In 1843, the painter David Octavius Hill was confronted with a seemingly impossible challenge: how to capture the faces of over 400 ministers who had dramatically walked out of the Church of Scotland’s annual General Assembly in Edinburgh, thus forming the Free Church of Scotland. Although he was an established artist, Hill could only sketch so much in the brief time the men were all available. As luck would have it, the Scottish city had a newly arrived photographer — Robert Adamson — who was experimenting with the calotype process, introduced to the world by William Henry Fox Talbot four years prior. Hill and Adamson would not just complete the portraits for Hill’s painting, they would spend the next four years creating thousands of calotypes. Together, they helped establish photography as an artistic medium, until one of them met an untimely death.
“Hill and Adamson were among the earliest photographic partnerships in photography, not just Scottish photography,” Anne Lyden, international photography curator at the National Galleries of Scotland, told Hyperallergic. Lyden curated A Perfect Chemistry: Photographs by Hill and Adamson now at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. “They were working at a time when there was no history of photography, the art form was very new, and its full potential was yet to be realized. However, they were able to demonstrate the artistic capabilities of the medium, producing beautiful and inspiring images during the 1840s that continue to resonate today.”
Although Hill was two decades older than Adamson, and Adamson came from an engineering background, having taken up photography as a less strenuous career due to his ongoing ill-health, their different backgrounds and personalities made for an unlikely, but flourishing, partnership. Soon Hill and his daughter Charlotte moved into Adamson’s Rock House home at the foot of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. Adamson mastered the technical side; Hill composed their prints with an artistic perspective, and put subjects at ease with his gregarious nature. He was even something of a clown in front of the camera, dressing up for recreations of scenes from Sir Walter Scott’s novels, and playfully posing with friends. One image called “Edinburgh Ale” shows Hill with two grinning men enjoying glasses of beer, while a following photograph titled “The Morning After” has Hill with his clothes in disarray, the glasses empty, and a friend jokingly checking his pulse.
“The title of the exhibition — A Perfect Chemistry — alludes to the alchemy involved in making early photographs, but also to that special connection they shared as photographic partners,” Lyden explained. The exhibition features over 100 of their original paper negatives and salted paper prints, organized from the National Galleries of Scotland, which has the world’s most comprehensive collection of the duo’s work.
The photographs include portraits of local figures, like anatomist Robert Knox (now infamous for his involvement with the bodysnatchers Burke and Hare), James Young Simpson who invented chloroform, writer and influential art critic Elizabeth Eastlake, and Isabella Burns Begg, the sister of poet Robert Burns, who stares out from one of their images with piercing eyes. There are shots of the changing urban landscape of 19th-century Edinburgh, such as the construction of the monument to Sir Walter Scott and the demolition of buildings to make way for a railway station. “They were using photography — a new invention — to record other inventions, such as the introduction of the railway, while many of their portraits featured scientists, inventors, and politicians, who were all seeking to make change at a time when the world seemed to be rapidly evolving,” Lyden said.
The furniture and props in the duo’s portraits suggest an indoor setting, but all of these had to be photographed outside, often in Rock House’s garden, to get the strong sunlight necessary for the calotype process. The use of these props, like books and guitars, kept sitters’ hands occupied while wordlessly communicating something about the person. Talbot’s calotype debuted around the same time as Louis Daguerre’s daguerreotype, and Hill would state that he preferred the more spontaneous and tactile qualities of the calotype. “The rough and unequal texture throughout the paper is the main cause of the calotype failing in details before the Daguerreotype … and this is the very life of it,” he asserted. “They look like the imperfect work of man … and not the much diminished perfect work of God.”
The calotype, a process that uses paper coated with silver iodide, lent itself to the candid style of Hill and Adamson. The photographs can resemble casual snapshots, such as a group of people lounging on the tombs in Greyfriar’s Churchyard, yet each required careful planning, composition, lugging of delicate and heavy equipment, and the patient stillness of the sitters. Their best known images, thanks in part to subsequent publication in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work, are of the Newhaven fishing community on the edge of Edinburgh. Men lean against beached boats, women gather around ministers and caught fish, portraying both the industry and spirituality of the people. Lyden pointed out that these photographs “are among the earliest examples of social documentary photography.” Many of the 1840s images also anticipate the immediacy we now associate with photography, whether catching the blurred motion of a horse-drawn cart on Edinburgh streets, or freezing a glimpse of a woman’s lace shawl as she turns away.
Ultimately, the partnership would end before Hill painted the 400 ministers. Adamson died at the age of 26 on January 14, 1848, four and a half years into their collaboration, the culmination of his long illness. Hill’s “The First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland; signing the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission — 23rd May 1843” was finally completed in 1866. It was, appropriately, photographed by Thomas Annan (currently the subject of an exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles), the negatives disseminating the pivotal scene of Scottish religious freedom. If you look closely at the ministers, each representing in detail an individual who was there, you can spot a small anachronism: an artist with a sketch pad and a man holding a camera, Hill’s immortalizing tribute to his late friend and great collaborator.
A Perfect Chemistry: Photographs by Hill and Adamson continues through October 1 at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (73 Belford Road, Edinburgh).