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Soldiers and Suffragettes: the Photography of Christina Broom

21 June 2015 | Imogen Greenberg

Soldiers and Suffragettes: the Photography of Christina Broom is a lovely exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, uncovering the forgotten story of a remarkable woman. London Calling had a look round, with the help of curator Anna Sparham, whose passion for Christina Broom’s story has been the driving force behind this exhibition.

In 1929, the Star Newspaper wrote that ‘...everybody poses for Mrs Broom, from the Prince of Wales to the stable boys’. So how is it that she disappeared in to obscurity, her work known only by historians of photography, when Christina Broom is considered to be the UK’s first female press photographer? She was a woman ahead of her time who through a combination of luck and sheer determination, stood on the front lines of some of the most remarkable moments in 20th century history. But it was bad luck and changing times that left her work untouched, or at least unshared, for over 75 years.

In the heart of this first major exhibition of her work, is an image of Christina Broom herself, stern and formidable, staring out from behind her camera. This self-taught woman photographed soldiers, suffragettes and royalty. Curator Anna Sparham says now was the right time to bring Christina out from behind the camera. “It was a wonderful moment to bring together all of her subject matter, to put together her whole story at this time, with the centenary of World War One last year. People are very interested in the suffragette movement too leading up to 2018. It felt like the right time”.

It is difficult to comprehend a time when photography was only just developing (no pun intended). Christina was not just pioneering because she was a woman or self-taught. She was an entrepreneur, developing a business where she took photographs one day, printed them that evening and sold them as postcards the next day. This was as immediate as photography could be then, shocking as that might be to an Instagram generation. Anna thinks ‘she knew and recognised that people were hungry for topical images and newsworthy images... It was about creating a commercial picture postcard, which people bought because they were spectators or participants and they wanted that souvenir. It was about that commercial desire.”

Christina Broom’s subject matters included the streets of London, the suffrage movement, soldiers’ barracks and royal events. One thing that really fascinated Broom was the pageantry of occasions, whether it was the changing of the guard or the annual boat race. Her very first photograph that she took, displayed in the exhibition, was of the Prince and Princess of Wales opening a new tramline in Westminster. She advanced a long way from this experimental shot to the near exclusive access she was given to photograph Edward VII’s coffin as he lay in state. Radical as Christina Broom might seem, and radical as the suffrage cause might have been, she was also fascinated by the traditional, the pomp and ritual of London.

From the photographs of the suffragette groups, you get a real sense of energy and activity. The colour might have been lost to monochrome, but it is all too easy to imagine from these expressive photographs the sense of occasion, colour and vibrancy. The images have been blown up beyond the original postcard size and it’s a chance to appreciate the compositions, often candid and intimate, taken on ordinary streets. Likewise, her extensive photographs of soldiers feel very personal. It was a chance encounter that gave her such a close and trusting relationship with the men of the household cavalry. Christina once said ‘I have photographed all the King’s horses and all the King’s men, and I am never happier than when I am with my camera among the crack regiments of Britain’. Photographs of some of the soldiers have been paired for the first time with their names and stories through tracking down the families, some of whom thought that no photographs of their relatives existed. The exhibition feels richly researched, and the dedication of Anna and her team shines through best here.

The exhibition is littered with touching anecdotes and surprising stories. It beautifully evokes the character of Christina Broom and her daughter Winnie, her partner in business. It’s also a wonderful insight in to a lost London. The inclusion of the original glass plate negatives, backlit and glowing, and the film of the team printing photographs from the negatives for the first time in decades, will excite keen photographers. But the exhibition is not overloaded with technical aspects. Instead, the focus in on the photographs themselves and their subjects, the wider history they evoke and, of course, the woman behind the camera. Photography and social history strike a perfect balance in this exhibition.

The exhibition ends with a quote from Winnie, who fought for her mother’s legacy to be recognised, saying ‘‘naturally the Museums are not interested in our lives – but are glad of the negatives’. This exhibition has proved Winnie wrong. For the first time, it pairs Christina’s Broom’s life story with her life’s work, and it’s a revelation.

Soldiers and Suffragettes: the Photography of Christina Broom runs from 19th June to 1st November. Entry is free. For more information, please see their website.
 

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