, admiration and fellowship.

We can see it in their eyes.

Amanda Geitner, Director, East Anglia Art Fund

Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis

After months of hard work from the exhibition team at Cromer Museum and Norwich Castle, Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis is now open at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery! We had a fantastic opening night and were delighted to welcome over 100 guests to the Castle on Friday 7th October, including Robyn Llewellyn, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund East of England, and three members of Olive Edis’ family – her great-nieces Angela and Heather, who we met over the summer, and Edis’ great-great nephew Rory. We enjoyed speeches from Robyn Llewellyn, Amanda Geitner, Director of the East Anglia Art Fund, and finally exhibition curator Alistair Murphy, who officially declared the exhibition open.

We really hope you can come and see the show for yourself, but in the meantime here are some of our favourite photos from the opening night. Many thanks to David Kirkham for these lovely pictures.

I’ve also been promising a few photos of the amazing merchandise that our retail team at Norwich Castle have been busy creating for the show, so here they are. Many thanks to the staff in the Castle gift shop who put together these lovely displays ready for the opening night:

But the project isn’t over yet – not even close! We still have lots to come, including the brand new permanent displays at Cromer Museum opening in March 2017, and the smaller travelling exhibition which will be touring from 2017 onwards. Look out for more updates over the next month. In the meantime, we hope to see you at the Castle soon!

What does Edis mean to you?

fisherman-and-kings-1-of-1-94

Liz Elmore, Olive Edis Project Assistant

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.

Exhibition sneak peek!

Firstly, I have to apologise for the lack of posts over the last two months. We have been hard at work finishing our book about Olive Edis and putting the finishing touches to our big exhibition at Norwich Castle, which opens on Saturday 8th October. The book is currently being printed ready to go on sale in the Castle gift shop, and we’re busy taking delivery of all sorts of other goodies including tote bags, postcards, notebooks and badges.

Our brilliant display and exhibitions teams at the Castle are busy installing the show as I type, but we had a look around the gallery yesterday and it’s already looking fantastic. Here are a few ‘sneak peeks’ as the first works go up on the walls.

You might also have spotted some banners for the show going up around the Castle, including on the Castle mound and at the main entrance:

Find out more about coming to see the exhibition on the Norwich Castle website, or follow them on Twitter for regular updates.

More updates to come – we can’t wait to give you a first look at the book!

An Exciting Visit

Monday 25th July was a very exciting day for the project team. Cromer Museum curator Alistair Murphy and I had the great pleasure of meeting some of Olive Edis’ surviving relatives, including Olive’s niece, grand-nieces and nephew.

Some months ago, Alistair and I were researching Olive’s family tree, we came across the name Quita Kirk-Duncan (many thanks to Jan Hillier at Sheringham Museum for the tip!). This name rang a bell with me, as I had seen the same name in records at the National Portrait gallery relating to their collection of Edis’ work. After an afternoon of scanning census records, poring over family history sites, and yes, we have to confess, Facebook stalking, we managed to find a contact e-mail for an Anthony Kirk-Duncan, who seemed a possible match for the family we were looking for. To cut a long story short, our hunch paid off, and Anthony very kindly responded to our out-of-the-blue e-mail confirming that he was indeed the Kirk-Duncan we were looking for. His mother, Quita, was the daughter of Katharine Legat, née Edis – Olive’s younger sister. Even more exciting, he told us that his mother and her older brother Dr Peter Legat would be happy to answer our (many) questions about Olive and her sisters, and invited us to come and visit the family and speak to them ourselves. A date was agreed upon, so on 25th July I found myself on a train at 6:50am on my way to North Wiltshire.

011sm.jpgWe were welcomed by Anthony and his sisters Angela and Heather. We were also joined by Angela’s daughter Natasha, who is herself a professional photographer, so it obviously runs in the family! Unfortunately on the day Peter Legat wasn’t able to join us, but by a stroke of good fortune we were able to meet another of Olive’s great-nieces, also named Angela, whose grandmother was Emmeline McKendrick (née Edis) – Katharine’s twin sister. She just happened to be visiting from California that day – what are the chances?

