Hill and Adamson were great pioneers of photography in Scotland – not the first to take photographs, but the first to turn it into both business and art. Although photography required long exposures, good light, and immobile subjects, Their subjects ranged from images of Edinburgh great and good to ethnographic inquiries of people both near and far. This photograph, of the Canadian missionary, preacher, and community leader Peter Jones (known in the Ojibwe language as Kahkewaquonaby), was taken in 1845 and is possibly the first photograph ever taken of a North American Indian. Despite being snapped in the east end of Edinburgh.
David Octavius Hill (1802-1870) was a well-known artist before turning to photography. The eighth child of a Perth bookseller and stationer (hence the unusual middle name), he studied art at the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh from the age of 16. He quickly pursued a career as an artist, publishing a series of lithographs of Perth scenery when just 18. He was involved in the founding of the Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (later the Royal Scottish Academy), becoming a member of the new organisation in 1829. He became secretary of the Academy in 1832, a role which he held for 37 years. He had another artistic success with a book of paintings, The Land of Burns, published 1840.
Through the 1840s, he worked on a planned epic painting of the Disruption of 1843, one of the most important events in the history of the Church of Scotland. Many members of the Church of Scotland quit over issues including the right of congregations to appoint their own ministers and walked out of the general assembly to form their own Free Church. To capture accurately the large number of people involved, Hill decided to take photographic portraits of the participants to increase the verisimilitude of his painting. This led to his involvement with the new art.
Robert Adamson (1821-1848) was the younger brother of photographic pioneer John Adamson (1809–1870) who took the first calotype in Scotland in 1842 (here is John’s 1843 photo of Robert). John Adamson was part of the circle in St Andrews of physicist David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope and a pioneer of optical mineralogy. Born in St Andrews on 26 April 1821, Robert was an amateur scientist and inventor from an early age; but due to chronic ill-health he proved too weak for an apprenticeship as an engineer, and in 1843 decided to move to Edinburgh and set up in business as a photographer in Rock House on Calton Hill. After a few highly successful years, Adamson, who had been sickly since childhood, died aged 26 on 14 January 1848.
The ability to practice photography was restricted by both technical knowledge and patent rights, with the calotype patent held by William Henry Fox Talbot in England. However, thanks to Adamson’s connections and the different legal system north of the border, the duo were able to work freely in Scotland. Of the two men, Adamson was the scientist, who knew the photographic process. Hill was the artistic man, but also the people person, known for his conviviality and many friendships, and skill working with sitters.
In 1840s their work met with mixed reception, but as well as individual portraits, they announced several ambitions series of work, both portraits and documentary. These included their famous series of Newhaven fisher-folk in their brightly-patterned clothes. These images was part of a study of this traditional and close-knit community, which turned the methods of anthropology away from exotic tribes to the people of Edinburgh. It was in something of the same approach that they photographed the Ojibwan preacher Peter Jones, visiting from what is now Canada.
Reverend Peter Jones or Khakewaquonaby was a member of the Ojibwe (or Chippewa) nation, born January 1, 1802 in Burlington Heights near Hamilton, Ontario, to an Ojibwe mother and white father. His native name Khakewaquonaby means “waving feathers”, and he was raised in Ojibwe culture by his mother Tuhbenahneequay until the age of 14, then by his father Augustus Jones, a farmer, surveyor, and prominent local citizen. Peter Jones converted to Methodism aged 21, and was soon recognised as a preacher, missionary and translator capable of bringing the Christian message to the natives. He acted as an advocate for his people, few of whom spoke English, while believing that they should change from their traditional way of life to adopt European-style farming. From the 1820s, he was involved in the building of a settlement by the Credit River near present-day Mississauga.
He made three visits to the United Kingdom to raise money for his people and the church, the first in 1831. On these visits he would dress in tribal attire and be billed under his Ojibwe name, exciting considerable curiosity. On his third tour in 1845, he came to Edinburgh. The Scotsman newspaper on 6 August reported a speech by Jones at a breakfast in Gibbs Royal Hotel, Princes Street:
We have common day schools, and they have not succeeded so well as we could have wished, owing to the way in which the children are brought up by their parents. The children are idle during their school years, and they won’t work when they grow up. Now, we wish to establish manual labour schools, where the boys shall be taught farming and other useful trades, such as blacksmiths and shoemakers, and the girls to sew, knit, and spin. My countrymen are all ready to give up their children to the schools. I have been labouring among them for more than twenty years as a missionary, and I can assure you there is no difficulty in converting them to your holy religion.
