Rarely seen female perspectives on the First World War are on display now in No Man’s Land.
The exhibition is on at Impressions Gallery until December 30 before it travels to Bristol Cathedral, The Turnpike in Leigh, and Bishop Auckland Town Hall.
Women were not allowed to vote or fight in the armed forces when war was declared in 1914. Yet many still volunteered to help on the front.
No Man’s Land features images taken by women who worked as nurses, ambulance drivers and official photographers.
Dr. Pippa Oldfield, head of programme at Impressions Gallery and curator of the exhibition, said: “Most people think of war photography as images of male soldiers, made by photojournalists in the combat zone.
“However, the work in No Man’s Land shows many other ways to photograph war, offering different viewpoints by women who have historically been excluded.
“I hope visitors will be moved and surprised by what they see.”
The exhibition features photographs by three women of the epoch, alongside three women inspired by the conflict a century later.
Historical work includes that of Mairi Chisholm, a first aid nurse and ambulance driver in Flanders, Belgium; Florence Farmborough, a nurse with the Russian Red Cross; and Olive Edis, the UK’s first officially commissioned woman photographer sent to a war zone.
No Man’s Land includes several images never exhibited before.
The three contemporary artists are Alison Baskerville, Dawn Cole, and Chloe Dewe Mathews.
Their work explores a wide range of themes: portraiture and gender roles; public and private histories; and landscape and memory.
The reality of war
Unconventional motorcyclist-turned-ambulance driver Mairi Chisholm (1886–1981) set up a first aid post on the Western Front with her friend Elsie Knocker.
Using snapshot cameras, they recorded their intense life under fire at Pervyse in Belgium, just yards from the trenches.
The images on display in the exhibition, drawn from Chisholm’s personal photo-albums, record her vitality and humour in the midst of great suffering.
Pioneering Olive Edis (1876–1955) is thought to be the UK’s first female official war photographer and one of the first anywhere in the world.
A successful businesswoman, inventor, and high-profile portraitist, Edis photographed everyone from prime ministers to Suffragettes.
During the Armistice, she was commissioned by the Women’s Work Subcommittee of the Imperial War Museum to photograph the British Army’s auxiliary services in France and Flanders.
Edis took her large studio camera on the road, often developing plates in makeshift darkrooms in hospital x-ray units.
Her skilfully-composed images show the invaluable contributions of female engineers, telegraphists, commanders and surgeons.
On the Eastern Front, nurse and amateur photographer Florence Farmborough (1887–1978) documented her incredible experiences with the Russian Red Cross on the border of Galicia, present day Ukraine and Poland.
At a time when the British press avoided explicit images, Farmborough depicted the horrific consequences of war, including corpses lying in battlefields.
Her images of Cossack soldiers, makeshift field tents, and Christmas in an old dug-out, offer rarely-seen views of the Eastern Front before Farmborough fled the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
Inspired by those before us
Contemporary photographer Alison Baskerville is a former soldier with an insider’s perspective on women’s experiences in the armed forces.
In a new commission made specially for No Man’s Land, she was directly inspired by Edis to make a series of portraits of present-day women in the British Army.
Working in collaboration with Ishan Siddiqui, she produced a series of digital autochromes – a contemporary version of the early twentieth-century colour technology pioneered by Edis.
Presented as lightboxes, the portraits have a distinctive hazy appearance, made up of thousands of tiny coloured dots that glow.
“It’s a privilege to be exhibiting alongside such inspiring and fascinating women,” she said.
“Despite the distance of 100 years, their images are still so raw and powerful.
“As someone who has served in Afghanistan, I recognise the challenges of being a women in a war zone, and the importance of sharing that story.”
Hidden messages and secret history
The chance find of a suitcase in the attic of a family house inspired artist Dawn Cole.
She discovered the photographs and diary of her great-aunt Clarice Spratling, a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in Northern France.
Cole uses a many-layered technique incorporating photo-etching, digital manipulation and lace-making.
She ‘weaves’ words from Clarice’s diary entries into images of lace-edged handkerchiefs and collars.
The resulting photographic prints reveal hidden messages exploring the gulf between public face and private feelings.
Chloe Dewe Mathews’ Shot at Dawn focuses on the ‘secret history’ of British, French and Belgian troops executed for cowardice and desertion between 1914 and 1918.
Large-scale colour photographs depict the sites where soldiers were shot or held leading up to their executions.
Dewe Mathews took her photographs in the same seasons and, where possible, at the same times of day.
Made 100 years later, her images show places forever altered by traumatic events.
No Man’s Land
Spectrum Photographic is a print sponsor for No Man’s Land, producing Giclee Ilford Prestige Pearl prints for the work of Florence Farmborough and Mairi Chisholm.
The Impression’s exhibition is the premiere of the national tour before it travels to Bristol Cathedral, The Turnpike in Leigh, and Bishop Auckland Town Hall.
Admission is free. For more information on opening hours visit the dedicated No Man’s Land page on the Impressions Gallery website.
- Bristol Cathedral, April 6 to July 1, 2018
- The Turnpike, Leigh, November 10, 2018, to January 12, 2019
- Bishop Auckland Hall, February to April, 2019
Main image: © Impressions Gallery
Copy editing by Sheena Campbell