Fisherman to Kings: The Forgotten Photographs Of Olive Edis is a BBC1 documentary investigating the pioneering work of Olive Edis, one of the first female photographers who laid the foundations of modern day studio photography. A series of interviews give an insight into the skill and empathy Edis had with those she photographed, both with members of high society and those from more humble backgrounds. Eye Film accompany Rankin, British portrait, and fashion photographer, as he investigates the similarities between Edis’s and his own work, and why Edis lacks much of the recognition she deserves.
Since her death in 1955, the name Olive Edis has faded from memory along with the vast body of her work, acknowledged by only a few as being a cornerstone in the development of photography. Olive chose photography as a career in a time of great change and new opportunities for women. Nevertheless, opening a studio in what was a male-dominated world, was still deemed to be against the expectation of her gender. She excelled in the medium however, and her photographs provide an incredible glimpse into the personal world of her subjects, capturing on film all walks of life from fishermen to Kings. Olive had an innovative technical genius that was entirely self-taught. She was gifted at being able to harness the essence of her sitters; suffragettes, debutantes, social reformers to authors and poets, she was more interested in what they did rather than who they were. The high society echelons of the 1910s and 20s sought the services of this unassuming lady including four Prime Ministers.
“The work that Olive did was very sophisticated and very much at the cutting edge of what photography was at the time. It draws me in and is very magical and it reminds me of why I love photography,” says Rankin.
At the end of the 1st World War, Olive accepted an assignment to photograph the aftermath of hostilities on the Western Front. Her pictures are a unique record of the time and elevated her to the very highest levels of photographic achievement.
When Olive died she left her equipment and most of her photographs to a local Sheringham man who had assisted Olive in her later years. For fifty years the collection was kept hidden away in her old studio and it’s only thanks to the dogged persistence of a Norwich photography historian that the archive was eventually brought to wider recognition. When the collection was put up for sale, Cromer Museum, part of Norfolk Museums Service, was able to raise the money to house the many thousands of photographs.
Rankin’s exploration of Olive’s life and work culminates in a visit to her studio in Sheringham, left as it was since she last used it. Armed with Olive’s unwieldy glass plate negative camera, he’s been challenged to take a portrait in her style and his chosen model is the actor Bernard Hill. It’s touch and go whether he’ll get an image at all by using such outdated equipment.
“My reputation was on the line to see if it actually worked. But apart from that stress, I enjoyed being able to handle a camera of that age and quality. To see how she worked as a photographer first-hand was exciting and then of course to see the result was a relief!” exclaims Rankin.