I did say that my next blog would be about the Lee Miller exhibition, and I promise that will be up soon, but I wanted to share an exciting discovery because I’m a bit thrilled with it.
There are naturally gaps in our knowledge of Edis’ life, so it’s quite exciting to discover a new “chapter” in the story. I was on the trail of the photographs that Edis took in the Canadian Rockies in the 1920s (some of the very first colour photographs of Canada, taken as part of a commission for the Canadian Pacific Railway) when I stumbled across an article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “My Most Exciting Camera Adventure”. The article is dated 23rd January 1921, and it features a rather fanciful illustration of “Miss Edis” photographing bubbles.
I’m hoping to get a full size copy via the San Francisco Public Library, but some of the text has been OCR scanned from the newspaper itself and is available at Newspapers.com. Here’s what I’ve managed to discover so far.
The portrait in the bottom right of the article is of Sir James Dewar (20 September 1842 – 27 March 1923), a Scottish physicist and chemist, who among other achievements, was the inventor of the Dewar flask – more commonly known as a vacuum flask or Thermos (Dewar failed to patent the idea, and it was exploited commercially). During and after the First World War, Dewar’s work focused on surface tension in large soap bubbles, which he kept preserved in vacuum flasks. According to one site, he still holds the world record for the longest lasting soap bubble! We knew that Edis had photographed Dewar with his bubbles, as we have a print of the portrait in our collection, dated 1910s.
What we didn’t know was that she also produced a series of autochrome images as a scientific record of the individual bubbles, as outlined in the article from the SF Chronicle. The first few paragraphs were illegible, and I have had to insert quotation marks where they seemed to make most sense, as these were not recorded by the OCR scanner. I’m not sure which bits of the second paragraph are quotes from Edis, and which bits are commentary by the author, so you can make up your own mind which of them you think uses the phrase “ravishingly beautiful”!
“For ten years I have been making a special study of color photography, but my experience in Prof. Dewar’s laboratory was the most exciting camera adventure I ever had”, declared Miss Edis a few days ago in New York.
“Sir James Dewar”, said Miss Edis, “has mastered the art of producing soap bubbles that are permanent. That may sound queer, for naturally you connect the idea of a soap bubble with something ephemeral – it is an iridescent beauty floating in the breeze and the next moment it has burst and vanished. Sir James has discovered that by producing the bubbles in pure air in the air-proof chamber, the life of the bubbles may be prolonged not only for hours but for years. As the bubble grows older its colors become more ravishingly beautiful. Think what a benefactor to humanity is a man who can extend the life of pure beauty like that. And if a bubble is anything save pure and wonderful what is it? In my quest for the unusual and exquisite in color I came upon this man of bubbles. He permitted me to photograph the patriarch of them all a venerable sphere of nothing surrounded by soap aged four years.”
The exquisite blending of colors caught by the Lumiere-autochrome plate is a thing of such poignant beauty that it makes one gasp to realize that it is only a photograph. One bubble, fortunately not the patriarch, burst just at the very instant it was to be photographed. The effect of that silent explosion could not have been greater, Miss Edis explained, if a dynamite bomb had burst right alongside her camera. “For the moment it seemed as though some dreadful catastrophe had occurred. It was hard to believe that only a soap bubble had burst.”
Miss Edis has photographed wild animals including bears in the Canadian Rockies. She has taken pictures of landslides and snowslides. Among others who have posed for her are the Queen of Spain, the Prince of Wales and his sister Princess Mary. But she declares the only time she felt the least bit excited about her work was during the tense moment when she was making photographs of Sir James Dewar’s precious bubbles.
Following this lead, I found an article from 29th August 1916 from the Wairapara Daily Times which mentions that “six photographs of soap bubbles, taken in their natural colours by Miss Olive Edis, were exhibited at a reception given at the Royal Society by the President in London on June 22nd”, dating the work to 1915-16. This presents another interesting example of Edis proving successful in a male-dominated environment. The Royal Society didn’t admit its first female Fellow until 1945, so I would guess (and please do correct me if I’m wrong here) that it was quite unusual to exhibit work by a woman at a Royal Society reception in 1916, even if the emphasis was on the scientific significance of the bubbles, rather than the images themselves. It’s interesting that in the SF Chronicle article, Edis is quoted as saying that “in my quest for the unusual and exquisite in color I came upon this man of bubbles. He permitted me to photograph the patriarch of them all”, which suggests that Dewar didn’t commission the work, but rather Edis approached him. I think it says quite a lot about her character that a) she asked, and b) he agreed! After all, if you’ve been preserving a bubble for 108 days, you’re probably not going to let just anyone into the lab to photograph it. I wonder how she pitched it? In any case, Dewar was obviously pleased enough with the results to present them at the Royal Society.
It’s also fascinating to know a little more about her time in North America. We knew that she had travelled down from Canada after her commission in the Rockies (we have a photograph of the interior of the British Embassy in Washington dated 1920), but nothing more concrete than that. We know now that she was obviously in New York at the beginning of 1921. I have also found a reference to her photographing Native Americans at around the same time – “Miss Edis has been very successful in her reproduction of Indian types [Native Americans], their full dress regalia are admirably shown.” (NPG attribute this quote to Financier, 9 May 1921) Sadly these have apparently not survived.
As always, comments, suggestions, thoughts on this are very much welcomed! Leave a comment below or get in touch via the Contact page.