The established Scottish painter David Octavius Hill (1802-1870) and Robert Adamson (1821-1848), a twenty-two year old Scottish engineer and chemist, were brought together in Edinburgh at the Disruption of 1843—a significant, cataclysmic event when the Free Church of Scotland withdrew from the established Church of Scotland. Hill & Adamson photographed the participants as studies for a proposed painting by Hill but quickly realized the potential of the new medium as an end in itself. They brought the best of their respective fields, art and science, to their short-lived collaboration. Their partnership proved to be one of the most significant, productive and influential in the history of photography.
Utilizing Talbot’s calotype process between 1843 and Adamson’s early death in 1848, they made more than 3,000 calotype negatives that preserved images of the people and culture of Scotland. The finest prints made from these paper negatives were selected by Hill for inclusion in very special presentation albums. They made a series of Newhaven pictures focusing on contemporary life in the picturesque fishing village just outside Edinburgh. This series revealed the influence of the tradition of British genre painting that would have been familiar to D. O. Hill, in which working class laborers were depicted as dignified, even heroic, individuals. This survey is the earliest collection of social documentary photographs made and is among Hill & Adamson’s finest and most sought after achievements.
Hill & Adamson’s pioneering body of work was championed by the efforts of photographers and publishers such as Thomas and James Craig Annan, Andrew Elliot, and Alfred Stieglitz who published twenty-one of their photographs as gravures in Camera Work from 1905 to 1912. The Edinburgh photographer Jessie Bertram printed selections from their works using the durable carbon process in 1916.
The exhibition A Perfect Chemistry: Photographs by Hill and Adamson was held at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh from 27 May – 1 October 2017.
Anne M. Lyden, A Perfect Chemistry: Photographs by Hill and Adamson (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2017).
Sarah Stevenson, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Catalogue of their calotypes taken between 1843 and 1847 in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 1981).
Larry J. Schaaf, Sun Pictures Catalogue Eleven, St. Andrews and Early Scottish Photography including Hill & Adamson (New York: Hans P. Kraus Jr. Inc., 2002).