HILL and ADAMSON

Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson were partners in the earliest days of photography, their earliest known photograph being dated August 1843. Photographers of the day were either artistically inclined or had a strong scientific background, and this partnership was an ideal combination: Adamson was mainly responsible for the more mechanistic aspects of the process (exposure, development and printing), and Hill for the direction, posing and lighting. That, at least, is the way Hill saw it, though it is likely that Adamson, too, had an artistic bent.

Restrictions on the Calotype process imposed by Fox Talbot had arrested the development of photography in England, but since the patent did not apply to Scotland these two early photographers were able, in a very short partnership, to produce a considerable number of pictures.

At this period, of course, sunlight was necessary, so even the interior photography will have been outside, with suitable props. In order to prevent movement on the part of the sitters all sorts of strategies were needed to keep them still. In "The Bird Cage" for example, the girl in the foreground has her hand firmly on the cage, the girl to the right has her hand fixed on the shoulder of her companion, and her back is against the doorway. The little tell-tale shadows suggests that the girl at the back also had her head cradled - such devices were not uncommon then.

One problem that Hill and Adamson failed to resolve was the control of the eye. Because the exposures were so long, it seems that Hill told the sitters to close their eyes rather than blink. So in several of their pictures eyes appear closed.

Some of the Hill and Adamson pictures were to be reproduced many years later in Camera Work, a very influential publication produced at the turn of the century. However, Adamson is not credited, and in a lengthy essay on the work of Hill by J. Craig Annan, he is only mentioned in passing.

Their Calotypes are now greatly treasured, and many of these are stored in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A new web-site worth looking at is www.edinphoto.org.uk. It has a number of reproductions of photographs relating to Hill and Adamson. Do give it a visit.

Robert Leggat, 2000