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British Women Photographers Of The First World War

The contribution of British women to First World War photography has received little attention in comparison to that of later conflicts. This neglect is mostly due to the prevailing assumption that a war photographer must be a professional photojournalist with access to the battlefield and front line combat. However, such a narrow definition renders a proper appreciation of war photography and its practitioners impossible, particularly with regard to the First World War.

A broader definition is certainly important when considering women’s photography during this period. No professional female photojournalist had access to the battlefield or front line combat between 1914 and 1918. However, in the years since its foundation in 1917, IWM has assembled an extensive collection of professional and amateur photography taken by women for official, commercial or private purposes in the First World War. These photographs offer an important account of the general human experience of the war and a unique feminine perspective. Three collections, comprising photographs by Christina Broom, Olive Edis and Florence Farmborough, are of particular interest for the varied insights which they offer on the war and on the practice of photography by women at this time.

Christina Broom (1862-1939) and Olive Edis (1876-1955) were amongst the first women to build careers as freelance professional photographers in Britain. Both entered professional photography in 1903 in order to earn a living and support their families. Both were well educated by the standards of the day, but were essentially self-taught as photographers. Despite differences in approach and technique, both achieve a combination of formality and subtle intimacy in their photography.

Broom worked primarily in London as a freelance photographer from 1903 until her death in 1939. Now recognised as the first woman to style herself a press photographer, she submitted photographs, most notably of the Suffragette movement, to picture agencies for publication in magazines and national newspapers. But the core of her business, and the key formative influence on her photography, was the picture postcard industry, which peaked in popularity between 1902 and 1914. Trading as Mrs Albert Broom and equipped with a medium format glass plate camera, Broom developed an effective style of group photography, shot primarily on location in the open air. Adept stage management and a subtle empathy for her subjects resulted in formal, carefully composed, yet revealing photographs which were often surprisingly intimate.

Broom’s technique lent itself to military and ceremonial subjects. In 1904, an assignment with the Scots Guards resulted in her appointment as official photographer to the Brigade of Guards and Household Cavalry. This unprecedented accolade, sanctioned by King Edward VII, gave Broom unique access to these regiments, regarded as the elite of the British Army, at their London headquarters during the war.

Although it could be argued that Broom’s photography as a whole is somewhat formulaic, this criticism is less applicable to her wartime photography. Her coverage of the regiments preparing to leave London for France in August 1914 is candid, spontaneous and entirely devoid of the patriotic fervour then sweeping the country. Broom had worked with these soldiers for ten years. This was not just a professional assignment. It was a personal farewell to men she knew well and might not see again. Her photographs convey a grim urgency as men gather their equipment and assemble for departure.

Broom’s subsequent coverage of wartime events in the London area is similarly expressive. A group of women police officers, photographed in 1916, are undeniably formidable, and makes a clear point about these former suffragettes who had abandoned their violent political protest of the pre-war years to uphold the law in wartime Britain. A photograph showing a group of Women’s Volunteer Reserve signallers conveys amateurish enthusiasm. Inherent welcome and relief pervades Broom’s depiction of massed ranks of fresh-faced American troops at lunch soon after their long-awaited arrival in Britain. Broom’s final photograph of the war, showing sombre crowds assembled outside Buckingham Palace on Armistice Day in November 1918, is strikingly funereal. A complete absence of celebration suggests fatigue and personal loss.

Christina Broom never worked at the front. Her age and family circumstances ensured that she never considered it. But it would also have been fruitless for her to attempt it. In August 1914, the British military authorities made it clear that neither women nor photographers were welcome in the war zone. Given such attitudes, it is not surprising that IWM encountered numerous obstacles when it first requested permission in October 1918 for Olive Edis to visit the Western Front on its behalf. Prior to the war, Edis had established herself as a successful studio portrait photographer with studios in Norfolk, Surrey and London. For portraits, she preferred a large format 10x8 inch glass plate camera and natural lighting wherever possible. She also placed great emphasis on the importance of an artistic approach. Monochrome platinum prints and autochromes in soft colours produced formal yet flattering photographs with a strong aesthetic which verged on the painterly. Although not a suffragette, she was one of the first female professional photographers to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and was an active advocate of women’s photography.

