Wall of fame/February: Hill, Adamson and Cameron
From Vision Machines to Instagram
Every month a new photograph will be presented on the "Wall of Fame"—the innermost wall in the anniversary exhibition From vision machines to Instagram. The first photographers represent early British photography: Julia Margaret Cameron and Hill & Adamson.
The brief collaboration between painter David Octavius Hill (1802-1870) and photographer Robert Adamson (1821-1848) lasted only from 1843 to 1847 but became internationally known and inspirational to younger generations of photographers via Alfred Stieglitz' Camera Work in July 1905. While Hill contributed his knowledge of composition, it is beyond all doubt that Adamson, with his knowledge of chemistry and interest in improving the new process, was indispensable in carrying out the more than 3,000 shots that have been preserved.
The collaboration began with photographic portraits that were intended to be the basis for a large group painting. The partners had experimented to acquire knowledge of light effects and the impact of chemicals and paper on color tones, as well as to achieve control over the spontaneous. Hill used himself as a model, and we can assume that in the self-portrait with a robe over his shoulders he had experimented with a way of making a silhouette cleaner, because he employed this in portraits of others. We also see certain characteristics in the pictures, particularly books indicating that the model had acquired learning. It may also have been a tactic for having the model sit still.
Hill's enthusiasm and creativity quickly led him to see other possibilities for photography than simply to produce sketches for large paintings. The partners began early on to photograph other motifs such as churches, cemeteries, and folk life in Newhaven. The group pictures of fishermen and women from the small coastal city are considered among the best photographs by Hill and Adamson. The village had begun to be a popular travel destination for the middle and upper classes of the large cities. To the artists, the women's clothing, the fishing boats, and the village with its natural surroundings made Newhaven a favorite motif and site for excursions.
British woman Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) obtained her first camera when she was 48 because, as she put it, she didn't want to be bored while her husband was in Calcutta overseeing the family's coffee plantation. She quickly became interested in photography and eventually converted her coal cellar to a darkroom. The new activity became so all-absorbing that she "forced" servants, family, and friends to sit as her models, something she tells of in her book Annals of My Glass House (1874). Cameron also was the friend of many distinguished writers and was the great-aunt of none other than Virginia Woolf.
For Cameron the photograph was a transcendental artistic and psychological statement; she believed her task as a photographer was to reveal how beauty, intelligence, and mindfulness reveal themselves in a human countenance. This belief that one can uncover the inner life of a human being via the exterior is typical of Cameron's time and of romanticism. The motifs are often of religious art, with allegorical scenes and portraits. They indicate clearly that she is inspired by painters of her time, such as the Pre-Raphaelites and artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and George Frederick Watts. The photographs acquired great popularity in her time and have been an important inspiration to later photographers up to the present. She photographed many of her era's prominent people, was a member of the Photographic Society of Great Britain, and had several individual exhibitions.
Cameron worked with natural light and produced negative material herself—wet collodion on glass. The photographs in the museum's collections are albumen positive copies that bear marks of having been admired for over a hundred years. In spite of the complicated photographic method, the pictures give an impression of being spontaneous and intimate portraits.