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Scotland played an important role in the development of photography, and archives and libraries throughout Scotland hold collections of old photographs. For information about the development of photography in Scotland, see below. For a list of some of the most important collections of photographs relating to Scotland click here.

The photographic process was developed in France and Britain in the 1820s and 1830s, culminating in the glass negative Daguerreotype process, made public in 1839. St Andrews played a vital role in the development of the photographic process through the early interest of Sir David Brewster and his friendship with Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the Calotype process. Early Scottish photographers included Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill, operating from an Edinburgh workshop below the Royal Observatory in the 1840s. George Washington Wilson, an artist and photographer based in Aberdeen in the 1850s, took advantage of the Victorian vogue for views of the Highlands and experimented successfully with the new wet-collodion process. By the 1880s, through a combination of technical excellence and business acumen, Wilson’s company had become the largest and best-known photographic firm in the world. Other successful commercial photographic companies, from the 1870s onwards, were Valentines of Dundee, who produced albums of Scottish views and, later, picture postcards, and Thomas Annan in Glasgow.

Social reformers and municipal photography

Photography had been used to good effect by social reformers in the late nineteenth century, particularly in illustrating (through lectures illustrated by glass lantern slide) problems in industrial cities, such as housing conditions, smoke nuisance and disease. In the late nineteenth century photography began to be used by Scotland’s local government bodies and other municipal institutions to record public undertakings. Glasgow Corporation had hired Thomas Annan to photograph the completion of the city’s water supply scheme from Loch Katrine in the 1850s. In the 1860s and 70s Annan photographed slum housing around the High Street of Glasgow for the City Improvement Trust, which was about to demolish the slums to make way for better housing. The work was taken up by the city’s architects and planners who produced a photographic record of a century of housing development in the city, while the city’s Assessor used photographs of buildings as evidence in rates appeals cases (in the process recording many commercial buildings in the city in the 1920s and 1930s. Bodies like the Aberdeen Harbour Board and Clyde Navigation Trust photographed work on improvements to harbours and river navigation. From 1871 photography was used by Scottish prison authorities to circulate information about criminals to police forces.

From the 1870s onwards the proliferation of photographers’ studios in towns and cities throughout Scotland made the individual portrait and group photographs affordable for the middle classes. Industrial firms were among the earliest commercial users, and some firms specialised in industrial photography. One of the biggest was William Ralston Ltd, a Glasgow firm founded in 1856, which has been a leading industrial and marine photographer from 1906 until the present day. Aerial photography developed from the First World War onwards, primarily for military purposes. Both the RAF and the Luftwaffe made photographic surveys of Scotland in the late 1930s and during the Second World War. Newspapers and magazines began using photographs in the 1930s, and two notable Scottish photojournalists from the 1940s until the 1970s were Michael Peto and Oscar Marzaroli. The development of the celluloid negative and cheaper cameras made photography an affordable part of everyday life in Scotland from the 1930s onwards.

Links & Bibliography
For a list of websites allowing online photographic research, see FAQ2 opposite. The following links have information about the history of photography in general and in Scotland in particular:
St Andrews University Library
Glasgow University Library
Aberdeen University Library and Archives
Royal Photographic Society

Cecil Beaton and Gay Buckland, The Magic Image: the genius of photography from 1839 to the present day (London, 1989);
Helmut Gernsheim, The Concise History of Photography (London, 1986);
Colin Ford (ed), An Early Victorian Album: the photographic masterpieces (1843-47) of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson (New York, 1976);
Colin Ford, The Story of Popular Photography (London, 1989);
Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography (New York, 1997);
David B Thomas, The First Negatives (London, 1964)


Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can I carry out photographic research online?

2. Where can I find aerial photographs of places in Scotland?

3. How do I trace the photograph of a particular ship?

Image 1
photo of Regal cinema, Stirling
A photograph of the Regal Cinema, Stirling, about 1935 (Scottish Screen Archive, reference: 6/1/253).