So far this blog has concentrated largely on Edis’ war work as we journeyed with her through Europe in March 1919, and we’ve seen her use all her skill and determination to become Britain’s, and possibly even the world’s, first female war photographer.
In today’s entry, I’d like to focus on another field of photography in which Edis was something of a pioneer – self-portraiture.
In 2016, we’re all familiar with the “selfie” – over the last ten years the word has stormed into our collective consciousness, making its debut in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, but the photographic self-portrait is of course nothing new. Self-portraits have a long history as a form of expression for artists, so it’s no surprise that the first photographers almost immediately turned their lenses on themselves. This daguerreotype “selfie” by American photographer Robert Cornelius, taken within months of the birth of photography in 1839, is generally considered be the first photographic self-portrait.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, photo self-portraits were reasonably common, especially amongst commercial photographers who would pose with the tools of their trade to create handy publicity shots like this one. The vast majority of these are, as you would expect of the time, men.
Self-portraits of women from this period tend to be taken by amateurs – usually wealthy women who had the funds to take up photography as a hobby. As such, they tend to be much less formal in their execution. Interestingly, while a Google search for “first selfie” quickly points you straight to the Cornelius photo, I couldn’t find any information online about the first photo self-portrait by a woman. This is the earliest I could find, probably dating from the 1890s, and the woman is not identified. I’d be very interested to know if anyone has pinpointed the earliest one, and especially whether the photographer’s name is known.
Olive Edis was a prolific selfie-taker from the moment she picked up a camera. We have over 50 self-portraits in our collection alone, and there are others in private and museum collections around the world. She photographed herself in both colour (autochrome) and black and white throughout her life, using the same techniques as she did in her portraits of other people. As I have mentioned before, one of Edis’ great strengths was her ability to capture natural, relaxed portraits while maintaining the formality of composition and lighting that you would expect from a professional studio portrait. One sitter described it perfectly in a letter to Edis in 1940 – “it is always rather a shock to see one’s own face in a photo but I do feel that your photos have a great reality in them and are not like the touched-up ones which all look the same.”
The same can certainly be said of her self-portraits. She manages to capture something of her own character on the glass, which I think is what makes these photographs so fascinating. They have all the technical quality of a “typical” studio portrait, but with all the charm of the unselfconscious mirror selfies above. Most of them seem to have been taken for fun, rather than for professional use. There are a handful which show Edis in her studio, which may well have been intended to advertise the space, but the majority are purely well-lit, well-composed pictures of Edis, sometimes head and shoulders, but often full-length.
To my mind, there are elements of Edis’ self-portraits that link them directly to the modern selfie. When you take a selfie, you’re creating a version of yourself that you want to share with the world. You might wear your favourite outfit, do your hair nicely, pose to show off your best angle. This can very easily look unrealistic or contrived, but somehow Olive manages to pull it off and make it look natural. Take this one for example – Edis has chosen to wear this dress with an elaborate lace collar. This wasn’t an accident, and nor was the lighting and background choice which shows off that lace to its best advantage. She’s using the light from the window to highlight her hair and the line of her face. It’s very carefully composed and yet it looks relaxed – almost as if you’ve just caught her as she turned to look away from the window.
She and her sisters also play with costumes and personas in her self-portraits. This glass plate negative dated 1906 shows a young Olive, Millie and Katharine dressed in romantic costumes and posed as “the three graces” – the three daughters of Zeus from classical mythology representing beauty, charm and joy.
However, one thing that Olive’s portraits definitely don’t share with the selfie is ease of production. While you or I can snap a selfie and view the results almost instantly, Edis was taking hers on large glass plates using a bulky full plate camera which, due to its size and weight, had to stand firmly on a tripod. Edis couldn’t adopt the classic selfie stance with camera at arm’s length slightly above the face – she had to carefully set up the shot before posing herself within it, and then triggering the exposure using a remote shutter release, probably similar to this one from the 1890s.
For full-length photos, Edis used to hide the shutter release mechanism in the scenery – in these two gorgeous autochromes she has masked it with foliage and furs:
A key element of the selfie is the immediacy of it – you can create this version of yourself and share it with the rest of the world via the internet. This is obviously not the case with Edis’ portraits, which would need to be developed and printed before she could share them. But again, the impulse to share your photo is nothing new. The 19th century saw a craze for cartes-de-visite, photographic portraits printed the size of a calling card and designed to be shared. Compiling albums of cartes from friends and family as well as celebrities and royalty became a popular hobby among middle class women. Into the 20th century, turning your studio portraits into postcards was fashionable, so you could post your photo directly to your friends. In Edis’ case, she turned some of her self-portraits into postcards and greetings cards and sent them to friends with a personal message, as well as selling them in her studio along with postcards of her portraits of her most famous subjects.
One of the things I really love about these self-portraits is that I feel like I know Edis a little better with each one I see, and her personality really shines through. These portraits represent her own vision of herself, and it’s amazing that even now, more than 60 years after her death, she is still showing us who she was through her photos. Perhaps we should all be taking more selfies?
And in that spirit – as part of our new galleries here at Cromer Museum, and for the exhibition at Norwich Castle, we plan to install an Olive Edis Selfie Booth which will allow visitors to take their own selfies in the style of Ms Edis herself. Visitors will be able to study Olive’s portraits, learn how to frame their shot and use natural light, and share the results online. I’m very much looking forward to the testing phase…
For now though, here’s a gallery of some of my favourites of Olive’s from throughout her life. Enjoy.