Fishermen to Kings: The Forgotten Photographs of Olive Edis

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):

Fishermen to Kings: The Forgotten Photographs of Olive Edis

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

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.

Our new galleries are open!

Phew – it’s been an extremely busy few weeks since my last post, but I’m delighted to say that our new permanent displays of Olive Edis’ life and work are now open!

Our fantastic design and technical team have worked miracles in our little fisherman’s cottage, and completely transformed these two rooms. Despite having built new walls inside both rooms, somehow they have made them seem even bigger than before!

My personal favourite bit of our new displays is the big case full of Edis’ cameras, which you can see in the collage above (click for bigger versions). For scale, the photo backdrop to the case, showing Edis in the Canadian Rockies, is slightly larger than life-size, so the case is more than big enough to accommodate ‘The Countess’ camera mounted on its tripod, along with some of Edis’ other cameras and equipment. Whenever I go to a photography exhibition, particularly early photography, the one thing I’m often left wondering is how the photos were taken, what the process would have been, and what equipment would the photographer have needed. So when I learnt that Cromer Museum’s collection included not only the original glass negatives and prints, but the cameras that they were taken with, I knew I wanted those to be included in our new displays. I hope that now visitors will be able to get a sense of how Edis worked, and how much technical skill was required compared to the relative ease and speed of the digital age. When you see the size of ‘The Countess’, and realise that she carried something very similar around Europe along with a trunk of 200 glass plate negatives, plus all her developing chemicals and changing bags,it really does bring to life just how difficult an undertaking it would have been. Special thanks here to designer Katie Jeffs and conservator David Harvey, who designed and installed this wonderful display of equipment.

We also have a fantastic new touchscreen interactive designed by David Coles at Superia Commerce, which features photographs, video and audio. Visitors can listen to an actress reading extracts from Edis’ war diary (thank you to Kate Banks as the voice of Olive!), and watch three fantastic short films produced entirely by Film & Media students at Paston 6th Form College. You can watch the first film here:

Our next priority as a project team will be our travelling exhibition, The Road to Ypres: The War Photography of Olive Edis, which will be opening at the end of this month at the North Norfolk District Council Offices in Cromer. After that, a larger version will move onto Farnham Museum. For a full list of venues take a look at my last post.

We also have plenty of events coming up here at the museum – visit our Facebook page or pick up an events leaflet for more details.

If you’re new to the blog, don’t forget that throughout March last year I shared extracts from Olive’s war diary, posting each one on the day that they were written 98 years ago. Find out what she was up to on 8th March 1919 here.

Last but not least – happy International Women’s Day! Here’s to pioneering women of the past, present and future.

Hope to see you at the museum soon.