Exhibition – Fishermen & Kings – The Photography of Olive Edis

Being brutally honest, I didn’t expect to enjoy this exhibition as much as I did!  At the outset it held a couple of draws – it was pretty much on my doorstep being curated at Norwich Castle Museum and also it was celebrating a local female portrait photographer from an era where I guess proportionally, there must have been far fewer females in this trade than males. Olive Edis was born just 30 miles down the road from me in the Norfolk seaside town of Sheringham. Born in 1876 and growing up with photography an emerging technology, the exhibition summarised what made her remarkable…

At the height of her career she photographed the great and the good; prime ministers, royalty, scientists and artists. She was a pioneer of new technologies, a successful business owner, and the first British woman to be appointed as an official war photographer. For a male photographer to have achieved all of this would have been worthy of note, but for a woman in the era that Edis lived, it is difficult to exaggerate the significance of her success.’

Edis with her large format camera  ‘The Countess’, made by the London & Paris Optic & Clock Company around 1893.

I was particularly drawn to Edis’ comments about getting a sense of the character of the subjects of her photographs  … she explained:-

I believe a photograph should represent truthfully the subject at his or her most attractive moment. I have never yet found a human being who did not have such a moment. The face is an index of the character, and the photograph, if you like to put it that way, should be the X-ray of the soul. One is not truly a photographer unless one’s work shows what is inside the sitter, as well as what is outside’.

Despite Edis’ charitable comments about seeing the best in every subject however attractive or less attractive, the exhibition made it clear that she was not ‘averse to making subtle changes‘… e.g. by using the method of removing wrinkles by adding a scratch to the surface of the negative which would disappear when the image was inverted.

One of the elements of her history that attracts me to Edis is her fascination with photographing the local fisherman, some of which had glorious names such as ‘Belcher’ Johnson or ‘Squinter’ West. Edis seems to have been magnetically drawn to photographing the strong characters she met in life.  I can relate to this motivation with my own photography and one of the most arresting images of the whole exhibition was this portrait below of the fisherman ‘Lotion Tar’ Bishop.

Lotion Tar Bishop.jpg

I have deliberately kept the image large so that the real quality of the photograph can be properly appreciated in this blog: The eyes are piercingly sharp and the background pleasantly blurred (including his fisherman’s smock).  It’s rare that I have seen images from this era in the 20th Century which aren’t veiled in some way by the passage of time, either suffering from being blurred, or lacking contrast through poor print development. This photograph almost feels like it is transporting you back in time to come face to face with the subject, not that you’re looking at a photograph which is almost a century old.. It would easily stand its ground today in the Taylor Wessing Portrait competition!

Of course what Olive Edis ultimately became famous for was being the first female official war photographer. If you hadn’t fallen for her as a photographic heroine by this point in the exhibition, you would definitely succumb on reading this excerpt from her journal:

I examined the precious white pass which Lady Norman said hardly any woman had been given  – a permit to travel wherever the British Army was in occupation. One clause amused me, armed with my photographic outfit as I was. It seemed a little suicidal to add my name to it. It ran as follows:- 

The holder of this pass is specially warned that under no circumstances is a camera or any other photographic apparatus, instrument or accessory to be brought into the Zone of the Armies. If this order be disobeyed the Camera etc., will be confiscated, the Pass will be cancelled, and the individual who has broken this rule will be placed under arrest”

I signed it, however, and took the risk’.

Then whilst her images showed the scourge of war in their depiction of the wounded in hospitals, her journal gives away both her naivety and empathy for those suffering:-

Above left: Doctors, nurses and patients in the German ward of No. 4 Stationary Hospital, 7th March 1919….’I did a ward of English surgical cases and another of German prisoners, and I was glad to be able to talk to them a little in their own lingo. The danger list from influenza and pneumonia hanging in the office was terrible’.

