Thomas Annan

Thomas Annan is a key figure in the history of Scottish photography. In this feature Roberta McGrath looks at Annan's continuing relevance through his most celebrated work The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow.

The photographer Thomas Annan (1829–1887) started out as an apprentice to a lithographic engraver in 1843. A precursor to photography, lithography was invented at the start of the nineteenth century as both social response and stimulus to the demand for cheap, mass reproduced images. Its inventor, Alois Senefelder, called lithography ‘the chemical print’ and emphasized its commercial advantages: it required less craftwork, and could be produced in far greater numbers than engraving or woodblock and ‘by only average artists and printers’. Most importantly, ‘two men can produce two thousand impressions the size of a sheet of letter–paper daily even though the picture may contain a hundred or more colours’.

Thomas Annan, Trongate and Cross, National Library of Scotland

Annan was a skilled craftsman initially gaining his reputation for making fine prints of fashionable paintings for the Glasgow Art Union. He also provided commercial portraits and produced landscapes and urban views taken in the field. Some, for example, such as Duthie’s Photographs of Scottish Scenery (1868) appeared in several editions, pocket and table, with photographs carefully pasted on to paper. Images were re–purposed in Photographs of Glasgow With a Descriptive Letter Press (1868), that included at least one image from Scottish Scenery combining photographs with print. In the image Trongate and Cross (above) we can see that the people are drawn in by hand and that the whole image has been re–photographed. Photography had not yet supplanted other printing techniques and the Advert for Photographs of Glasgow also stressed that the ‘Letterpress’ (or written descriptions) were necessarily short ‘in such a way to interest without wearying the reader’. He, or she, could simply enjoy looking at pictures.

In 1869 Annan, who had known David Octavius Hill, briefly lived with another brother, John, in Rock House which had been Hill’s studio and home in Edinburgh. He inherited many calotypes negatives by Hill & Adamson when Hill died in 1870.

Robert Adamson & David Octavius Hill & Thomas Annan Unknown Group 44 1843 - 1847
James Craig Annan, Glasgow University

Annan also produced architectural surveys, including The Old Country Houses of the Old Glasgow Gentry (1870) and surveys for Glasgow City Council, Views on the Line of Loch Katrine Waterworks and Glasgow Corporation Water Works (1859/1877). He ensured that he kept abreast of trade by acquiring patents and licences for use of the very latest 19th century printing technology: Carbon in 1866, and later Photogravure, traveling to Vienna, along with his son James Craig Annan, in 1883 to learn the process from its inventor Karel Klic. Photography built on other printing techniques. It was just one of a large number of print technologies that had been patented. As a skilled craftsman Annan was well aware of this and put it to good use in his highly successful commercial business.

The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow

Annan is however best known for The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow. He was commissioned by The Glasgow City Improvement Trust in 1866 to record ‘Old Glasgow’ before much of it was demolished. There are three editions of the work: Albumen prints (1871, with photographs made between 1867–71), Carbon prints (1878, with photographs made between made 1868–1877) and Photogravures (1900, with photographs made 1868–1899 ).

Thomas Annan, Close, No. 75 High Street, 1868 - 1871
Thomas Annan, Close, No. 148 High Street, 1868 - 1871

These are some of approximately 35 images he made of the streets, wynds and closes of ‘old’ Glasgow around Glasgow Cross in the East of the city. Once a wealthy area housing tobacco and fish–curing merchants, by the 1840s it was severely overcrowded. Under powers granted in the 1862 Police Act, systems of ‘ticketing’ dwellings attempted to control the slums’ population by proscribing the number of occupants. (One adult and 2 children could legally inhabit a space 6’ square and 8’ high). This failed and led to The City Improvement Act (1866). The slums were to be cleared and work began in 1871.

Thomas Annan, Close No. 101 High Street, Glasgow, 1868 - 1871
Thomas Annan, Close, No. 37 High Street, 1868 - 1871

Most of Annan’s images show the closes and wynds as deserted, with a few people, or an occasional group pressed in between walls. This is partly because of the technical limitations of early photography. Long exposure times were required, and some of the images would have taken minutes. It was therefore difficult to photograph the living as movement produced disturbing ‘ghost’ images, as we see above. This photograph was also made in the period before ‘pan’ flashlight (1887). Insufficient light made it impossible to photograph dark or dimly lit interiors of their dwellings. In these urban images we therefore only see people out of doors, on the streets.

