The beginning of photography in Scotland is counted from the enterprise of the Edinburgh based partnership of Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill. Adamson had become interested in photography from its inception and united with the artist Hill to produce preparatory images for a large work commissioned in 1843. When Adamson died in 1848 their studio had produced over 2500 calotypes. Others (including, for example, John Muir Wood, Thomas Keith, and John Kibble) were active at this time and after. Thomas Annan in Glasgow, George Washington Wilson in Aberdeen and James Valentine in Dundee began companies that were soon at the forefront of photography.
Photography in East Lothian was slow to develop, but when it did it grew in popularity at a great rate. Before the end of the 19th century enthusiastic snappers had visited almost every corner of the county – time and again.
The earliest notice of photography we can find in the collections of the John Gray Centre is an advertisement in the Haddingtonshire Courier of 23 November 1860. Robert Conquer of Haddington had opened Photographic Rooms on the High Street. He was responding to the rise of travelling photographers: in November of the following year Mr D. Davidson’s Portable Photographic Saloon was open near the Old Bowling Green offering portraits from 6d upwards, and he was surely not the first. Clues in the advertisements suggest both he and Conquer produced Ambrotypes – positive images on glass or leather. But by the following spring Conquer had begun to offer cartes-de-visite from 3s 6d each and had progressed to calotypes.
Such was the growing popularity and increasing availability of photographs and photographic studios that within the decade the price of cartes had dropped to 6d: during August 1870 Andrew Innes of Dunbar was offering views at this price (and at 1 shilling for larger paper prints). Meanwhile, the self-taught polymath of Stenton, William Nisbet, had built his own camera, acquired the expertise and launched a rural photography business.
By the 1890s the growing popularity of East Lothian as a tourist resort had caught the attention of the big concerns. Both Wilson and Valentine offered a wide range of views – as paper prints of differing sizes and as books and portfolios. The number of photography studios had multiplied, particularly in North Berwick, where several ‘branch studios’ owned by out of town businesses were open in the summer months. It’s difficult to say how big the industry was in its late Victorian and Edwardian heyday – new operators are still being discovered. Several, particularly those that exploited the Edwardian boom in picture postcards, and dashed out short runs of home-produced views, may never be known: although the resources available at the John Gray Centre would be a good place to start finding out!
The Local History Collections at the John Gray Centre contain well over 50,000 photographs (we’re still counting and cataloguing hard). These will be progressively added to the website but can be viewed and consulted in our search rooms during opening hours. We’ve added a page to help guide users through the minefield of dating early photographs.