Above right:  French civilian women repairing tents using a treadle sewing machine, 11th March 1919. …’We went onto the 8th Ordnance Depot, where French labour was superintended by WAACS. There was a big clothing store. I did a charming group of little French children, and another of some lovely French girls mending tents which hung from the roofs, quite the prettiest scene of the kind I had had a chance of’.

Edis also shared some of her ‘challenges’ of being a photographer (not least having to lug her equipment around which endeared me to her all the more….

Above left: Technical Administrator Miss Nicholls and women of the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps … 17th March 1919… ‘We next went to the Motor Ambulance Transport and I did a most difficult long group, with a great many figures in it, in an office about 100 foot long’.’

Above right:  Dining Room of a Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps camp, 17th March 1919… ‘I did a group of nearly 400 in the great dining hall, many lined up in a queue to fetch their dinner. It was hard work explaining what I wanted to so many, and meant a lot of running around and talking’.

The exhibition also had a section showing a film of a series of stills of self-portraits that Edis took, explaining that she felt that ‘knowing how to sit for self portraits meant she was able to help others pose well for her’.  I was drawn to the self-portraits she took of herself in her studio which was designed to be flooded by natural light coming from skylights. They have an ‘environmental documentary’ quality to them and I like how she is reading, almost seemingly oblivious of the camera, and her inclusion of her home comforts and taste in furniture style allowing us a glimpse into her sense of style.

self-portrait

Norwich ‘twee’ emerged in a corner of the exhibition dedicated to the visitors dressing up in a fisherman’s sowester hat and cape, which made chuckle but not enough to attempt to bring ‘Belcher’ Johnson back to life! However the exhibition was really interesting and almost life-affirming in terms of reading her journal excerpts..

The exhibition in Norwich closed on 22 January 2017 but the full Olive Edis collection is available online at http://norfolkmuseumscollections.org/#!/collections/search?q=olive%2Bedis

Ideas – Photographing crowds

Below is one of the photographs from the Guardian’s ‘Best Photos of the Day’ published on 17 January 2017 (https://www.theguardian.com/news/gallery/2017/jan/17/best-photos-of-the-day-a-fiery-ride-and-art-restoration).. It was shot in Allahabad in India and the image is described as ‘Impoverished children watch a performance as part of a campaign against child labour’, taken by Rajesh Kumar Singh.

allahabad-india-rajesh-kumar-singh-impoverished-children-watch-a-performance-as-part-of-a-campaign-against-child-labour

It immediately made me think of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s wonderful ‘Children at a Puppet Show’, a photograph I fell in love with years ago. The children in Eisenstaedt’s image are showing a much wider ranges of emotions, but it still struck me what a great idea it is to focus on a crowd and away from the spectacle to get some totally natural candid portraits… I’m going to try this the next time I come across street performers and a decent sized crowd!

alfred-eisenstaedt-children-at-a-puppet-show

Exhibition – Terrains of the Body

I’m really keen to catch this new exhibition opening at the Whitechapel Gallery in London on 18 January 2017.  The image which drew me in to read more about it is this ‘Untitled’ photograph from Hellen van Meene in 2000.

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The Guardian publicises the exhibition as:

‘An intriguing group show culled from the archives of the National Museum of Women in Washington that looks at the female body as a medium for visual storytelling and personal revelation. Artists such as Marina Abramović, Nan Goldin, Justine Kurland, Hellen van Meene and Shirin Neshat turn the camera on themselves to explore female identity and experience in the contemporary world though still images, video and installation.’

I think the exhibition may be particularly useful given my impending next assignment which requires me to develop ideas for a self-portrait.

Reading – Guardian Images 1

I regularly scroll through all the Photographs of the Week in the Guardian to get ideas and inspiration and there are always some that catch my eye.

