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Edith Vanderbilt & Photography

Written By Amy Dangelico

Posted 03/01/23

Updated 09/13/23

The Vanderbilt Family

Photography was one of Edith Vanderbilt’s many passions. In turn, her photographs of life at Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC help inform our curatorial interpretations today.

With the introduction of roll film and the hand-held camera in the 1880s, photography became truly accessible to casual amateurs for the first time. There are a few distinct ways that we know that Edith embraced this new medium and enjoyed photography throughout her lifetime.

Edith Vanderbilt with camera on tripod
Archival photograph of Edith Vanderbilt with a camera and tripod along the banks of the French Broad River, ca. 1905-1906. This photo was taken by Ernesto Fabbri during a photography excursion.

Photos of Edith Vanderbilt with a Camera

One of the most concrete ways we know of Edith’s interest in photography is thanks to photographs in the Biltmore collection in which she is pictured with a camera in hand. Many of these photos came from one series in particular.

In the winter of 1905-1906, George Vanderbilt’s niece Edith Fabbri and her husband Ernesto visited Biltmore. During their trip, Edith Vanderbilt and Ernesto appear to have gone on a photography excursion on the estate and in nearby Biltmore Village.

Multiple images from this series taken by Ernesto capture Edith with her camera and a tripod.

Archival photograph of George Vanderbilt on a horse in front of Biltmore House. Reverse reads “Sept. 25th 1901, Taken, developed and printed, without help” in Edith Vanderbilt’s handwriting.
Archival photograph of George Vanderbilt on a horse in front of Biltmore House. Reverse reads “Sept. 25th 1901, Taken, developed and printed, without help” in Edith Vanderbilt’s handwriting.

Photos with Edith Vanderbilt’s Handwriting on the Back

Additionally, there are more than a dozen photographs in our archival collection that we know were captured by Edith as her distinct handwriting is on the back of the images.

Not only was she taking these photos, but Edith was also learning to develop many of them herself. She seemed very proud of this skill set, writing on the back of one photograph: “Taken, developed and printed, without help.”

Three of the 14 copies of the archival photograph of George and newborn Cornelia Vanderbilt demonstrating her practice of photography techniques
Three of the 14 copies of the archival photograph of George and newborn Cornelia Vanderbilt on the Loggia, October 1900. These photos were presumably taken by Edith Vanderbilt.

Multiple Copies of Photos of Family Moments

There are also many photographs we presume to have been taken by Edith, including shots of more intimate family moments. For instance, she was likely responsible for the images of George Vanderbilt with their newborn daughter Cornelia on the Loggia.

In our archival collection, there are 14 copies of what appear to be essentially the same image from that series. However, each of the copies varies slightly in exposure and cropping, which speaks to Edith’s experimenting with development techniques as she worked to hone her craft.

Edith Vanderbilt’s No. 4 Panoram Kodak camera Model B from ca. 1900-1903
Edith Vanderbilt’s No. 4 Panoram Kodak camera Model B from ca. 1900-1903. This archival object is currently on display in The Biltmore Legacy as part of our “The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad” exhibition.

Location of the Edith Vanderbilt’s Darkroom

We know that Edith was developing her own photographs, but we do not know with certainty the location of the darkroom she used.

One archival manuscript includes mention of a “Photograph Room” in the Bachelors’ Wing of Biltmore House. However, we’ve yet to find additional sources to confirm where this space was located and how it was used.

There are also employee recollections of darkroom equipment being present in the Basement, though it is unclear if this was the location of the equipment when Edith lived in Biltmore House or if it was later moved.

Our curatorial team continues to research this topic.

While we may not know the full extent of Edith Vanderbilt’s engagement with the modern hobby of photography, her photographs—as well as others presumed to have been taken by her—offer glimpses into life at Biltmore during the Vanderbilts’ era that we would not have otherwise.

Feature image: Archival photograph of Edith Vanderbilt with a camera and tripod in Biltmore Village, ca. 1905-1906. This photo was taken by Ernesto Fabbri during a photography excursion.