`The sun made it'
THIS indomitable-looking face stares at us from the 1840s -- a photograph, or, more strictly, a ``calotype,'' made when practical photography was less than 10 years old. In 1839, the invention of two kinds of photography had been announced within the space of a few months, the daguerreotype and the calotype. The second was the discovery of an Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot, and while it was not capable of the exquisite detail of the first process, it originated the use of a positive and a negative, so pioneering the possibility of repeated prints. The calotype was printed on paper, whereas the daguerreotype was a unique image on silvered copper, a mirrorlike surface which, rather like today's holographs, seems to require the viewer to stand in a certain position to catch the image, which in turn is apparently located in a space behind the surface. Daguerreotype portraits seem almost mysterious in their intangibility and elusiveness, though startling in accuracy.
Calotypes (from the Greek ``kalos,'' meaning ``beautiful'') are, in fact, almost coarse by comparison. Their limitations forced a regard for strong effects of light and shadow on the early photographers, a boldness of contrast, and a disregard for finicky detail that might distract from the main image. But among the very first practitioners of the calotype were two Scots who were so astounded by the powers of the new medium that they saw only possibilities in it, not limits. Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill collaborated for only about four years, but many of the literally thousands of calotypes they took remain among the most intense and unforgettable images in the history of photography.
Hill is often quoted as saying that ``the rough and unequal texture throughout the paper is the main cause of the calotype failing in details before the daguerreotype and this is the very life of it.'' He enjoyed its imperfections, its man-made appearance. He was, after all, an artist rather than a scientist. He and Adamson must have complemented each other ideally: If Hill was the artistic eye, Adamson was the technical eye, but their roles evidently overlapped more subtly than that. Hill's later photography, with another ``technician,'' lacks the potency of his work with Adamson.
This potency must partly be explained by the excitement they surely felt in the new process. David Bruce called his book about their work ``Sun Pictures.'' Literally, sunlight was their tool. Most, though not all, of their pictures were portraits (their interest in the calotype was at first just practical, to enable Hill to record the faces of some 400 people he was portraying in an enormous painting to mark the founding of the Free Church of Scotland) and sitters had to pose outdoors in bright sunshine. Exposures took a minute or more. ``Repose,'' Bruce writes, was a ``vital element . . . for only if a sitter was entirely comfortable could he be expected to remain motionless for the very long exposures . . . -- and Hill and Adamson scarcely ever used neck rests.'' Strong sunlight was again needed to make the positive prints from the negatives.
David Bruce describes the enthusiastic language of early photographers -- such terms as ``The Pencil of Nature,'' ``Photogenic Drawing,'' and ``Sun Pictures,'' which remind us, he observes, ``of the extent to which the process was regarded as nature's invention, not man's. One of the nicest instances is to be found on the reverse of an early Hill-Adamson calotype. It says, simply, `Sol fecit,' i.e. `The sun made it.' ''
That we should even know what the poet Robert Burns' younger sister actually looked like (in her 70s) without the aid of oil paint is remarkable. The Burns museum at Alloway, in fact, displays another photograph of her, and a painting. But they are weak images compared with Hill and Adamson's. A few biographical facts are known about her -- her marriage, her large family, and her reminiscences of her famous brother supplied to ``various Burns enthusiasts.'' But only this calotype conveys her sturdy character. As she stares concentratedly into the sun, her strong features impressively show the uncomplicated immediacy Hill and Adamson could fix so indelibly with their best calotypes. Contemporaries even compared their works to Rembrandt.
Even so, after the 1850s their calotypes fell into oblivion. When Hill died in 1870, his entire stock of them was valued at only 70. Our value of them today is in striking contrast. Though their work is to be found in many collections, the largest group belongs to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, and is worth over 2.5 million ($3.23 million). Recently the Portrait Gallery announced that it was setting up a Scottish Photography Archive. Hill and Adamson are by no means the only outstanding photographers to have emerged in Scotland, but they were certainly the first, and their work still towers over much that followed.