This photograph with its rhythm of the equidistant strolling pedestrians pushing their bikes across this bridge over the Pyongyang river in North Korea, together with the beautiful reflection in the still water all shrouded in ethereal mist, I think is really stunning. The image is almost monotone save for the splash of colour provided by the person in the red coat.  It’s a refreshing change to see what I would call an ‘urban landscape’ so scientifically composed. The photographer/artist is Wong Maye.

pyongyang-north-korea-pedestrians-and-cyclists-reflected-in-the-river-pothong-as-they-cross-a-bridge-at-the-start-of-their-working-day-wong-maye

This wildlife photograph below with the impalas flying through the air makes me think that a grenade has gone off in a wildlife park. It’s a great shot, well composed and sharp, with a clear view of the source of their surprise, the crocodile. As its a shot from a news agency, it does make me wonder if it is actually a screen grab of a video, the composition is so perfect. The news agency is Caters News Agency and shot was taken in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

crocodile-lunge-sending-impalas-jumping-in-all-directions-at-kruger-national-park-south-africa-caters-news-agency

Exhibition -Masters of Japanese Photography

I made a trip today to the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia to see the ‘Masters of Japanese Photography’ exhibition. The exhibition focussed on three photographers – Nobuyoshi Araki, Eikoh Hosoe and Kikuji Kawada.

One of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition were the historical narratives about photography and Japanese culture. One of the later periods of the 20th century was described as follows:-

‘During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the modernisation of Japan that had begun in previous decades, resulted in an increasing tension between the past and the future, as the influence of foreign trends and the ascent of mass consumption became more apparent. Photographers struggled to reconcile their desire to join the international art world without losing sight of their cultural and national identity’.

It struck me that whilst globalisation and revolutions in photography happen the world over, they must be all the more difficult to accept in distinct and unique cultures such as the Japanese one, which is intensely traditional with strict rules of acceptability for its inhabitants. Pushing the boundaries of photography must have been challenging in this atmosphere but perversely it appears that it encouraged more subversive photography, designed to shock and this seems particularly apparent in Araki’s work. He often seems to focus on themes of female sensuality, frequently depicted in flower forms such as in the images below:-

On researching more of his photographs online at home, I stumbled across an image by a younger artist, Mika Ninagawa, which I found much more accessible than Araki’s style. Her image below is similarly vibrant and it definitely seems to have traces of Araki’s influence embedded in the photograph, retaining the overriding sensual floral theme, but in an altogether more modern, playful way. The bold colours of Japanese floral nature still hit you straight between the eyes also:-

mika-ninagawa

Eikoh Hosoe’s ‘Eye of Photography’ image below left is a multi-layered, surrealist photograph and this stood out for me in the exhibition. I like how the face of the human figure is replaced by the clock-face and the torso and head appears as yet another layer at the base of the image. There were several other images from his ‘Ordeal by Roses’ series in the exhibition and the photograph of the rose in front of the model’s face below right, is powerful for its gritty texture and strong contrasts. I later read that Hosoe teamed up with the Japanese writer Mishima as his subject for several months to create the series and that Mishima later committed suicide by seppuku (the Japanese ritual of suicide by disembowelment). Nothing very cheery here, but the depth of Hosoe’s imagination used to create these photographs is positively febrile:-

Kawada’s photographs were based on astronomical phenomena such as eclipses and the supporting script suggested that the light and shade involved was intended to reflect the powerful opposing forces of good and evil. I must admit I strolled quite quickly past these images as they didn’t interest me.

Overall it was a eye-opening exhibition and my first introduction to Japanese photography, and unlike the Taylor Wessing experience last weekend, this time I had the entire exhibition centre to myself and the security official, so not bad at all!

