No Man’s Land: Women’s Photography and the First World War at Impressions Gallery in Bradford, England, is highlighting a perspective frequently missing from Word War I centenary commemorations: that of the women involved in the conflict.
“During the centenary, there has been a lot of emphasis on men’s experiences,” Dr. Pippa Oldfield, No Man’s Land curator and head of programming at Impressions Gallery, told Hyperallergic. “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.”
The exhibition, supported by Arts Council England Strategic Touring, is planned to tour Bristol Cathedral, the Turnpike in Leigh, and Bishop Auckland Town Hall. Through support from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Peter Palmquist Memorial Fund, Oldfield extensively researched World War I women photographers in the archives of the Imperial War Museums, the Liddle Collection at University of Leeds, and the National Library of Scotland. Many of the photographs in No Man’s Land have rarely been seen by the public. For instance, Olive Edis is best known for her studio portrait photography, although she brought those same techniques to the battlefield as one of the first women in the world to be an official war photographer. Commissioned by the Women’s Work Subcommittee of the Imperial War Museum, she photographed women on the frontlines, including telegraphists, medical personnel, and engineers.
“She 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,” Oldfield said. “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 celebratory of women’s contributions, and present the British armed forces as efficient, ordered, and hierarchical.”
Meanwhile, Florence Farmborough was much more independent, serving as a Red Cross nurse on the Russian Front instead of as an official photographer. Thus she often photographed the grisly violence of war, along with rare views of Cossack soldiers on the Eastern 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,” Oldfield stated. “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 World War I photographers employed cameras like the Kodak Vest Pocket. The compact model was first released in 1912, and it was even advertised as the “soldier’s Kodak,” something to “make your own picture record of the War.” Mairi Chisholm, a motorcyclist who volunteered at the age of 18 as an ambulance driver on the Western Front, set up a First Aid post in Pervyse, Flanders, with her friend Elsie Knocker. That station was walking distance from the trenches, where they took their photographs using snapshot cameras.
“Chisholm’s images are often startling in their range, from humorous and domestic, to graphic and disturbing,” Oldfield said. “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.”
Three contemporary artists are showcased alongside the historic work in No Man’s Land, including Chloe Dewe Mathews’s series Shot at Dawn on sites where soldiers were executed for desertion, Dawn Cole’s use of photographic processes to layer images from the diary of her great-aunt, a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse in France, and Alison Baskerville’s digital autochrome portraits of women in the British armed forces. As Oldfield affirmed, “Women have been, and continue to be, active participants in armed conflict, and greatly affected by its consequences.”
No Man’s Land: Women’s Photography and the First World War continues at Impressions Gallery (Centenary Square, Bradford, England) through December 30.