The overall effect created in Annan’s images is one of deep space, and a penetrating view. There is also a feeling of stillness, a kind of loneliness and isolation. When people do appear they seem trapped in a maze of buildings (verticals are narrow) and they are also set safely at some distance from the photographer, and from us, as observers looking at the image now. We have little sense that these were in fact bustling thoroughfares teeming with life.

Thomas Annan, Saltmarket from Bridgegate, 1868 - 1871

In Saltmarket from the Bridgegate  we encounter a very different scene. This photograph is an albumen print (from a wet collodian negative) made some time between 1868 and 1871, but most likely in 1868. Landscape in its format, (and one of only a few) the image opens out. People are now in the very foreground of the image, right before of us. They are a throng. The people here look less lonely and it is they who look back at us in some number. We are now alone, staring at the image of the crowd. One middle–class man to the left, in morning suit and stovepipe hat, stands out. He is the exception, outnumbered by the crowd.

Here a broader social group is gathered together on the streets looking, perhaps for a more, or ‘New Equitable’ life advertised by a sign for insurance on the right–hand side. Saltmarket was a place for publishers and broadside and ballad sellers, and had rather more than its share of public bars.

Thomas Annan, Saltmarket from Bridgegate (detail), 1868-1871

'Sauty’, as it was colloquially called, was known for its ‘singing saloons’. In the original print, we can see The Shamrock and, next to Mrs Gilmour’s Albyn Distillery store, Bailie Nicol Jarvie’s Tavern, named after a character in Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy. An elaborate metal pendant on the left displays bunches of grapes. Several barbers’ poles appear on the right–hand side along, jostling with advertisements offering hot pies, lodgings or money–lenders willing to provide advances on bed and table linen. In the background, The Glasgow Union Railway (a private joint stock company credited with doing more to aid slum clearance than the council improvement scheme) cuts high over the street. Yet to be completed it stops abruptly, mid–air.

A tall gas lamp, recently introduced to the main thoroughfares, stands proud. It too is well above the people. Dark or dimly lit streets were dangerous, especially for the middle–classes, and in the 19th century gas lighting was introduced as a means of surveillance.

In the foreground, a newly laid drain cut into the cobbled street signals civic improvement lacking in the tenements hidden off. Here dung heaps and rivers of effluence trickled down narrow passages among the ‘made down’ cellar dwellings described by one observer as more like charnel houses than dwelling places.

The Context of Thomas Annan’s Photographs of ‘Old’ Glasgow

In the mid 19th century Glasgow was ‘the second city of Empire’. While in 1811 it had a population of approximately 100,000 by the mid 1840s this had almost tripled to just under 300,000. Life expectancy in the slums plummeted. In Glasgow in the 1830s and 1840s it was 27: the lowest it had been since the Black Death. Agricultural workers from the Highlands forced off the land were compelled to move from country to city to survive. Immigrants too, failing to find subsistence, poured into Glasgow. One contemporary local writer exploring the areas of ‘old’ Glasgow in 1858 was blunt:

‘The landed aristocracy were permitted, just as now, to effect clearings – systematically starve and punish by tyranny, a peasantry with a right equal with their own to live by the soil’.

The rapid expansion of British industry depended upon a reserve army of labour and the working–classes made up 78% of Glasgow’s population. The poverty-stricken people of Ireland fleeing famine, those who built British roads, railways and canals made up almost 20% of the city’s population. In 1851 alone nearly 60,000 immigrants form Ireland arrived in Glasgow.


Thomas Annan, Close, No. 80 High Street, from Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow, 1868 - 71
Thomas Annan, Close, No. 46 Saltmarket, from Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow, 1868 - 71

It was under these dire circumstances that in September 1865 John Blackie, the Provost of Glasgow City Council (1863–1866) proposed The City Improvement Trust. In 1866 the City Improvement Act was passed. The clean water supply to Glasgow from Loch Katrine (a project that Annan also documented) aimed to improve the unsanitary conditions that led to several epidemics of cholera and typhoid mid–century was by then complete. Along with the support of John Carrick, the city architect, and William Gairdner, Professor at the University, and Medical Officer of Health for Glasgow, the slum demolition plan included the commission to make photographic records of the condemned streets and wynds. Gairdner viewed the inhabitants of the slums as a ‘parasitic’, profligate class (there were ongoing council debates about whether Irish immigrants, perceived as a drain on the public purse, and should be returned to their homeland).

