Over the last few months we’ve been working with local film company Eye Film on a documentary about Olive Edis for Mustard TV and BBC East. The programme follows world-renowned photographer Rankin as he discovers more about her life and work, and attempts to recreate Edis’ signature style using her original camera in a photoshoot at her old Sheringham studio with Lord of the Rings actor Bernard Hill. We saw it for the first time last night and we are delighted with the results! I’m so pleased that she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves.
The documentary aired on BBC East last night and is now available to watch online via BBC iPlayer (until 3rd May 2017):
The camera that Rankin uses in the documentary is the ‘Ashford New Patent’, a half-plate camera dating from the late 19th century. It’s one of several cameras that we hold in our collection which were originally owned by Olive Edis. You can see it on display along with some of her other studio equipment here at Cromer Museum.
This is a beautiful, quality camera, and would have been an expensive purchase. Edis almost certainly acquired it second-hand (the patent is dated 1887, and the dealer’s name on the front plate dates it to pre-1894 – some years before she took up photography) and I imagine it saw a fair amount of use in its day. The fact that it is still in good working order today, around 125 years later, is a real testament to the camera’s quality.
The patent in the camera’s name was granted for its unique folding design. The bellows and focusing screen can be collapsed to make the camera more portable (see some photos of it collapsed here). The advantage of this folding design is that the lens doesn’t need to be removed and the bellows and focusing screen are protected – the front panel ends up on the top, keeping everything covered. (Thanks to RedBellows.co.uk for providing more information on this.)
The lens doesn’t have a shutter attached, but Edis would have almost certainly used one. Early lenses didn’t have built-in shutters like modern cameras – long exposure times on wet-plate processes meant that simply removing the lens cap and counting was enough. With the invention of gelatin dry plates, which Edis used, exposure times were much shorter and so a shutter capable of exposing the plate for fractions of a second became a necessity. Photographers could buy shutters and attach them to their existing lenses.
You’ll notice in the documentary that Rankin simply removes the lens cap and counts his exposure time. That’s because the speed of a commercially produced gelatin dry plate isn’t achievable with a home-made version, so the plates he used (made by early photography expert Kevin Lunham) required longer exposure times than Edis would have needed.
You’ll have to watch the documentary to find out whether the shoot was successful or not! I hope you enjoy it – let us know what you thought in the comments.