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David Octavius Hill

The Misses Grierson

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. The Misses Grierson, c. 1845. Restricted gift of Robin and Sandy Stuart.

Also known as
David O. Hill
Date of birth
Date of death

One of the most important collaborations in the history of photography began when the Scottish artist David Octavius Hill called upon Robert Adamson, a practitioner of the then-nascent art of photography, for help with a project. Hill was at work on a grand commemorative painting to honor the Free Church of Scotland, founded when 450 ministers walked out of the 1843 Church of Scotland Assembly in protest, and he enlisted Adamson to aid in creating portrait studies of the subjects. The duo worked together for only five years, from 1843 through 1847; Adamson grew ill that year and died the next. But in that short time they produced more than fifteen hundred portraits, including images of members of the upper classes as well as working men and women in the fishing village of Newhaven, in north Edinburgh. Critics celebrated their work, comparing the photographs to the emotional and dramatic paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn. In their photographs—salt prints made from paper negatives—Hill and Adamson tended closely to placement of forms and the overall composition, in contrast to the way contemporary daguerreotypes treated every detail with equally sharp focus.

Admirers of these portraits from the late 1800s onward tended to ignore the contributions of Adamson, considering him “merely” a technician. They credited Hill, who had trained as a painter, with setting an important example in the newborn art of photography. For decades Hill was counted as one of a very few pioneers in photography, and was the subject of the first historical monograph on a photographer, by Austrian art historian Heinrich Schwarz (1931). Adamson’s part in the collaboration was not recognized until later in the 20th century. Hill and Adamson’s works were exhibited and collected by German museums, and in the United States tastemaker Alfred Stieglitz promoted their work.

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