In 2009, a striking collection of some 2,000 black-and-white photographs went up for auction at Sotheby’s. The photographer was Christina Broom, the United Kingdom’s first female photojournalist. You’d think collectors would have been rearing at the bit, but no one seemed to have heard of Broom. The lot failed to sell.
Fortunately, it was snatched up privately by the Museum of London, which has mounted the first-ever exhibition devoted to her work. Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom reclaims the Scottish photographer’s place in history through an astounding array of prints, glass plate negatives, and picture postcards that span her three-decade-long career.
Broom first started taking pictures in 1903 after her family’s hardware business failed. She borrowed a box camera from a friend, taught herself to shoot, and began developing glass plate negatives in her coal cellar. By 1904, she had opened a stall in the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace selling commercially successful picture postcards to tourists.
“The photographs are a testament to her personality, which I think was both strong-willed and determined, as well as charming and humorous,” photography curator Anna Sparham told Hyperallergic. “Instead of standing back and recording events at a distance, Broom positioned herself far closer.”
Her timing was impeccable. The women’s suffrage movement was then in full swing, and Broom documented the activists closely, pushing her way through the crowds with a cumbersome tripod and camera in tow. She photographed everything from the spectacularly bannered processions to landmark protests like the Women’s Exhibition of 1909, when thousands of suffragettes and suffragists stormed London to attend attend a two-week event that looked like a bake sale but was actually a fundraiser for the Women’s Social and Political Union.
“While the suffrage movement conjures up images in the mind of arrests, police and protest, Broom’s images offer a different perspective on events,” Sparham says. “Her ability to seize group compositions from amongst the crowds and her magnetic draw to the people themselves above and beyond the event, enables us to see and learn more about those who were participating and the sheer amount of detail that was applied to organizing these events.”
Though the exhibition also features photographs of British troops and the royal family, it’s these images of early women’s rights activists that really stand out. Oddly enough, Broom wasn’t actually a suffragette herself. “She no doubt recognized the importance of her suffragette imagery from a historical perspective,” Sparham says, “but more than anything I think she sees them as a business success and a photographic achievement, rather than as a personal comment of the movement’s cause.”
Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom continues at the Museum of London (150 London Wall, Barbican, London) until November 15.