After sharing some photographs of the family from our collection, and hearing some of their memories of Olive, Katharine and Emmeline, we were joined by Mrs Quita Kirk-Duncan, who was kind enough to help us identify some people in our photographs, and share with us some of her memories of the Edis sisters. We were also delighted to see her collection of photographs belonging to her mother, some of which were taken by Olive, and others by Katharine herself. It was a real joy to sit and listen to their stories – Mrs Kirk-Duncan remembered Aunt Olive as a very kind person, and recalled that breakfast at Olive’s house always took a long time because everyone would be talking together, and Olive liked to do breakfast “properly”. Emmeline’s grand-daughter Angela remembers being taken to the studio to have her photo taken as a child, and being given a toy owl by her great aunt Olive.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Quita Kirk-Duncan with a pet tortoise, by Katharine Legat (née Edis)

We also learnt some fascinating things about Olive, Katharine and Emmeline’s personalities. The family told us that Emmeline was the quieter of the two twins, perhaps a more gentle character, while Katharine was very artistic, with a strong sense of personal style, and loved to make her own clothes. We knew that she had worked with Olive at the studio they set up together in 1905, but left when she married, and we had wondered if she carried on taking photos. We were thrilled to discover that she was a prolific photographer throughout her life, including sharing her sister’s skill with autochromes. One of the highlights of the visit was seeing some of these, including a series showing Quita as a young girl dressed in a variety of beautiful costumes, all handmade by Katharine. The family told us that when Quita was little Katharine used to make miniature versions of her own outfits, so that the two would match when they went out together. Olive was described as being more organised and practically-minded than her sisters, and definitely the businesswoman of the family.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mrs Quita Kirk-Duncan showing Alistair some of her collection of photographs by Olive and Katharine

As well as being a real treat for us and absolutely invaluable for learning more about Olive and her sisters, it was also hugely helpful in documenting our collection, as some of the information we had in our records was completely wrong, and could only have been corrected by the family. For example – Alistair and I have been debating for the last few months over which sister was which in some of our photographs, as Emmeline and Katharine were identical twins. It turns out that I had been getting them consistently round the wrong way! This confusion was compounded by the fact that the twins’ husbands had been somehow mudded up in the notes on our collection when it came to us, so we weren’t sure which of the two men in the wedding photos was Dr Robert Legat and which was Dr John McKendrick. Mrs Kirk-Duncan and the family helped us sort out the mistakes.

We also had a photograph of Katharine and two young children, who we had recorded as Quita and Arthur. However, when we spoke to Anthony he told us that the “little girl” we thought was his mother was in fact his uncle Edis, Katherine’s eldest son! Again, that was something we might never have known if we hadn’t learnt it from the family.

Just as we were saying our goodbyes, Mrs Kirk-Duncan received a phone call from her brother Peter, and Alistair was pleased to be able to have a quick chat to him over the phone. We are hoping to go and visit him too, and hear his memories.

We are so grateful to the family for inviting us into their home and sharing their knowledge and memories with us. We will be keeping in touch with all the family and hope they will be able to join us for the opening of our exhibition at Norwich Castle.

Inspiring Women

Today I want to talk about inspiring women. It should come as no surprise that I (and most people who see her work and hear her life story) consider Olive Edis to be very firmly in that category – she was a pioneer in so many ways, from setting up and running a successful business in an industry that was very much considered to be “men’s work”, to adopting new technology and patenting her own inventions – not to mention her commission as Britain’s first female war photographer – so it seems natural that she would be drawn to other women who were making waves in early 20th century society. Edis photographed not one but two Pankhursts (suffragettes Christabel and Emmeline), as well as Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take up her seat, and Emily Davies, champion of women’s right to higher education.

Today though, I’d like to look at two much less well known women who made their mark on the world in their own very different ways. Both were photographed by Olive Edis, and copies of their portraits are held in the collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

NPG x15453; Jane Marian Joseph by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy)

Jane Marian Joseph by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy), sepia-toned matte print on photographer’s card mount, 1920s (National Portrait Gallery x15453)

Jane Joseph (1894-1929) was a talented composer and musician who tragically died of kidney failure aged just 34, with the majority of her work unpublished. Like Edis, she too was beginning to forge a career in a male-dominated field. Women composers are few and far between in the pages of most history books, and it’s only in recent years that those few names have been given the recognition they deserve.

