Contemporary Artists: the magic of Hill and Adamson

Dr David Eustace is a fine art photographer and director. He is known for his art based portfolios and comment. His photographs are included in the National Galleries of Scotland collection. He currently serves as the Chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University.

I sat in a friend’s home thinking how elegant and contemporary it was whilst retaining many of the building’s original, traditional features. From a distance this 150 year-old building may seem reflective of another age, but on closer inspection, and in reality its heart was as new as the life it houses. It was once the home of David Octavius Hill.

Likewise, when I look at the work of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson I don’t see old photographs, more so fresh, pioneering contemporary celebrations. They may at first appear as relics of yesteryear faded by the obvious passing of time, yet their heart and spirit goes beyond the surface.

John Adamson, Robert Adamson, 1821 - 1848. Calotypist, c. 1843
Robert Adamson & David Octavius Hill, David Octavius Hill, 1802 - 1870. Artist and pioneer photographer, 1843-47

These two gentlemen were brought together by chaos, fate or whatever one wishes to call it and created a prolific amount of work in a relatively short period of time. I presume full of the same excitement and enthusiasm as the digital age has presented for many today.

Hill and Adamson recognized a new dawn in communications and self-expression and embraced it.

From these photographs, the authors offer us their (and often their subject’s) sense of inquisitiveness and humour, as well as a sense of the moment. Emotions that have always existed, but rarely have we seen them prior to this work in such life like resemblance.

David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson, David Octavius Hill and Professor James Miller. Known as 'The Morning After "He greatly daring dined"' 1843 - 1847

None of us can really pass comment on their immediate worlds, in particular Adamson’s life, other than to offer an educated guess and interpretations of written records. Today, I’m sure they’d be referred to as a “team” and most probably be working on some multimedia, cutting edge digital platform, interested equally in all that surrounded them and further afield.

They were balanced collaborators. Hill offered a strong arts foundation; full of passion and his talent as a painter. Adamson was more scientifically minded and reserved, but brought the missing link – the knowledge of the process.

It is also worth noting the importance of the time and their location. History has highlighted the mindset, events and aftermath of what has become known as the “Scottish (Age of) Enlightenment” and scientific revolution and this brought many new horizons. I suspect Hill and Adamson would most probably find it quite remarkable, if not amusing, how the groundbreaking process they regarded as revolutionary then, was now considered by some in the fine art market today as being “contemporary”.

David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson Edinburgh Ale: James Ballantine, Dr George Bell and David Octavius Hill 1843 - 1847

In the work of Hill and Adamson I see new exciting photographs; I see curiosity, practicality and social commentary. They’d most likely blog today and for sure be avid Instagram users. I see a couple of guys enjoying good times with friends, be it on an adventure, as a trek to Newhaven was then, or the morning after the night before as life in Edinburgh, or anywhere else ale is served, continues still to this day. I don’t imagine their minds had too many barriers, more likely a craving for new horizons and opportunities.

It’s easy to romance Hill and Adamson and the Victorian Era, but I think that’s a little disrespectful to their craving for life. Their photographs are their celebration and privilege of it, or at least a glimpse into a short period of it, when they embraced all it had to offer. They left a wonderful insight for future a generation of events past and recorded them as real as real can be in photography.

I’m sure the last thing Hill and Adamson would have hoped for - yet of course I can only presume - is for folk to look back and only see images of yesteryear the way a stranger looks only at the exterior of a building. The outer shell rarely gives a true picture of all that’s important and of what is housed within, which is often both contemporary and reflective of the time.

These images are many things, but most importantly for me is that their spirit of adventure and love and interest in life shines through. I hope viewers take a little of that away from this wonderful exhibition.

David Eustace is a photographer and director. Find out more about his work at www.davideustace.com

©David Eustace 2017

The exhibition A Perfect Chemistry | Photographs by Hill and Adamson is on at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery unil 1 October 2017.