- 3 January 2018
The Impressions Gallery in Bradford was awarded a Curatorial Research Grant for their project on women's photography in the First World War. In this interview, Fellowships and Communications Officer Harriet Fisher asks curator Pippa Oldfield about the resulting exhibition (an edited version of this interview is also published in the latest issue of PMC Notes).
Tell us about the early origins and concepts of the exhibition No Man’s Land: Women’ Photography and the First World War?
For a long time, I’ve been fascinated about the links between photography, conflict, and gender. The programming team at Impressions Gallery had early discussions to think about how we would commemorate and respond to the First World War Centenary, and what we could offer that hadn’t received much attention. As a photographic charity, part of our mission is ‘to help people understand the world through photography’, and we often focus on excluded viewpoints or overlooked histories. For my doctoral research at Durham University, I’d investigated some of the many ways in which women have engaged with photography in situations of conflict in the Americas, from the Mexican Revolution onwards. It made sense to expand some of that thinking to the British context, and look at how women had photographed the First World War and its legacies. As far as I’m aware, it’s the first show to do this.
The exhibition offers rarely-seen female perspectives on the First World War and highlighted the photography by three women from the time (Olive Edis, Mairi Chisholm and Florence Farmborough), why did you pick these women in particular?
Thanks to support from the Paul Mellon Centre, I was able to undertake sustained research in archives including IWM (Imperial War Museums), The Liddle Collection at University of Leeds, the Peace Museum in Bradford, and the National Library of Scotland. Contrary to popular belief, there were quite a number of women who used photography to depict the effects of war and record their experiences, so I thought long and hard about which women to include in the exhibition.
I felt it was essential to feature Olive Edis for her pioneering role as the first woman to be officially commissioned to photograph a war zone (albeit prevented from arriving until the spring of 1919). Edis was a very successful portrait photographer and businesswoman, and was technically very accomplished, so many of her images are elegantly composed and beautifully lit by natural light. As an official photographer, she also had excellent access to record a wide range of activities by women in the auxiliary services at the Western Front. However, this also meant that she was restricted in what she was shown, and what she could photograph. Her images are largely celebratory of women’s contributions, and present the British armed forces as efficient, ordered and hierarchical. However, for her private interest she also made pictures of the ruined towns and devastated battlefields, which clearly impressed her, and I’ve included a few of these in the exhibition as well.
By contrast, Florence Farmborough took photographs in an independent capacity, as a Red Cross nurse at the Russian Front. Farmborough was a keen amateur photographer and, amazingly, managed to hang on to her plate camera and tripod for most of the war, developing glass plates in tents or makeshift darkrooms where she could. Her images reveal a good eye for composition and a strong sense of historical consciousness – in fact her images are important not only for having been made by a woman, but for depicting the Russian Front, which was much less photographed than the Western. Farmborough didn’t shy away from the horrors of war, and photographed many distressing sights, such as the corpses of exhausted horses at the side of roads, or the bodies of soldiers lying dead in fields.
Many of the women who took photographs during the conflict, however, were untrained snapshot photographers. They used cameras such as the Kodak Vest Pocket, marketed by Kodak as ‘the soldier’s camera’, which was light, portable and easy to use. There are some wonderful photo-albums and collections in the the Liddle Collection at the Brotherton Library of University of Leeds, but in the end I decided to feature Mairi Chisholm as a really striking exponent of snapshot photography. Chisholm was just 18 when she volunteered as an ambulance driver at the Western Front with her friend Elsie Knocker. The two set up their own First Aid post in Pervyse, Flanders, just yards from the trenches, and Chisholm recorded her intense life under fire. Chisholm’s images are often startling in their range, from humorous and domestic, to graphic and disturbing. Like Farmborough, she recorded corpses and casualties of war, but she also had a mischievous sense of fun and vitality. Some of her most striking images show her friends and colleagues making the best of incredibly hard circumstances: playing with pets, rowing a boat they nicknamed ‘the Punt at Henley’, or joking around on a makeshift see-saw. Chisholm later compiled a number of photo-albums, which are now in the Special Collection of the National Library of Scotland. I wanted to convey how women ordered and captioned photographs to create souvenirs and narratives, so I included reproductions of some album pages as well as the images themselves.
Did you uncover any surprising stories during the research for the exhibition?
All three women were remarkable: Mairi Chisholm for instance, was a competitive motorcyclist before the war, and sold her motorbike to fund her voluntary work. Olive Edis was a pioneer of technology, and invented and patented a device for viewing autochromes (early colour photographs). I was really intrigued by the after-story of Florence Farmborough, who abruptly returned to the UK as the Russian Revolution took hold. She was an excellent writer, and contributed a number of anonymous articles to The Times about her experiences, published anonymously as ‘An Englishwoman in Russia’. Her experiences of the chaos of revolution led her to become a fierce opponent of communism, and she eventually became General Franco’s publicist in the Spanish Civil War. I found it extraordinary that someone who was inspirational in her rejection of conventional gender roles could align herself to Fascism, but of course, that is the benefit of hindsight.
Another important aspect of the exhibition is the three contemporary artists (Alison Baskerville, Dawn Cole and Chloe Dewe Matthews) who created work inspired by the conflict, how did you choose these artists that would take part in the exhibition?
