Some of the earliest photographs ever taken in Scotland are finally being given proper recognition – more than 150 years after they were snapped.
The National Museum of Scotland is honouring their contributions as part of a new exhibition charting the evolution of photography, from the earliest experiments in France and England to the social media-fuelled explosion over the last decade.
Photography: A Victorian Sensation, which opens today, features Walter Scott’s home at Abbotsford, in the Borders, and the monument to the author while it was still under construction on Princes Street.
The exhibition showcases the talents of the Edinburgh-based duo David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, who produced some of the earliest photographs of the city centre. The show explores the work of the pair – who had a studio on Calton Hill – to chart the “fisher folk” of Newhaven, recalls how Adamson is likely to have died young because of his exposure to photographic chemicals and includes a lavish album presented by them to the Society of Antiquaries in 1851.
The exhibition features work produced by the Aberdeenshire-born photographer George Washington Wilson, who made a name for himself as a photographer of Britain’s middle classes and landed gentry, before being asked by the royal family to document the building of Balmoral Castle. Some of the earliest known photographs of the Isle of Skye, Orkney and Shetland are also featured in the exhibition, which relives the use of stereoscopes that allowed people to view 3D images of scenes from around the world from the comfort of their own homes.
Alison Morrison Low, principal curator of science at the museum, said: “Photography is roughly 175 years old this year, so it seemed like a good idea to have an exhibition like this.
“We already had a fantastic collection here, but in 2002 we were loaned a huge amount of Victorian photography material by the widow of the collector Bernard Howarth-Loomes.
“People probably don’t think of us first of all when it comes to great photographic collections.
“But this show is really about how people interacted with photography, how the Victorians really embraced it in all its forms and how photography became industrialised as it became cheaper as demand was so great.
“There’s a really strong Scottish strand running through the exhibition, which goes right back to when William Henry Fox Talbot came up here for three weeks in 1844 and turned the photographs he took on the trip into a book.
“We also have a whole album of photographs by the Edinburgh Calotype Club, which is said to be the world’s first photographic society.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a new book exploring the first 30 years of photography in Scotland.