Christina Broom’s story is a bit different from Shirley Baker’s, the British photographer I wrote about recently. Born several generations earlier, Broom (1862-1939) became a photographer from financial necessity when her ironmonger husband sustained a cricket injury that put him out of work. Of course, it is anybody’s guess what makes a gal choose a profession (oh, listen to this biographer do the big copout), and Anna Sparham, the curator of this brilliant exhibit at the Museum of London Docklands, doesn’t linger on the “why.” But she gives us plenty of the “what,” and it is fantastic.
For a women’s historian and photo fiend like me, there could hardly be a more thrilling display. At the age of forty Broom grabbed a camera, much as Captain Linnaeus Tripe (about whom, more elsewhere) grabbed one — they were not easy to “grab” in the nineteenth century, requiring heavy tripod, glass or wax paper negatives, and some way to drag all that unwieldy stuff around — and she began producing postcards, which had recently become popular with the rise of destination and landscape photography and the bourgeois travel hobby. She had already opened a stationer’s shop, which suggested the postcard direction, and with the help of her immensely skilled daughter Winifred, she printed hundreds — nay, sometimes a thousand — views each night and sold them profitably.
This would have been impressive of itself. But further, at the age of forty Broom had enough chutzpah to insert herself into the world events unfolding in her city of London, and memorialize the actors, most of whom seem to have enjoyed Broom and helped her tell these crucial stories. Broom had three main fields of observation, besides the city streets themselves: the suffragist movement, the Guard units stationed in London, and the Royal Family.
How on earth did she gain access to these last two? This is where Broom’s personality — her gift for entering a situation and playing it calmly and authoritatively — gave her the openings she needed. When she started photographing the soldiers, and selling them prints at low cost to send home to their families, they relaxed around her, and she gained access to all sorts of settings and activities that were normally out of bounds.
When the first war exploded in Europe, and the men she knew started shipping out, she took their (all too often) last photos with their families. One journalist writes that Field Marshall Frederick Roberts credited Broom with a huge positive impact on conscription.
How could this be so, if the photographs were the somewhat melancholy scenes of farewell?
Broom was very clear about her patriotism and her loyalty to the men she photographed. If the photo did not show the soldiers in a good light, she remarked once, she smashed the glass negative rather than let that image go out to the world. Thus most of the photos she took, aside from the brave family shots, were jolly group shots of men relaxing or doing their work, or rather heroically posed individual portraits.
What about the suffragist movement? Did her extensive work with the suffragists pull her in a different, somewhat rebellious, direction? In fact, Sparham points out, when the movement became even more radical, around the time of the war, she pulled back a bit from photographing its adherents, perhaps because she did not want to jeopardize her strong position with the London-based military and with members of the Royal Family.
Broom’s lovely photographs of the suffragists puts paid to any notion that she was at base unsympathetic to their cause. She showed up at many of their parades, and hurried out into the street to position herself in front of the various parade units. Seemingly systematically , she photographed the groupings of women marching for suffrage: the nurses, the writers, the artists — and indeed, the prisoners: the women who had gone to prison for the cause. In addition, she took candid photos of groups of women organizing themselves for these events, as well as individual portraits. She has been called the first woman photojournalist in Britain, but again, the curator carefully notes that she didn’t “chase” the news as her male cohorts did; rather, she chose to follow and shoot a set of important themes and groups, and then sold her photos to newspapers and magazines on the strength of her access. And clearly she did enjoy these people and events. There is a brief video clip of the young men in the university regatta walking to the Thames to take their oars — and there in the middle of everything, without camera but sporting a walking stick and an “of course I’m entitled to walk to the water’s edge” attitude, is Broom.
What about this Royal Family thing? Was she particularly well born? Did she have family connections? Not at all, but she had luck and pluck, as old Alger would have said. She met and sought advice from one of the royal photographers, Ernest Brooks, who helped introduce her to the household. That same Field Marshall Roberts likewise recommended her to the King, who liked her work and gave her access to members of the family and their entourage. She was among the handful of photographers invited to photograph King Edward as he lay in state in 1910. She also shot the coronation of George V.
Broom’s photographs are technically wonderful, even more remarkable because she did not use a studio, choosing to work in situ, just as Shirley Baker and a long roster of other street shooters and photojournalists have done. But she was an informal portraitist, a formal snapshooter, one of those photographers who would call “Smile,” or “Look this way,” or “Hello there!” She worked outdoors without artificial light, apparently, so that the focal point falls away to bokeh (a bit of blurriness), of necessity, because she could not maintain enough depth of field to hold all the members of the group in focus at once. She chose her focus well, and the photos speak to us because their subjects are natural and want to be seen.
The exhibit, on display since June and ending November 1, 2015, is accessible and varied. There are several really effective interactive portions. Generally I’m not a fan of those tricky parts, but these results are satisfying and illuminating (as well as illuminated, in fact). In one display case, the viewer can touch the screen on any one of ten or so soldiers’ portraits to find out who he was and what was his fate. The display actually pauses long enough to allow the reader to finish the prose at her own pace before moving on. Another display offers a terrific set of 52 views of London streets and scenes shot by Broom over the years. The viewer can either “mouse” through the views or touch a map to find out where they are geographically. And last but not least, the staff actually printed about forty (as I recall) prints they discovered in negative form, and included for the viewer a video on how they did this. Very cool for people who have never worked in a darkroom! (And for the older ones, that chemical smell comes wafting up out of memory.)
Kudos to Sparham and the rest of the curatorial staff for making this exhibition available, as well as producing a rich, thick exhibit catalogue which is on sale for only £20. I would have bought one, but it is so generously edited that its bulk made it too heavy to travel internationally. I can see that the catalogue is available on Amazon, and it would be a great acquisition for libraries in the fields both of photographic history and of women’s history. To see the Shirley Baker and the Christina Broom exhibits within a day or two of each other enhanced both of them for me, and I wonder if the curators have thought of doing a joint presentation — I don’t see one listed anywhere. Again, if you are in London over the next few weeks, GO! And the trip to the Docklands, if you have never made it, is fascinating: a new view of London.