It was important to show some of the ways in which women are now using photography to respond to war. We tend to think of photojournalism as the best way to ‘do’ war photography, but of course that is only one approach. Aftermath photography, which is a relatively recent practice, is more interested in the long-term effects of war and its traces, rather than dramatic moments of combat action or graphic images of suffering. Chloe Dewe Mathews’ series Shot at Dawn perfectly exemplifies this approach. She researched the tragic stories of soldiers who were executed for desertion by firing squad, found a number of locations where men were shot, and photographed these sites at the same time of year and same time of day. Her images are incredibly powerful and moving, precisely because no violence is explicitly shown: your imagination fills in the blanks of the last moments of these men ritually executed by their own side.
I came across Dawn Cole’s work through my research for the exhibition, when I talked to lots of other artists, curators and archivists about the themes. Cole is not a photographer per se but an artist who uses photographic processes in her work, and has been directly inspired by the discovery of a suitcase of photos collected by her great-aunt, a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse in France. Cole was struck by the contrast between the cheerful photographs of Clarice Spratling in her starched apron, and the brief but horrific descriptions of war injuries enumerated in her diary. In response, she has created intricate images that look like photograms of domestic lace artefacts such as doilies and tea-tray cloths. On closer inspection, the ‘objects’ are made up of hundreds of interwoven phrases taken from Clarice’s diary, such as ‘men had eyes removed’ or ‘amputations etc.’. The images are about as far away as you can get from conventional war photography, yet are incredibly eloquent about women’s work and private experiences of war. The exhibition features the suitcase and original photographs alongside Cole’s contemporary prints; we also have a facsimile of the diary for visitors to read.
Finally, I always knew that I wanted to include Alison Baskerville, to whom I’d been introduced some years before by Hilary Roberts, Research Curator at IWM (Imperial War Museums). Baskerville is a military veteran, having served in the RAF and later as a combat photography for the British Army in Afghanistan, so she has an insider’s perspective on women’s roles in war. We had many discussions about what form her work might take, and Baskerville came up with the idea of directly responding to Olive Edis by producing portraits of women in the British armed forces today. At first, she had hoped to produce them as autochromes, but as an obsolete technology that proved impossible. Instead, she worked with a digital consultant, Ishan Siddiqui, to study Edis’s images and reproduce the distinctive colour palette and hazy grain of autochrome. It’s a good example of logistical limitations leading to a stronger artistic response: Baskerville’s digital portraits are presented as commanding large-scale LED lightboxes, embracing new technologies as Edis herself would surely have done.
Do you feel the female perspective of the First World War has been neglected until now? And if so, why do you think this is?
I think it’s fair to say that war is conventionally assumed to be the concern of men, and that women’s experiences of conflict are seen to be peripheral, less important, or somehow less authentic than the fighting soldier. It follows that most people also tend to have a very narrow conception of war photography: images made on the battlefield by risk-taking photojournalists, a very masculine, even macho, undertaking. This, of course, is a mode that excludes most women who, historically, have generally been prohibited from the military (and certainly from combat positions as soldiers), as well as discouraged from ‘hard news’ photography. Through No Man’s Land, I wanted to show that war photography can be an incredibly broad endeavour, and can be made by anyone who has something to say on the subject of war. Women have been, and continue to be, active participants in armed conflict, and greatly affected by its consequences. At the time of the Centenary, when I imagined that so much emphasis would be placed on men’s experiences, I felt it was important to show a different perspective to add to our understanding of the First World War.
How has the exhibition been received at Impressions Gallery?
Thousands of visitors have already visited the exhibition, and we’ve had invariably positive responses. For many, the show is a reminder of the cost and futility of war, not just of the First World War, but ongoing conflicts. Lots of viewers have found the pioneering lives of the historical women photographers to be brave and inspiring. Some people have visited because of an interest in the topic rather than contemporary photography, and vice versa, so it’s been a really effective way to introduce visitors to something new. In particular, we’ve had lots of young visitors, as Impressions has a really varied audience and about a quarter of our visitors are under 25. I’m especially please about this, because it’s important that the exhibition offers a fresh way to think about the First World War and consider how it might be relevant to people today. Thanks to support from our partners and the National Lottery through Arts Council England, the show is going on tour in 2018 to Bristol Cathedral and The Turnpike in Lancashire, and then to Bishop Auckland Town Hall in 2019, so No Man’s Land will be continue to be seen and generate responses across the country.
No Man’s Land is a national touring exhibition curated by Dr. Pippa Oldfield and co-produced by Impressions Gallery, Bristol Cathedral, The Turnpike, and Bishop Auckland Town Hall. The exhibition is supported by Arts Council England Strategic Touring, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and Peter E. Palmquist Memorial Fund for Historical Photographic Research. Soldier by Alison Baskerville is commissioned by Impressions Gallery. Shot at Dawn by Chloe Dewe Mathews is commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford as part of 14–18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions. The exhibition is accompanied by the New Focus project and publication No Man's Land: Young People Uncover Women's Viewpoints on the First World War, funded by Heritage Lottery Fund: Young Roots.
No Man's Land will be on tour throughout 2018 and 2019:
Bristol Cathedral - 6 April to 1 July 2018
The Turnpike, Leigh - 10 November 2018 to 12 January 2019
Bishop Auckland Town Hall - February to April 2019