The Countess

As I was writing about our new camera display in my last post, I was reminded of an article I wrote in January for the EDP’s Object of the Month about the largest of Edis’ cameras that we have in our collection, ‘The Countess’. It seemed worth sharing again, as the camera is now on permanent display in Cromer. Forgive the unseasonal references to Christmas – this originally appeared in the paper just after New Year!

The Countess

‘The Countess’, c.1893, on display at Cromer Museum. The lens and shutter would have been attached to the front plate.

“What was the last thing you took a photo of? Family and friends gathered around the tree, or perhaps a post-Christmas walk on the beach? Whatever the subject, the chances are your photo was snapped on a smartphone, hastily produced from a pocket to capture a spontaneous moment. Within minutes, your photo may have been cropped, edited and shared with the world.

For Olive Edis, one of the leading professional photographers of the early 20th century, the process was rather more involved.

Sitting for a portrait in the 1900s would have been a time consuming affair. The photographer would need to pose their subject, arrange the lighting, adjust the aperture and focus manually, and load the large, cumbersome camera with a glass negative, all before exposing a single image. It’s no wonder that portraits from this time can look stiff and uncomfortable. Edis, however, had a unique talent for putting her sitters at ease to draw out their personality, which in combination with her obvious technical skill produced relaxed, natural portraits that captured a spark of the sitter’s character.

At the height of her career Edis photographed Prime Ministers and royalty, as well as the North Norfolk fishermen whose twinkling eyes still captivate audiences today. She was a pioneer of colour photography, a successful businesswoman, and the first British woman commissioned as an official war photographer. In the 1920s she visited Hong Kong, chased a bear in Canada, and mingled with celebrities – and she captured it all with her trusty plate camera.

This particular camera, ‘The Countess’, was made by the London & Paris Optic & Clock Company in around 1893. It came to Cromer Museum with a collection of around 2000 glass plate negatives, prints and autochromes originally left to Edis’ assistant Cyril Nunn after her death in 1955. It’s the largest collection of her work in the world, and also includes equipment and papers from her studio.

Instead of a roll of film, this camera was loaded with a single glass plate negative in a wooden holder to protect it from light. A new negative was loaded into the camera for each shot. We have one or two examples where Edis must have forgotten to change the plate, resulting in a surreal double exposure.

Edis preferred to use her plate camera into the 1950s when most photographers had switched to film, so it’s fitting that the last picture we have of her was taken by Cyril Nunn using Edis’ own camera in 1953. I often wonder what she would think of the advances in technology that allow us to snap a picture with no chemicals, plates, or preparation. I think she’d be eager to try it and explore the possibilities of digital. But perhaps, after all, she’d be drawn back to her faithful old plate camera.”

‘The Countess’ is on display in the permanent exhibition Fishermen and Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis at Cromer Museum.

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