You’re going to be hearing a lot about Suffragettes in the next few weeks as we build up to the release of a new film about them staring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter and Anne Marie Duff, which premières at the London Film Festival in October (review to follow). In anticipation the Docklands Museum is hosting a brilliant exhibition about photographer Christina Broom whose dynamic photography captured not just the diverse and vibrant celebrations of women’s contribution to society in the early 20th century, but also the contrasting male world of military discipline, routine and service in the First World War. Broom is credited as being one of the first press photographers and her images laid the groundwork for later photojournalism.
It seems strange (albeit welcome) now to think that a female photographer could be permitted access to the British establishment and Royal Family, as well as the more anti-establishment Suffragette marches and events, but the images here speak for themselves, showing the incredible rapport Broom must have had with her subjects. As you arrive, a number of avenues are open to you, allowing you to enter a number of thematically curated rooms. One way will take you to the Suffragettes, another to soldiers and others to royalty and London. As Suffragettes are the flavour of the month I decided to head right.
Broom’s pictures celebrate the both the various achievements of women at the time and their organisation by photographing demonstrations and a number of fairs and events designed to showcase their work. The Women’s Exhibition of 1909 features heavily in this section with posed clusters of workers such as nurses and midwives, the female caterers of the event and leading lights in the world of Suffragette agitation such as Christable Pankhurst. Yet some of the best images, although clearly staged, capture some of the bustle of the day at the stalls, depict the promotion of the event or show a 1908 Suffrage demonstration where around 13000 women marched with banners, one of which is also on display. There’s also a fascinating selection of portraits of Suffragettes wearing historical costume celebrating the women of the past and belief that the medieval period was the last time women had any proper sense of equality or freedom.
Just when you’re thinking that Broom must have been entirely in sympathy with these women in order to photograph them, the next room suggests that her pragmatism as a working photographer over-rode her political affiliations. Her images of soldiers are among the most interesting I’ve ever-seen, many of them pre-dating her Suffragette shots and continuing into the First World War, and capturing both the idea of military order and the more human notions of comradeship. Fascinatingly, the men being photographed seem entirely relaxed in Broom’s company, and having a woman with a camera involved in what are entirely masculine moments unexpectedly creates a sense of ease. The relaxed poses of the men as they glare happily into the camera are boosted by humorous shots such as a very tall soldier standing to attention next to a young and much shorter recruit, and also by considerably poignant ones as men say goodbye to their loved ones at railway stations before going off to war. The warmth of these pictures is such that it’s impossible not to feel a pang that many of these happy, smiling men would never return or if they did would be forever affected by what was about to happen to them.
In the next room, again Broom’s proximity to royalty is astonishing as she photographs them at the Royal Mews or driving in carriages. She similarly had access to some of the leading sporting events of the day, capturing atmospheric moments from the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race which are beautifully shot or horses at leading race events. It’s not hard to see why Broom has been attributed with the title of Britain’s first press photographer with work that so diversely captures major news stories, the emotional moments of protest and war, as well as the bedrocks of English life in this period. More than anything, her work can clearly be seen as capturing the look of her age in what are some incredibly skilled technical images. She liked to shoot out of doors to ensure real light (how very reminiscent of English master like Constable and Turner) which gives her work a naturalness that even in the most posed shots brings out the humanity in the sitters and the reality of what they were engaged in – be it an energetic rowing race or campaigning for the rights of women.
This new exhibition at the Docklands Museum is a timely and welcome insight into the early Twentieth-century, speaking to both the upcoming interest in the Suffragette movement as the eponymously titled film receives its premier at the London Film Festival, and a part of the ongoing commemoration of the First World War. More than anything, this exhibition introduces you to a fascinating woman, Christina Broom, who was trusted and welcomed by people from across that very class-ridden society. From the Royal Family to leading sportsmen, from Society ladies looking for equality to working-class boys off to war, Broom’s work is filled with warmth and affection for her subjects, and clearly theirs for her. Soldiers and Suffragettes is one of those rare exhibitions that doesn’t just shed new light on the time in which Broom lived, but also celebrates the fascinatingly diverse life of Britain’s first female press photographer.
Soldiers and Suffragettes is at the Museum of London Docklands until 1 November and entrance is free.