Alfred Ellis was born in 1854 in St. Pancras, a district of London. No details of his early life exist or how his involvement in photography began. He married Mary C. Kimbolton, and together they had a son and a daughter. In 1883, the fledgling photographer became a member of what would later be known as the Royal Photographic Society. He is also one of the founding members of the Professional Photographers' Association, having served as Secretary (1901-1903), President (1903 and 1919), and General Secretary (1919 until his death). He opened a studio on 20 Upper Baker Street in the London district of St. Marylebone in 1884.
A lover of the arts, Mr. Ellis established himself as the preeminent theatrical photographer. He would frequently photograph live stage performances or have the actors restage climactic scenes at his studio. Mr. Ellis handled his portraits with appropriate theatricality. For example, in his portrait of young stage actress Lilian Carlyle, the backdrop was hardly realistic, which was precisely the photographer's intention. He did not want it to compete with the actress, who he wanted to command the viewer's complete attention as she would during an on-stage performance. Around 1890, Mr. Ellis entered into a partnership with Stanislaw Julian Ignacy (Count Ostrorog). The son of a famed photographer, Count Ostrorog adopted his father's successful professional name, Stanislaw Walery, as his own. Hence, the the Alfred Ellis & Walery gallery was born.
Mr. Ellis then turned his attentions to photographers' copyrights, and was the plaintiff in two landmark High Court cases. The first, Ellis v. Ogden (1894), involved the portrait sitting of actress Mary Moore, who posed at the photographer's invitation, so there was no charge, and Mr. Ellis presented the copies to her as a gift. When the Ludgate Monthly published one of these copies without permission, the photographer filed a lawsuit stating he owned the exclusive copyright to the image since it was a gift. The decision ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and determined that the photographer was the "author" of the work, and because the sitter did not pay for the portrait, Mr. Ellis retained proprietorship of the photograph. However, the outcome was different in the case of Ellis v. Marshall (1895), in which the photographer invited actors Harry Nicholls and Charles Kenningham to his studio to pose for two portraits – one in costume and one in plain clothes. Again, there was no payment asked for, and gratis copies were sent to both actors. However, the actors did pay the photographer for the plain clothes' photographs, one of which was submitted to the Ludgate Monthly to accompany an article on Harry Nicholls. Mr. Ellis argued that as photographer, he possessed the copyright on both sets of pictures. However, Justice Collins disagreed, stating that the plain clothes' portraits were taken at the request of the actors, and since they compensated the photographer for them, he did not retain proprietorship of them. This led to Mr. Ellis co-founding the Photographic Copyright Union, an organization in which he later served as Vice President.
Although Mr. Ellis's Upper Baker Street studio was demolished in 1899, Alfred Ellis & Walery remained active until 1918 in both portrait photography and catalog publishing. After enjoying several years of comfortable retirement, Alfred Ellis died on April 13, 1930. Revered by the theatrical community, perhaps the photographer's most enduring legacy is his efforts on behalf of artists retaining the copyrights for reproductions of their works.
1898 The British Journal of Photography, Vol. XLIV (London: Henry Greenwood & Co.), p. 471.
2014 The Cabinet Card Gallery (URL: http://cabinetcardgallery.wordpress.com/tag/alfred-ellis).
1904 Copyright Cases (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons), pp. 192-193.
2014 Ellis, Alfred. (URL: http://www.photolondon.org.uk/pages/details.asp?pid=2491).
2014 National Portrait Gallery (URL: http://www.npg.org.uk).
1900 The Photogram, Vol. VII (London: Dawbarn & Ward, Ltd.), p. 296.
1901 Photograms of the Year (London: Dawbarn & Ward, Ltd.), p. 32.
1894 The Publishers' Circular (London: The Publishers of London), pp. 609-610.
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