As a schoolgirl Joseph was a pupil of a young Gustav Holst, and later became a close associate – his protegée, assistant, arranger, translator and friend. She organised the many music festivals which Holst sponsored, and worked on her own compositions around her studies at Girton College – although as a woman she was ineligible to actually receive a degree. She tutored Holst’s daughter Imogen, and and encouraged her to compose her own music. Edis too actively encouraged others to follow her into photography, including writing an article on it for a 1914 booklet about careers for women.

Though her work was well received by critics, sadly much of it was written for small-scale events and as such was not published. I can only find reference to one recording of a Joseph composition, in the British Library’s sound archive. However her talent lives on through her work with Holst, and her translations of carols are still used in churches today.

On Joseph’s death, Holst paid tribute her “infinite capacity for taking pains which amounts to genius”. He was reportedly devastated by her loss. Another friend wrote that “England won’t be the same without Jane…I can’t imagine Music without her”.

Olive Grace Walton (1876-1937) made her mark in a much more radical way. She was a militant suffragette who was sent to prison twice while campaigning for women’s right to vote – a week in Holloway Prison in 1911, and four months in Aylesbury Prison in 1912 for smashing windows. During her term at Aylesbury she went on hunger strike and was force-fed, leading to an appeal to Parliament from her local WSPU. Her family were reportedly so horrified by her actions that her younger sister refused to meet her on her release from prison. In 1913, she interrupted an opera performance and was carried out of the theatre after a ‘violent struggle’, was forcibly ejected from an anti-suffrage rally, and when King George & Queen Mary visited Scotland in 1914, Walton threw a petition to stop the force-feeding of suffragettes into the royal carriage, tied to a rubber ball. She was arrested, but the Queen asked that she should not be prosecuted.

With the outbreak of WW1, Walton joined the Women Police Volunteers, and remained in the force after the war ended. In 1920, as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Service (see left-hand photo above) she was sent to Dublin to work with the Royal Irish Constabulary, but a motorbike accident eventually ended her police career. She went on to work as a hospital almoner – a forerunner of the Social Work department found in modern hospitals.

Her niece recalled in an interview in 1976 that Walton used to cut her hair short “like a man” and wore a suit and tie. She never married, but eventually adopted a daughter who she named Christabel. When she died she proudly left her suffragette medal, badge and papers to her daughter.

Without Edis’ photographs, I would never have discovered these women’s stories. In her lifetime Edis both embodied and recorded the changing experience of women at a turbulent time in history. Through her work, she’s still introducing us to women who were changing their world, either quietly with music, or loudly with smashed windows.

References (with thanks):

 

Lots of Letters

Earlier this week Curator Alistair Murphy and I made our second visit to IWM London as part of the project, this time to see some correspondence in their collection relating to Edis’ photographic tour of France and Belgium in 1919. The tour was commissioned and funded by the IWM’s Women’s Work Subcommittee, formed in 1917 to record the work of women in wartime, so many of the administrative records relating to Edis’ war photos are still held in the archive at IWM. They are all available to view by appointment, along with thousands of other documents in the archive, at the museum’s fantastic Research Room.

Between 1917 and 1920, the Subcommittee gathered a unique collection of art, documents, uniforms, badges, books, photographs and other memorabilia relating to women’s contribution to the First World War. In 1918, it was proposed that an official photographer be commissioned to photograph women working on the front lines in Europe, and in autumn that year Miss Agnes Conway and Lady Priscilla Norman, Secretary and Chair of the Women’s War Work Subcommittee respectively, set about organising the tour. They would both eventually accompany Edis to Europe in March 1919. (If you have read any of my posts from March this year you will already be familiar with the indefatigable Lady Norman and Miss Conway from Olive’s diary.)

The letters we saw at IWM range in date from October 1918 to April 1920, and cover the initial proposal of the idea right through to the nitty gritty of final payments. They are a fascinating record of the difficulties the three women faced in getting the permissions and permits required to send a photographer into an active war zone, and the preparations Edis had to make before embarking on the tour.

