In January 1839, Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot both displayed their photographic processes to the world, despite having developed them separately. The Daguerreotype allowed for a one-off production of an image onto glass, whilst Fox Talbot’s calotype process allowed the reproduction of the printed image. The Daguerreotype became the more popular method: its image quality was clearer and Fox Talbot patented the calotype, restricting the development of the process by other photographers.
This is where Hill and Adamson come into the picture. Fox Talbot did not extend his patent to Scotland, where Dr John Adamson was a Professor of Chemistry at the University of St Andrews. An associate of Fox Talbot, Sir David Brewster, was Principal of St Salvator’s and St Leonard’s Colleges in St Andrews, and shared Fox Talbot’s process with his colleague, who, in turn, shared the process with his sickly younger brother, the 21-year old Robert Adamson. Presently, Robert Adamson installed his photography studio at Rock House, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, without needing to acquire the costly right to practice the callotype process.
It was here that Hill and Adamson became acquainted: David Octavius Hill was a Perthshire artist who harboured the ambition of creating a painting of The Disruption, when fifty-five Church of Scotland ministers departed the General Assembly of the Church en masse, on May 18th 1843, and subsequently established the Free Church of Scotland. Nearly five-hundred ministers were at the meeting, and Hill wanted to record each face individually. To this end, he employed the photographic skills of Robert Adamson. The calotype of the Reverend John Julius Wood is an example of the work produced during this project.
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson had a short but highly productive partnership. They became involved in enterprising social projects, such as their series of photographs of the Newhaven fishing community. One of the most expressive of these is the photograph of the three fishermen: Alex Rutherford, William Ramsay and John Liston. The composition of the photograph allows the men’s characters to shine through in a way rarely seen in Victorian photography and Hill’s influence as a painter undoubtedly influenced the pictorialist aspects of the partners’ photography.
It is possible that Hill and Adamson became interested in photographing the fishing community, through Dr. James Fairburn, a sitter photographed by Hill and Adamson for the 'Disruption painting'. Fairburn was the minister of the Newhaven church and is thought to have been highly concerned with his congregation's welfare.
Ford and Strong write: "Having soon raised the money to build a church…Fairburn tackled the problem of getting their boats fitted with proper decks and cabins; it is possible that Hill and Adamson's calotypes of Newhaven were taken in connection with this highly successful campaign." [Ford, Colin & Roy Strong. An Early Victorian Album, 1976, p.155]
Over four and a half years, Hill and Adamson produced at least 1500 photographs. In January 1848, aged only 27, Robert Adamson passed away. In allowing the extensive development of the calotype process, combined with producing beautifully composed photographs, Hill and Adamson paved the way for photography to be seen as an art form.