A Perfect Chemistry: Photographs by Hill and Adamson Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

27 May – 1 October 2017

In the early days of photography, art met science and David Octavius Hill met Robert Adamson. The pair broke new ground and established photography as a tool for social documentation.

While the origins of painting are in evidence on cave walls steeped in subterranean mystery, the origins of photography are much more widely documented. It was discovered in 1839 and in the early 21st century the first forays into the medium are of fervent interest to academics and curators.

When Hill and Adamson got together in 1843, their first subject matter was some 450 ministers of the Free Church of Scotland, who were breaking away from the Church of Scotland. If there were ever a group of sitters who might have expected miracles it was these fervent men of the cloth.

Over the next five years Hill and Adamson went on to produce 2,500 photographs, many of which remain important social documents to this day. They captured urban life in Fife and fishermen in Newhaven, and they turned their lens on many notable Scots, such as the writer Hugh Miller.

But of equal interest for some will be the technology they used. The duo were in the business of making calotypes, using silver iodide as a coat for the paper. And this division of labour reflected the early aspirations of these two pioneers, who fell into the nascent world of photography.

Would-be artist Hill was responsible for lighting and composition. Adamson, who would have liked to have been an engineer, was the dexterous camera operative. Their highly productive partnership lasted a mere five years, until Adamson, the younger by some 19 years, succumbed to ill health, but not before ensuring immortality for those priests.