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.


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

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