The first letter to Edis from the Women’s War Work Subcommittee is dated 19th October 1918, but presumably the idea had been suggested to her at an earlier date. Olive replied almost by return post –

“Your letter asking me to go our to France with Lady Norman and yourself to photograph the British Women’s Services arrived this morning. The idea attracts me so much. It would be a most interesting trip… I would be very pleased to give my services [unpaid] as it is for a national collection, not as an operator pure and simple.” (Olive Edis to Agnes Conway, 20th Oct 1918)

It was agreed that IWM would pay Edis’ expenses – hospitality and photographic – but that there would be no salary attached. Olive, ever the businesswoman, managed to negotiate not just the cost of photographic plates and developing materials, but also a flash light (costing “about a sovereign”) and insurance for her three cameras.

large_cr10720

Postcard of self-portrait with camera, 1918-19

These pre-tour letters also clear up a bit of a mystery for me. In one of the photographs we have of Olive dating from around 1918 she is wearing a cap with a badge reading “NWM”. Alistair had told me that this stood for “National War Museum” (the original name for IWM), but I wondered why she would be wearing it for the tour, as that name was changed in 1917. It appears that Olive was keen to have something to signify her status as an official war photographer, and requested a badge –

“I do not suppose that as the trip is so short there would be any question of a uniform allowance, but…I would like the right to wear at any rate a badge. If I am to photograph the British Women’s Forces in France there would surely be no difficulty about this.” (Olive Edis to Agnes Conway, 20th Oct 1918)

Miss Conway responds – “you could wear the initials ‘N.W.M’ – National War Museum – on your coat if you like…there is no other badge in existence” (21st Oct 1918).  I’m now wondering if Edis took the photograph above especially for her passport, as she asks “can I please have the badge IWM, as I should be photographed for my passport” (24th Oct 1918). Miss Conway replies, “it belongs to the old days when we were the National War Museum, but no other has been made” (26th Oct 1918).

After this first flurry of activity though, things ground to a halt. Although the units they planned to photograph were very supportive of the idea, there were a number of obstacles in their path which led to the tour being deferred from early November 1918 to March 1919. These ranged from the question of getting a car to take them around – “I am afraid there may be a difficulty about getting a car from GHQ. They are very sticky about cars” (2nd Nov 1918, General Donald to Agnes Conway) – to a clash with the General Election, and Lady Norman catching influenza, despite her best efforts to defeat it through sheer willpower (in a hand-written letter to Miss Conway just before becoming very ill she directs a series of letters from her bed, and signs off with: “I am cossetting myself up today with a day in bed, but I have nothing the matter with me.”) Then of course the military situation changed completely with the Armistice of 11th November which ended the fighting on the Western Front, and the question of the tour was put off until early 1919. Lady Norman eventually wrote to Edis in February with the news she had been waiting for –

“Miss Conway and I have at last I believe obtained the necessary permission to go to France and take you with us. You will think we have been very long in doing so, but I assure you these things are not very easy to arrange… The tour should be an interesting one, if somewhat arduous, but I think you would enjoy it.” (Lady Norman to Olive Edis, 19th Feb 1919)

As we know, the group finally set off  less than two weeks later, on 2nd March.

The post-tour letters are equally fascinating, and I will come back to those another day. For now if you want to relive the tour itself, you can go back to my posts from March this year.

 

Getting down to business

This has been a big week for the Olive Edis project team as we’ve been making some important decisions about the content of our planned displays and exhibitions, as well as firming up plans for the the book we are producing about Edis.

20160513_125207 01

Apologies to Cromer Library users – their copy of Face to Face is currently sitting in my office!

One of the most exciting elements of this project for me is the potential to bring Edis’ work to a much wider audience, and make people more aware of the huge contribution she made to the history of photography. One of the ways we hope to achieve this is through a book about her life and work, which will be the first published book solely about her and her career. The only other book which focuses on Edis is Face to Face: The Remarkable Story of Photographers Olive Edis & Cyril Nunn (2005), which is, as the title suggests, a joint study of Edis and her friend, protegé and collaborator, Cyril Nunn. It was Cyril who was the keeper of Edis’ legacy until we acquired the collection from him in 2008 with the help of The Heritage Lottery Fund and The Art FundFace to Face is now out of print, although Norfolk Library & Information Service have several copies available to borrow.

