During the 19th century, the new art form of photography gave people the ability to capture images in a revolutionary way.
Scottish scientists, artists and photographers played a huge part in pioneering this new technology, and we have them to thank for a medium we now take for granted.
The Edinburgh Calotype Club
The daguerrotype (the first publicly available photographic process) was announced in 1839, and it caused an international sensation. Soon after, a new technique, the calotype, was invented in 1841 by Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot, with input from Scottish scientist, David Brewster.
Brewster then went on to help establish the Edinburgh Calotype Club, the first photographic club in the world, founded in 1843. The club produced some of the first assembled photo albums in the world, with over 300 early images across two volumes.
The first action photographers
“Four years after the invention of photography was announced to the world, the pioneering partnership of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson was formed in Edinburgh in 1843,” explains Anne Lyden, International Photography Curator at the National Galleries of Scotland.
From their studio at Rock House on Calton Hill, Hill and Adamson began by producing calotype portraits of well known Scottish figures, including ministers who had been present at the Disruption of the Church of Scotland Assembly.
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It was Hill’s intention to record photographs of each minister present, in order to then recreate the scene in a painting, but the duo soon found that the photographs were more interesting than the painting they were working towards.
Moving away from traditional studio portraits, Hill and Adamson began to capture landscapes, urban scenes and people in natural settings across Edinburgh and Fife.
Some of the pair’s most famous work is the series capturing the fisherfolk of Newhaven, depicting ordinary working people going about their business.
“The naturalism inherent in the images, such as the portrait of Mrs Barbara Flucker opening oysters, was a major influence on the history of photography,” says Lyden.
These ‘action’ photographs were revolutionary for the time, and Hill and Adamson’s ‘genre art’ photographs were the first significant works to use the medium of photography in a self-consciously artistic way.
Recording urban and industrial change
Urban and industrial growth had a huge impact on Victorian Britain, and Scottish photographer Thomas Annan was one of the first to use photography as a social record.
“In 1868, Thomas Annan began photographing the closes and wynds of old Glasgow. At the time, the area was one of the worst slums in the country and the tenements had been scheduled for demolition,” explains Lyden.
Annan’s photographs of Glasgow’s inner city slums were the first to show the poor living conditions of the working class.
“Annan recorded the overcrowded buildings and the families who occupied them in a series of images that were technically challenging to make, due to the lack of light in the dark alleys and narrow closes,” says Lyden. “He used the wet-collodion process, which was the most sensitive technology then available.”
These photographs were used by the Glasgow City Improvement Trust to document the overcrowded slum conditions, ahead of improvements and redevelopments.
Annan also photographed industrial and architectural changes in Glasgow, leading the way for other urban documentary photographers.
A royal photographer
Another early figure who played a key role in the development of photography was George Washington Wilson.
“Having trained as a portrait painter, he turned to photography in 1853, and by the 1860s was operating a global business from his printing works in Aberdeen,” says Lyden.
Wilson was regarded as one of the country’s best photographers, and worked for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
He also began to develop techniques to allow for photography production outside of the studio, as well as the mass production of prints.
Wilson pioneered instant photography as well as landscape photography, and became known for capturing stunning views of the Scottish Highlands.
“His views of Scotland were sold the world over and helped to shape the larger cultural context for Scottish identity,” explains Lyden.
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Wilson’s studio, and the similar studio of James Valentine in Dundee, were once two of the largest publishers of photographic prints in the world.
Scottish photography pioneers
There were many more early photography pioneers from Scotland, helping to develop both the technical and artistic aspects of the new medium.
Edinburgh scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, produced the world’s very first colour photograph – of a tartan ribbon – in 1861.
Clemetina Hawarden (born in Dunbartonshire) and Mary Jane Matheson were some of the world’s first female photographers, and documentary war photography was pioneered by Scottish surgeon, John McCosh, during the Second Sikh War and Second Burmese War.
This article first appeared on our sister site, iNews.