Exhibition -Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016

I’ve religiously trekked to all the Taylor Wessing competition exhibitions and ignoring the minor wrestle for a decent view of the photographs and the captions on a busy Saturday afternoon last weekend at the National Portrait Gallery, it was worth the trip.  I think the best images are below, or at least these are the ones which most resonated with me…

In two of these images the subjects are over 100 years old. The stories of their long lives lived are etched on their faces. Through the course I am now more conscious of checking the supporting captions when looking at photographs and these two photo captions made me smile… The image to the left by Paul Stuart is entitled ‘John Harrison – 36852 days old, June 2015’, the image to the right by Karsten Thormaehlen is entitled ‘Susannah Mushatt Jones (1899 – 2016) At age 116 and 14 days, July 2015’.  There seems to be a marked interest in photographic studies of centenarians now as the exhibition highlights, because they are that much more prevalent globally, rather than just residing in the Guinness Book of Records and living in Japan…

The appeal to me of Stuart’s portrait on the left above, is the superb use of the really shallow depth of field blending everything sitting behind the plane of his wrinkles and eye sockets to an almost dreamlike texture. I’ve used an image from the internet here, but I remember the portrait being printed deliberately dark which was very effective also when seeing the full size print in the gallery. The photograph has echoes of almost sci-fi genre in nature, maybe it is Harrison’s rather Star Trek round turtle-necked top, but I couldn’t help but think that he looks like he’d come from another planet where they had invented a pill to stop ageing past the age of 80, it’s just so strange how relatively ‘young’ he looks… his eyes are still so bright and inquisitive and this has been perfectly captured by the photographer.

The Thormaehlen image to the right above similarly portrays a characterful face and whilst there is also a fairly shallow depth of field, this effect is not so marked in this image. I think it is the determination in the expression which is striking here, and the eyes whilst closed, but in no way take away from the strength of the portrait. It makes you wonder if she is praying and it is strange that a face can be that animated, even when closed off to others by the eyes. The creases in her head covering are echoed in the lines down her face from the side of her flared strong nostrils, and the creases down her blouse further replicate the pattern of her head covering creases and facial lines.

In stark contrast the third image that caught my eye is from Ebony Finck, an untitled image from the series ‘Juncture’:-

ebony-finck-from-the-series-juncture

The subject of the image is struggling to stand up and his skeletal arm, awkward and crane-like, points out at an angle. The image appears to be covered in a layer of voile, all the colours are pale and crepe-like with the exception of his pants and watch. Whilst the image is bathed in light, we sense impending passing away of the old man and there is a reminder of our own mortality in the visibility of the bones through the pale skin.  This image touched me as it was so sensitively shot, and the composition is balanced and simple.

I enjoy Taylor Wessing despite the crowds and the inevitable sets of twins on display each year. It gives me ideas for how to pose subjects and invariably I find that the most successful images are the ones which retain a clear simplicity.

Mary Doggett, aged 17732 days with hopefully a few more to go….

Reading – Jeremy Abrahams ‘Arrivals’

I love the simplicity of Jeremy Abrahams’ idea to photograph and interview one ‘arrival’ to Sheffield for every year since 1945.  It’s exactly the sort of project I would like to do in my own city of Norwich. Having spent a rather raucous year in Sheffield as a first year student (I never got beyond year one sadly, too much fun at the Frog and Parrot, not enough studying), I know how welcoming the city is, how comfortable the inhabitants are to chat to you on the bus even though they don’t know you from Adam, and so this would be an interesting exhibition to visit if I lived a bit closer… or didn’t work…. or didn’t mind a 5 hour train ride….

In the article on the ‘Sheffield Culture Guide’ website, there are only a few appetite-whetting images of Abrahams’ work on this project, and the one which stood out for me is this photograph of Pierre Ngunda Kabaya, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s like he’s conquered the city, landed from a great height and purposefully planted his cultural flag into the industrial landscape. There is a pride in his expression and also a peacefulness which probably comes from his acceptance by the city inhabitants and his feeling of belonging.

pierre-ngunda-kabaya-photo-by-jeremy-abrahams

Interesting also is Abrahams’ relatively recent venture into becoming a professional photographer at aged 58, he’s now 60. This leaves me feeling very positive!

See the article at http://www.ourfaveplaces.co.uk/guides/meet-the-locals/jeremy-Abrahams.