R.C.E. Nissen

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(b. Whitehaven, Cumberland, 24/11/1865 – d. South Africa, 22/02/1955). Photographer, cinematographer. Though he was born in Great Britain, Robinson Christian Englestoft (Remmy) Nissen spent most of his life in South Africa. He was educated at Newcastle-on-Tyne, but in 1881 the Nissen family came to the Cape Colony and in 1885 he moved to the Transvaal. Before the South African War he was active as a photographer in various parts of the country, from Malmesbury and Cradock in the south to Standerton and Heidelberg in the north. By 1900 he had his own studio in Pretoria and some of the photographs he took during this time still survive. They include a portrait of Lord Kitchener taken in 1902, a record of the funeral of Paul Kruger in December 1904 and a photograph of the Cullinan diamond taken in 1905. Several of his studies were issued as postcards and he was, in fact, listed as a publisher of postcards.

During the Anglo-Boer War, Nissen was a war correspondent and his name appears on a list of journalists “invalided” during the war published in the Daily Express of 6 June 1900. The name of Winston Spencer Churchill appears on the same list. He worked for both the London Daily Mail and the Cape Times and, according to a website devoted to Jewish military history, he was awarded the Queen’s South African Medal in June 1903 while a correspondent for Central News.

At some stage Nissen also became a cinematographer and started working for the Australian entrepreneur Rufe Naylor. It was at this time that South Africa’s first fictional film, The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery, was produced. Featuring an unnamed Emma Krogh, It was photographed and directed by Nissen for the Springbok Film Co. and was first screened at both the Tivoli (afternoon) and Orpheum (evening) in Johannesburg on 11 December 1911. These were two of Naylor’s cinemas that had become part of the newly established Africa’s Amalgamated Theatres. Writing in the Sunday Times of 21 June 1914, Nissen describes the shooting of the film on a Sunday afternoon in October of that year at Fountains Valley, outside Pretoria.

In order to attract customers to new cinemas such as the 1,500-seater Orpheum in central Johannesburg, A.A.T. started screening “local scenes” shot all over the country. They were precursors of African Mirror, the newsreel that was launched soon afterwards when A.A.T. became part of the African Theatres Trust. In the early days Nissen, together with the younger Tommy Crellin, was one of the key cameramen involved in providing these “topical shorts”.

It’s not certain whether Nissen actually left Naylor’s employment, but subsequently he was also involved in other projects. During this time the British South Africa Company (BSAC) sponsored short films about its construction projects, amongst them Rhodesia To-Day (1912), shot by Nissen and Alfred Kaye. In addition Nissen spent time in what was then the Belgian Congo, filming life in various commercial centres and the copper mines of Katanga for a weekly magazine called The African World and Cape Cairo Express. This material was combined into a two-hour compilation entitled From Rhodesia via Katanga to Angola, Bulawayo to Elisabethville and Kambove to Lobito Bay (1913).

Nissen was married twice, first to Petronella Roux in 1886, who predeceased him, and then to Margaret Harvey, who survived him. (FO)


Sunday Times, 21 June 1914

Abel, Richard - Encyclopedia of early cinema

Gutsche, Thelma - The history and social significance of motion pictures in South Africa 1895-1940

The South African Who's Who 1908





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