Jones spoke while dressed in his native costume and followed the appeal with a display of “several war clubs, hatchets, tobacco pipes, and articles of dress”.
Hill and Adamson took several photographs of Jones on August 4, 1845, some in European clothing, others in native dress. Dressing up was traditional in portraits, whether oriental dress, ancient Roman, armour, as saints or peasants, or any other costume: for instance the explorer Edward William Lane was photographed by the Scots in “Indian Dress” (from India). The images of Jones taken that day are reputedly the earliest photographs of native Americans, despite coming not from the USA but Scotland (in 1838, Samuel Morse, pioneer of telegraphy, had learnt the daguerrotype process from Daguerre in Paris and returned to New York to set up in business as the first photographer in the Americas, but although he trained other photographers he wasn’t a commercial success.)
Jones’s health declined through the 1840s and he was advised by his doctor to cease travelling and take things easy, advice he initially ignored. In 1851 he settled near Brantford, a short distance from the Credit settlement, and growing weaker turned increasingly to domestic activities; his son Charles went to college in New York state and then studied law. Taking ill in December 1855, he died on 29 June 1856.
Hill and Adamson’s photographs were calotypes: a process invented by Fox Talbot in 1840. To make an image, a paper negative is brushed with silver nitrate and treated with potassium iodide to form silver iodide. Before use, it is then treated with gallo-nitrate of silver (silver nitrate and gallic acid), which accelerates the image-taking. After, it is developed with more gallo-nitrate of silver and fixed with hypo. The method was obsolete by end of 1850s, replaced by techniques on glass or metal; invented in 1851, the collodion process allowed images to be captured in seconds rather than minutes. In contrast to methods on metal or glass, the calotype produces a coarse image modulated by the grain of the paper, which can appear ugly but in skilled hands allows for the artistic effects of Hill and Adamson.
After Adamson’s untimely death in 1848, Hill returned to painting and to art administration, as secretary of RSA and helping found the National Gallery of Scotland. He did briefly return to photography in the 1860s, with much less interesting results without Adamson. In 1866 Hill finally finished the painting of the Disruption which had first involved him in photography, and it was purchased for £1,200 by the Free Church. His health failing, he gave up his work at the RSA in 1869, and died on 17 May 1870. He is buried in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh.
Despite Hill and Adamson’s role in the development of photography from scientific curiosity to art, they have never been accorded full recognition by the city of Edinburgh. In 1851 Hill gave the Scottish Academy 500 photographs, establishing a national collection. Since then, there have been various long-held but never realised plans for a national museum of photography, but although there was a 2002 show for Hill’s bicentenary, and a temporary exhibition of early photographs at the Royal Museum in 2015, there is little recognition of the city’s place in art photography and no permanent display of their extraordinary work which captures not only the beauties of light, but the complex attitudes of Victorian Scotland.
The photograph can be compared with other images of far-flung travellers, such as Alexander Nasmyth’s depiction of the Greenlander John Sakeouse. Born in Disco Bay (or Disko Bay if you’re not into loud music) in 1797, he arrived in Leith in 1816 where he dazzled locals with his kayaking and harpoon skills. He studied drawing with Alexander Nasmyth, who painted this. He sailed with John Ross on his 1818 arctic exhibition when Ross nearly discovered the Northwest Passage but gave up. Sakeouse returned to Leith where he died of typhoid in 1819.
In both cases portraiture has its primary function as representation and record, but it always performed other functions: showing the power of the wealthy commissioner, either in self-celebration or by capturing a subject he in some way or other owned. In Jones’s case there were doubtless anthropological pretensions, as with their work in Newhaven. In the early nineteenth century, paintings of exotic lands were very popular: from Scot William Allan (1782-1850) painting in the Caucasus and Turkey, to Ingres’s images of the middle east.
Both Jones and Sakeouse were able to prosper for a time as curios, acting out tribal customs and showing off traditional dress. An ability to move between native and European cultures allowed them to make livings as intermediaries, wearing their ethnicities as an object of curiosity and source of income, while using skills picked up in white communities to negotiate with those in power. They travelled exceptional distances and knew fame and crowds, but also worked to lock their people and homelands more closely into the empires of Europe and white America. Hence, they were neither of one culture nor the other, despite the costumes which they wore in Europe even as they ceased to be part of native life at home – becoming as this historic photograph shows not clothes but fancy dress.