Edis undertook the IWM assignment on an expenses-only basis when official permission to proceed was finally granted in March 1919. But by this time, the war had been over for four months. In many respects, Edis found herself documenting the aftermath of war on the Western Front, rather than the war itself. British wartime arrangements on the front were being dismantled and none of her subjects were at risk as a consequence of enemy action (although they were very much at risk from the notorious Spanish flu pandemic then raging throughout the world).

Travelling by car with representatives of IWM’s Women’s War Work Committee, Edis spent four weeks photographing British, French and American women attached to the armed forces in a variety of locations. But her studio technique and bulky camera did not transfer easily to the rigours of the Western Front. Her preference for photographing her subjects in natural light risked technical flaws, such as blurring, exposure problems and stilted poses which lacked the intimacy she sought. Nevertheless, her photographs were notably different from those of male official photographers.

Overall, Olive Edis’ photographs are an attractive body of work which offers an account of women’s wartime achievements and an affirmation of their aspirations in post war Britain. Women are shown in positions of responsibility, dominance or skill and in a broad range of roles, both novel and traditional, which exude authority without compromising their subjects’ femininity. Although men occasionally feature, they rarely appear in large numbers and almost never in positions of equality. A sense of drudgery and difficult working conditions forms a stark, if occasional, contrast to the idealised wartime images produced by male official photographers. In some cases, Edis achieves a unique intimacy by virtue of her gender. Her photograph of a hairdressing establishment for military women at Pont de l’Arche would undoubtedly have been beyond the reach of a male photographer.

Despite official opposition, some British women did experience and photograph the war at close quarters in a manner which truly bridged the gender divide. Although photography was never the primary purpose for these women, their exceptional situation and experiences often influenced their photography, transforming it from a personal activity, undertaken during occasional moments of leisure, into a means of bearing witness for a wider audience. This transformation was characterised by a broadening of subject coverage, enhanced attention to the quality of the image and, on occasion, the substitution of a better quality camera.

The experience of Florence Farmborough (1887-1978) on the Eastern Front demonstrates the transforming influence of close proximity to the front line. Farmborough, who had a comfortable middle-class upbringing in Buckinghamshire, was both restless and romantic by nature. She left home, aged 21, to indulge a thirst for travel and adventure. When war broke out six years later, she was working in Moscow as an English teacher and personal companion. Farmborough’s strong affection for the Russian people motivated her to overcome language problems and train as a Red Cross nurse. In March 1915, she joined a Russian mobile medical post close to the front line on the Eastern Front. Within a few weeks, Farmborough was forced to join the Imperial Russian Army’s retreat.

Undaunted by this baptism of fire, Farnborough worked in consistently harsh conditions, treating the wounded of all nationalities until revolution and civil war forced her to flee her beloved Russia in 1918. Controls on photography were virtually unenforceable over the vast Eastern Front and Farmborough documented her experiences whenever opportunity allowed. As time went on, she was occasionally asked to photograph on a semi-official basis and upgraded her equipment accordingly. Now equipped with a medium format glass plate camera and tripod (acquired in the Crimea), she would pass exposed plates to a Russian liaison officer for processing in the rear areas. Espousing an early form of ‘citizen journalism’, Farmborough also wrote occasional eyewitness accounts which were published by The Times in Britain.

Farmborough was a gifted amateur photographer who possessed a good eye for an attractive image and was naturally observant. She possessed an instinctive sense for composition and lighting, although her style occasionally verged on the sentimental. Farmborough’s ability to set a scene to artistic effect is clearly demonstrated in a number of successful group photographs. However, her primary purpose was to document the people she encountered and the vagaries of war on the Eastern Front as she perceived them. Farmborough’s proximity to the front enabled her to access trenches and troops in the front line. She photographed the dead of both sides in graphic detail, while also documenting the pragmatism and respect which Russians soldiers accorded their dead. Overall, Farmborough’s photography demonstrates how the intense experience of war in the front line has the potential to sweep divisions of gender and class aside.

It is undeniable that the wartime achievements of all the women featured in this article were exceptional for their time. However it is important to recognise the inspiration that they provided for the immediate post-war generation of women. Then, as now, they provided an early demonstration of what women could contribute to war photography and a visual understanding of modern conflict. Rather than allow them to fall into obscurity, we would do well to remember them.