On Wednesday, Curator Alistair Murphy and I met with our publisher to have a chat about our plans for the book, and I have to say that now I’m even more excited! We plan to create a book that will not only act as a biography of Edis and a guide to the works in our new displays and exhibitions, but also as a “coffee-table” book with gorgeous high-quality reproductions of her work, which can be enjoyed for the images alone. Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis will be available for sale at Norwich Castle from October 2016, when our major exhibition opens, and at Cromer Museum from March 2017, to coincide with the opening of our new permanent Edis gallery. We hope that the book will also travel with the touring exhibition we are producing, and will be available to buy at host venues.

We’ve also been discussing merchandise with our retail manager here at Norfolk Museums Service, and are planning a range of lovely items including postcards, tote bags, notebooks and more. I can’t wait to see it all! I’ll be sharing our progess here, of course.

The other major job we’ve been working on this week is the mammoth task of selecting images for the book and objects for the exhibitions from our collection of over 2000 items.20160513_093146 01 There are so many wonderful photos in the collection, it was almost painful to have to filter out so many, but we managed to narrow it down to a long-list of around 300. To help us to visualise our selection, we made a lovely mess in our Education Room by spreading out printed copies of each photo. After two days of deliberating (and occasionally debating), we have created our first draft “A” list of around 175. Next week we’ll come back to them and start to think in more detail about the story we want to tell.

As I was snapping a few quick pictures on my phone, I noticed these three photos happened to have been sorted into piles next to each other. It struck me that these three portraits are almost a perfect representation of Edis’ work – world-famous author Thomas Hardy, local fisherman “Lotion Tar” Bishop, and Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement, all photographed with the same respect and dignity, while maintaining their individual character.

20160513_095359 01

Thomas Hardy & Lotion Tar Bishop © Cromer Museum, Emmeline Pankhurst © National Portrait Gallery, London

That’s all for this week. As always, your thoughts are welcome! Use the comment function here on the blog or get in touch directly.

 

Getting to know you

So far this blog has concentrated largely on Edis’ war work as we journeyed with her through Europe in March 1919, and we’ve seen her use all her skill and determination to become Britain’s, and possibly even the world’s, first female war photographer.

In today’s entry, I’d like to focus on another field of photography in which Edis was something of a pioneer – self-portraiture.

585px-RobertCornelius

Robert Cornelius, daguerreotype self-portrait, 1839 (Library of Congress)

In 2016, we’re all familiar with the “selfie” – over the last ten years the word has stormed into our collective consciousness, making its debut in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, but the photographic self-portrait is of course nothing new. Self-portraits have a long history as a form of expression for artists, so it’s no surprise that the first photographers almost immediately turned their lenses on themselves. This daguerreotype “selfie” by American photographer Robert Cornelius, taken within months of the birth of photography in 1839, is generally considered be the first photographic self-portrait.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, photo self-portraits were reasonably common, especially amongst commercial photographers who would pose with the tools of their trade to create handy publicity shots like this one. The vast majority of these are, as you would expect of the time, men.

Self-portraits of women from this period tend to be taken by amateurs – usually wealthy women who had the funds to take up photography as a hobby. As such, they tend to be much less formal in their execution. Interestingly, while a Google search for “first selfie” quickly points you straight to the Cornelius photo, I couldn’t find any information online about the first photo self-portrait by a woman. This is the earliest I could find, probably dating from the 1890s, and the woman is not identified. I’d be very interested to know if anyone has pinpointed the earliest one, and especially whether the photographer’s name is known.

mirror-self-portraits-from-the-early-days-of-photography-5

Self-portrait of an unidentified woman, 1890s

Olive Edis was a prolific selfie-taker from the moment she picked up a camera. We have over 50 self-portraits in our collection alone, and there are others in private and museum collections around the world. She photographed herself in both colour (autochrome) and black and white throughout her life, using the same techniques as she did in her portraits of other people. As I have mentioned before, one of Edis’ great strengths was her ability to capture natural, relaxed portraits while maintaining the formality of composition and lighting that you would expect from a professional studio portrait. One sitter described it perfectly in a letter to Edis in 1940 – “it is always rather a shock to see one’s own face in a photo but I do feel that your photos have a great reality in them and are not like the touched-up ones which all look the same.”

