How Scotland helped shape modern photography

Edinburgh, 1839. James Howie, an artist known for his animal portraits, posts an advertisement in this very newspaper. A painter who has enjoyed modest success, with more than a dozen of his works exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy, his studio is at 64 Princes Street.

Photography: A Victorian Sensation at the National Museum of Scotland The Ladder, salt print from a calotype negative: Plate XIV from Talbots Pencil of Nature, the first book to be illustrated with photographs, 1844-46. © National Museums Scotland

An address he shares with a saddler, watchmaker and, two doors down, a freed Guyanan slave and bird stuffer who taught a 16-year-old Charles Darwin how to skin and dry birds. Now Howie has taken up a new medium, one only recently invented in France and still shrouded in mystery. On 15 October he unveils his secret and invites all of Scotland, or rather the select few who can afford it, to come and see this miracle for themselves.

“Mr Howie, artist, 64 Princes Street,” the advertisement begins, “begs leave respectfully to inform the Nobility, Gentry, and Public, that he has succeeded in producing some beautiful specimens in the above NEW ART on SILVER, the first public exhibition of its kind in Scotland.” The ‘new art on silver’ is photography. And Howie is one of its very first practitioners in the country.

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“He was using the daguerrotype, introduced to the world that same year in Paris,” explains Dr Alison Morrison-Low, principal curator of science at the National Museum of Scotland. “It was a silver shiny image that the Victorians loved because it was so crisp and clear. It was also very expensive. A sitting for one of Howie’s portraits cost 10 shillings and sixpence, about £300 in today’s money.” Morrison-Low has spent four years researching the history of photography in Scotland for a major exhibition and accompanying book about the Victorian craze for a tantalising medium that was (and still is) seen as hovering somewhere between art and science, appearance and reality, and our public and private selves.

Details from a steel engraving entitled North View of Edinburgh from the Upper Gallery of the Scott Monument. Picture: NMS

Howie’s images are extraordinary: small, pin-sharp and meticulously composed, as they would have needed to be with exposure times lasting up to a minute. A woman wearing a bonnet and inscrutable expression gazes directly at Howie’s lens, hands resting on her full skirt. Another reads a book, eyes lowered. Carefully preserved behind a thin sheet of glass and kept in leather wallets, the images, which were back to front, might have been displayed like open books on the mantelpieces of affluent Victorian families. So few remain and so little is known of these early daguerrotypes. They are frozen moments in time that have no more story to accompany them than a date, yet their anonymity somehow makes them all the more poignant.

“By 1841 it was possible to take a daguerrotype in 20 seconds and by the following year the time had halved,” Morrison-Low continues. The story of photography is one of ever-quickening processes, relentless innovation, and a fascination with holding up a mirror to ourselves and our times that began with the Victorians and has grown ever since.

At the museum, Morrison-Low shows me Joseph Ebworth’s 1845 engraving of Edinburgh in which, if you zoom in on 64 Princes Street, you can see Howie’s spry, top-hatted figure preparing to photograph his sitters who are braced on chairs by the rooftop edge. One of Howie’s contemporaries described a visit to his studio as having “arrangements… of the simplest kind. His sitters had to climb three flights of stairs, and then by a kind of ladder reached a skylight through which they got access to the roof of the house. The posing chair [was] placed against the gable of an adjoining building and the operator used to take the sitter by the shoulders and press him down with the observation – ‘There! Now sit as still as death!’”

Chairs with special headrests were often used to fix people to their seats for the duration. Babies were tied to chairs with scarves and all sorts of diversion tactics including pet monkeys or caged birds kept in the studios were employed in an effort to get them to keep still. Extravagant backdrops were created to ape the look of classical portrait paintings; despite photography being the newest of mediums, Victorians still wanted it to appear old. Studios were invariably located on the top floor beneath glass roofs because of the need for natural sunlight. Afterwards tinting might be added to the image by an assistant, usually female, using very thin camel’s hair brushes or by blowing powdered paint on to the surface of the image. For Victorians who could afford it, and until the advent of mass photography in the 1880s, these carefully constructed and austere images, in which smiles were ruled out because of long exposure times, might be their only family photo in a lifetime.

Unknown little girl holding a portrait of a man, possibly her dead father, Ross & Thomson of Edinburgh,1847-60. © Howarth Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland.

Around the same time, in England, another photographic process called the calotype was invented by William Henry Fox Talbot. By 1843 the Edinburgh Calotype Club, the world’s first official gathering of photographers, had been formed, which led to some of the first photo albums in existence. The process’s earliest champions were the Edinburgh based duo of DO Hill, a painter, and Robert Adamson, an engineer who established Scotland’s first proper photography studio in Rock House on Calton Hill in 1843. Within just four years – until Adamson’s untimely death – they had produced 3,000 photographs of city landmarks, street scenes, Scottish luminaries and, most famously, their atmospheric and spirited portraits of Newhaven fishermen and wives. Contemporaries compared their photographs to Rembrandt’s paintings and today they are internationally regarded as the first body of work to treat photography as an artistic medium in its own right.

“Hill and Adamson seemed to instantly grasp what makes photography unique,” says Glasgow School of Art professor Ray Mackenzie, an expert in the history of photography in Scotland. “They understood it was to do with light, the presence of the subject and the composition. It was incredibly sophisticated: they incorporated the aesthetics of painting without imitating its conventions. The Newhaven portraits are ravishingly beautiful.”

In Glasgow, the second city of the empire, there was a huge explosion in the number of professional photographers during the 1850s when the wet collodion process replaced the much more costly daguerrotype. “These people, men and women, set up studios more or less overnight,” explains Mackenzie. “When you look at old photographs of Sauchiehall Street you can see the words ‘photographic studio’ on billboards everywhere. And it wasn’t just high street photographers. You had itinerant photographers who would travel as far as Orkney and Inverness with their kit and chemicals, setting up at fairgrounds and taking pictures for a few pence. It was a very democratic medium, spreading right down from the aristocracy to the lower echelons of society.”

By the 1860s the Victorian obsession with portrait photography was reaching its peak with what became known as ‘cartomania’: the craze for cartes de visite, cheaply printed visiting cards backed with studio portraits. They became so popular millions were produced, sold for pennies, and swapped. “It was the beginning of celebrity culture,” Mackenzie explains. “You would have your own carte de visite made in a studio, which you would give to friends and family, and then people started collecting cartes de visite of famous people. Queen Victoria had a series made of herself. Photo albums were created especially for them. The photo booth came out of this process.”

Photography: A Victorian Sensation at the National Museum of Scotland 1/6 plate daguerreotype, depicting a seated woman in a bonnet, in a case, by James Howie of Edinburgh, 12 Sept, 1848

Why did so much photographic innovation happen in Scotland? “Although photography was invented in England and France, the Scots picked up the ball and ran with it,” says Morrison-Low. Mackenzie agrees. “Fox Talbot’s patent excluded Scotland, which meant Scots got off to a flying start,” he explains. “But it was also a combination of a thriving art scene, Scotland’s brilliant scientists, and the fact that Glasgow was awash with money and had such a thriving middle class. There’s simply no question. Scotland played an absolutely paramount role in the early development of photography.”

Photography: A Victorian Sensation runs until 22 November at the National Museum of Scotland, £10 adults, £8 concession, children £6.50, under 12s free,