Saturday, 28 August 2010

Further Learning - Edin. Uni Open Learning - Edinburgh's Photographers D O Hill and R Adamson

Edinburgh’s Photographers: D O Hill and R Adamson, an Edinburgh University open learning course taken by Roddy Simpson. The course started in the learning centre in the middle of Edinburgh Castle before a walking tour of some of the locations in which Hill and Adamson took some of these photographs.

The course summary is that in 1840s Edinburgh the unlikely partnership of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson produced photographs which have been admired ever since as among the greatest achievements of photography. The course looked at the reasons for the success of the partnership and the images they made and how these were influenced by the Edinburgh in which they lived.

David Octavius Hill was a well established landscape and portrait painter in the Victorian period before he was persuaded by his friend the physicist and philosopher David Brewster to meet with Robert Adamson at Adamson’s studio in Rock house of Calton hill. Brewster moved within the enlightened circles of Edinburgh's society and was a member of the “Dilettanti club” a varied group of individuals comprising amongst others poets, engineers, painters, authors, advocates and ministers of the cloth which met in the old town section of Edinburgh.

Robert Adamson studied at St. Andrews and was a protégé of David Brewster; however it was Roberts’s older brother John Adamson who taught him all about the Calotype process. Robert Adamson who suffered from long term ill health arrived in Edinburgh with the full intention of becoming the first Calotypist photographer in Edinburgh. Edinburgh had already welcomed daguerreotypists who were already working amongst the rooftops of the New Town. Adamson used his innate skills to perfect on the studies and work of others and used those new found skills to further the progress of Calotype photography. It was said that Adamson became so skilled and knowledable in the process that he knew more about the process than any other photographer.

This circle that both men moved within was one of the highlights in the upheaval of society within Scotland in the 1800s. Due to the highland clearances, land reforms, drought, the potato famine and the industrial revolution, for the first time there were more people in cities than in the towns and villages of Scotland. The city of Edinburgh needed to expand beyond its limited borders of the Old town to meet the population requirements. To this end the New town was created; once the New town was completed there was a movement of the moneyed gentry and the educated classes from the Old town to the New town. While the old town was left behind, groups like the "Dilettanti club" still met within the old town boundaries and still used the old town as a reference for the city.

This unlikely meeting of artist with technician was to be one of the highlights of Victorian photography; Adamson as the technician was the constant driving force forwarding the development of photography and using his innate knowledge developed tried and tested techniques which other photographers at the time could only guess of. Adamson’s’ skills were tempered by Hills skills as an artist; it was Hill who considered photography as a form of art and he advised on composition and placement based on his artists eye which made the partnership successful. Hill used Henry Raeburn’s composition style of portraiture in photography and composed the photographic portraits concentrating mainly on the subjects face and hands.
This is of course is not to say that both men did not enjoy each other’s company; Hill was already a widower and he moved himself and his young daughter to join Adamson at Rock House. This partnership at Rock house allowed both men to practice in the art of photography by photographing their social circle and creating records for history which documented the destruction of parts of old Edinburgh to make way for the new.

It was during this time of social upheaval that the Free Church of Scotland was formed; this progressive movement that both Hill and Adamson supported broke away from the main protestant church, the ministers turning their back on their manses and the stipend that the parishes provided. Hill and Adamson used photography to record groupings of individuals at Rock House so that Hill could later use them to paint the “disruption” painting depicting the signing of the declaration of the formation of the Free Church of Scotland. The plan was for Hill to finish the painting in two to three years however it took Hill so long (23 years) to complete the actual painting that certain individuals were painted a lot older than when their original photograph was taken as well as individuals who were not even present at the event.

It is through Hill and Adamson’s’ detailed work that we can see the development of the Nor Loch part of the Princess Street Gardens location to include both the Scott Monument and the creation of the Waverly station as the main rail link between Berwick upon tweed and the West Coast of Scotland. They recorded the destruction of Mary of Guilders Trinity College Church, the orphan hospital and Lady Glenorochy’s chapel on the mound to make way for the building of Waverly Station while at the same time they recorded the building of the Scott monument as it grew out of the raw earth of Princes Street gardens. They also recorded the building of the National gallery which showed the rapid development of the area. What is rare indeed is that the photographs taken by Hill and Adamson showed the stone masons and builders at work; for the first time these people were the subject of photographic recording.
Hill and Adamson also recorded the erection of the Political Martyrs monument in the Old Calton Hill cemetery; this monument was dedicated to the five men who were imprisoned for campaigning for Parliamentary reform and was being erected at the same time as the Scott Monument.
Victorian society had a principle of personal responsibility and self improvement. As members of the Free Church, Hill and Adamson were concerned about the working class people in the Old Town. It was believed that that society within the city had become unsuitable and there was too much drinking and immoral behaviour. Hill and Adamson turned their eyes to the fisher people of Newhaven. This small group became the model social structure of both men; these self sustaining and self sacrificing men and women who did not dip into the social excess of their peers in the old town became the messengers for a as a contented and relaxed society. Their work t can be considered as the first photo essay and comment on social structure, if not the first photo essay per say. Hill and Adamson considered these sailors and fisher folk, who voluntarily paid some of their earnings into a common pot to be distributed amongst the communities poor and needy to be the pinnacle of the Free Church’s teachings and their record of these individuals shows exceptional skill as well as a small and telling window on the personalities of their subjects. This can be seen in their portrait of Elizabeth Johnstone Hall. This photograph shows exceptional use of lines within the composition, on the fish basket and on the dress of Ms Johnstone Hall as well as control of light.

Personally I enjoyed this course as I have just discovered the work of Hill and Adamson. I was surprised to find Scottish photographers amongst the pioneers of photography. As I viewed the compositions I was reminded of the lessons I have learned in this section of the Art of Photography course

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