The same can certainly be said of her self-portraits. She manages to capture something of her own character on the glass, which I think is what makes these photographs so fascinating. They have all the technical quality of a “typical” studio portrait, but with all the charm of the unselfconscious mirror selfies above. Most of them seem to have been taken for fun, rather than for professional use. There are a handful which show Edis in her studio, which may well have been intended to advertise the space, but the majority are purely well-lit, well-composed pictures of Edis, sometimes head and shoulders, but often full-length.

To my mind, there are elements of Edis’ self-portraits that link them directly to the modern selfie. When you take a selfie, you’re creating a version of yourself that you want to share with the world. You might wear your favourite outfit, do your hair nicely, pose to show off your best angle. This can very easily look unrealistic or contrived, but somehow Olive manages to pull it off and make it look natural. Take this one for example – Edis has chosen to wear this dress with an elaborate lace collar. This wasn’t an accident, and nor was the lighting and background choice which shows off that lace to its best advantage. She’s using the light from the window to highlight her hair and the line of her face. It’s very carefully composed and yet it looks relaxed – almost as if you’ve just caught her as she turned to look away from the window.

CR09075

Olive Edis, self-portrait c.1907 (#outfitoftheday?)

She and her sisters also play with costumes and personas in her self-portraits. This glass plate negative dated 1906 shows a young Olive, Millie and Katharine dressed in romantic costumes and posed as “the three graces” – the three daughters of Zeus from classical mythology representing beauty, charm and joy.

Three Graces 1906

The Three Graces, 1906

However, one thing that Olive’s portraits definitely don’t share with the selfie is ease of production. While you or I can snap a selfie and view the results almost instantly, Edis was taking hers on large glass plates using a bulky full plate camera which, due to its size and weight, had to stand firmly on a tripod. Edis couldn’t adopt the classic selfie stance with camera at arm’s length slightly above the face – she had to carefully set up the shot before posing herself within it, and then triggering the exposure using a remote shutter release, probably similar to this one from the 1890s.

For full-length photos, Edis used to hide the shutter release mechanism in the scenery – in these two gorgeous autochromes she has masked it with foliage and furs:

OliveEdis

Self-portrait, c.1910 (Cromer Museum)

NPG x45535; Olive Edis by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy), or  Katharine Legat (nÈe Edis)

Self-portrait, 1900s © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x45535)

A key element of the selfie is the immediacy of it – you can create this version of yourself and share it with the rest of the world via the internet. This is obviously not the case with Edis’ portraits, which would need to be developed and printed before she could share them. But again, the impulse to share your photo is nothing new. The 19th century saw a craze for cartes-de-visite, photographic portraits printed the size of a calling card and designed to be shared. Compiling albums of cartes from friends and family as well as celebrities and royalty became a popular hobby among middle class women. Into the 20th century, turning your studio portraits into postcards was fashionable, so you could post your photo directly to your friends. In Edis’ case, she turned some of her self-portraits into postcards and greetings cards and sent them to friends with a personal message, as well as selling them in her studio along with postcards of her portraits of her most famous subjects.

large_cr10720

Postcard of self-portrait with camera, 1918-19

One of the things I really love about these self-portraits is that I feel like I know Edis a little better with each one I see, and her personality really shines through. These portraits represent her own vision of herself, and it’s amazing that even now, more than 60 years after her death, she is still showing us who she was through her photos. Perhaps we should all be taking more selfies?

And in that spirit – as part of our new galleries here at Cromer Museum, and for the exhibition at Norwich Castle, we plan to install an Olive Edis Selfie Booth which will allow visitors to take their own selfies in the style of Ms Edis herself. Visitors will be able to study Olive’s portraits, learn how to frame their shot and use natural light, and share the results online. I’m very much looking forward to the testing phase…

For now though, here’s a gallery of some of my favourites of Olive’s from throughout her life. Enjoy.