Impressions Gallery, Bradford, 7 October 2017
No Man’s Land
No Man’s Land: Women’s Photography and the First World War is an exhibition currently at the Impressions Gallery, Bradford and I was lucky enough to visit just as an informal discussion was taking place between the Gallery’s curator Dr Pippa Oldfield, three artist; Alison Baskerville, Dawn Cole and Chloe Dewe Mathews and members of the public audience.
I will start this post with a few details about the artists and the exhibition. I will then summarise my learning from attending this event today.
The exhibition covered two main areas.
- Images of the Great War taken at the time by two women who worked as nurses (Mairi Chisholm and Florence Farmborough) and by the UK’s first female official photographer sent to a war zone (Olive Edis).
- Images by the present day artists named above.
Dr Pippa Oldfield
The Gallery’s curator introduced the event and acknowledged that war photography is usually seen as something that is a masculine practice and that the event offers a rare female perspective on this masculine subject.
Snapshots from Pervyse, Flanders, 1914-1918
Mairi used a small snapshot camera to take images of life and suffering as she witnessed it around her. Her images have been produced from her photograph albums. Mairi was a nurse and ambulance driver during the war and saved many lives. Some of her images are of herself and her friend amid the suffering, clearly placing these women at the forefront of war.
Exhibition of images by Mairi Chisholm
Photographs from the Eastern Front, 1914-1917
Florence, a keen photographer, was a surgical nurse during the war. Her images include graphic scenes of the results of war, including corpses in battlefields. Scenes that were likely withheld by mainstream media. Unfortunately, on the day, I failed to take any images of her display.
Photographs from Northern France and Flanders, 1919
Olive Edis was a photographer, she ran her own business and took images of celebrities She was commissioned to record the changing roles of women during the war. Her photographs show women at work for the war effort. Her work is an invaluable historical resource and can be seen displayed in the image below, behind the speakers. Her images show the valuable work of women as engineers, telegraphists, surgeons and so on.
Alison’s exhibition can be seen below:
Alison is a British documentary and ‘insider’ photographer who had a career in military army photography. When questioned about her work she said she was using modern practice to reclaim history for women. She commented that she did not identify with being called a ‘female’ photographer nor with being called a ‘war’ photographer and that women have to reclaim photography in general. She said she would rather be called ‘a photographer covering a variety of subjects’. When asked if she thought women and men took different images, she replied by saying ‘no, we don’t have gendered eyeballs’. Alison’s inspiration was Olive Edis and her series of images of women in the war. She wanted to photograph contemporary women in the army like Edis did a hundred years ago. She in effect has updated Olive’s series to show modern women in similar situations today.
Adventures of a VAD nurse, 2009 and ongoing
Dawn found her great aunt’s old photographs and diary in the attic and was immediately inspired to make art in response to what she had uncovered. Clarice Spratling had volunteered as a nurse in France during the war. Dawn is not a photographer but she says that as a printmaker she ‘responds to photographs and uses them as source material’. Her work from a distance looks like lace but she has used words from the diary to create prints with hidden extracts from her aunt’s writing. If you look carefully you can see the words ‘ men had eyes removed’ around where the hand on a clock would show 11.
Chloe Dewe Mathews
Shot at Dawn, 2014
Chloe’s work shows the ‘secret’ that troops were killed for desertion (cowardice) during 1914-1918. Her images were the largest of all those on display and showed the locations where the men lost their lives. When questioned about her work, Chloe explained that she had heard the phrase ‘shot at dawn’ where men were executed at first light and wanted to take on the commission, in the context of documentary photography, to uncover this shocking subplot of war. Chloe said that it was important that women are commissioned more and that they have the authority to take images of ‘masculine’ subjects. Her work can bee seen here:
What I have learned by visiting this event
At the front of the discussion space were seated four women; the Gallery’s curator and three artists. I suppose that it felt a little unusual that an event with war as its theme was headed by four women, and certainly the issue of gender expectations came up during the conversations.
The artists described themselves as photo journalists and documentary photographers and I was surprisingly pleased to hear the terms and to see the work connected with the genre as it linked to my studies and gave the terms a real life context.
Without narrative such as that provided by Dawn Cole below I would have struggled to see the connection between ‘lace’ objects and the war. I didn’t know of lace edged postcards and I liked the intertwining of the masculine and feminine in the images which, to me, showed how both sexes are equally included and affected by war.
Through the narrative that Chloe provided for her ‘Shot at Dawn’ series we learn that the images were taken at precise locations where soldiers lost their lives. Without this, how could we have known? This is an example of documentary photography and I liken it to the work of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother which comments on real life and perhaps acts as a catalyst for reform.
It was invaluable to see the narrative and hear the women speak of the context of their work in order to appreciate their work more fully. This event encouraged me to consider context and narrative and gave me the opportunity to consider these terms in relation to a physical event.
All photographs were taken at the Bradford Impressions Gallery (with my camera phone)and I have been given permission by the curator to display them on my blog. Many thanks to the gallery for a very worthwhile and enjoyable event.