Charles Marville, Rue Estienne, de la rue Boucher, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862–65, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Henry R. Kravis Gift, 2005

All three men admired the redesigning of Paris that had taken place under Napoleon III by Baron Haussmann. And along with Bailie Raeburn they formed a civic delegation to Paris in June 1866. The ‘Haussmannisation’ of Paris in the wake of revolution had created straight wide boulevards that allowed uninterrupted views, providing a means of surveillance and greater control of working classes. Wide avenues prevented the erection of barricades, and enabled military units to be moved rapidly around the city, quelling uprisings or riots. In their Council report the Glasgow visitors noted that urban re–organization had enabled the ‘uprooting of socialism and communism’.

The delegation would have seen the work of photographers such as Charles Marville who had been commissioned by the city of Paris in 1862 to photograph both the new and old Paris and it is likely that this had some bearing on the decision in to commission Annan to record ‘Old Glasgow’ before it was leveled and rebuilt.

Albums and Prints

The original albums of photographs made between 1868 and 1871 were collected together, and a few copies (around 4–8) of 31 plates produced for the City Improvement Trust in 1871. There was no explanatory text. Bound in Green Morocco leather, it bore Glasgow’s coat of arms with the motto ‘Let Glasgow Flourish’. These were probably distributed to the delegation.

There are numerous copies of both the 1871 and 1878 albums of The Old Closes and Street of Glasgow, with considerable variations in number, selection, captioning, ordering and not least, the quality of prints. The 1878 edition included 9 additional photographs and a contents list. By then Annan had acquired patent rights from Joseph Swan for the use of the much simpler carbon process in Scotland. This process allowed for greater manipulation in its range of tonal scale. Many of the images had heavily retouched skies (see below).

Thomas Annan (Scottish,1829 - 1887), James Craig Annan (Scottish, 1864 - 1946), Introduction by William Young, et al
The Old Closes & Streets of Glasgow. Engraved by Annan from Photographs taken for...City of Glasgow Improvement Trust., 1900, Photogravure Closed: 39.8 × 29.5 × 2.5 cm (15 11/16 × 11 5/8 × 1 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Thomas Annan, Close, No. 115 High Street, negative 1868 - 1871; print 1877, Carbon print, 28.7 × 23.5 cm (11 5/16 × 9 1/4 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Lastly, posthumously (Annan committed suicide in 1887), two runs of around 100 copies were published in 1900, one by T and R Annan, the other by the University publishers, MacLehose. These contained 50 photogravures, the process for which Annan had acquired the British rights in 1883. For the first time it was possible to print captions with the images as photogravure used printer’s ink and so image and text could be printed together.

Thomas Annan, The Back Wynd, (negative 1899; print 1900), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

The last ten images were made after 1885, and 9 of them after 1895, thus bringing the work up to date. These images were therefore most likely made by Annan's son, John. One, entitled The Back Wynd, (1899) provides evidence of the Black presence in Glasgow. In the foreground a black girl with a ragged tartan shawl around her shoulders sits amid rubble; behind her are two working-class white youths. The edition contained an introduction by William Young, RSW, a dull history of Glasgow that had little to do with the images. In the closing two pages he finally comes to the ‘value’ of the plates: voyeurism. In Young’s words they were ‘a true presentation or suggestion of the seamy side of the city’s life; in depicting in absolute truthfulness, the gloom and squalor of the slums. They afford a peep into the dark and dismal dens’.

Unlike albumen, these carbon prints still look remarkably modern.

Thomas Annan, Close, No. 136 Saltmarket, 1868 - 1871, Albumen print from wet collodion negative
Thomas Annan, Close, No. 136 Saltmarket, negative 1868 - 1871; print 1877, Carbon print
29 × 22.6 cm (11 7/16 × 8 7/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Thomas Annan, Close No. 136 Saltmarket, negative 1868; print 1900, Photogravure, 22.1 × 17.5 cm (8 11/16 × 6 7/8 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

By comparing these versions of the image, we can see that their meaning is not simply confined to their content (the what) of the images, but also, equally, to their form (the how) of the images, the way in which the content is described or presented. Albumen prints faded and their pale golden–brown surface, and limited tonal scale, flatten despite their sharp detail.

Carbon prints were permanent, and darker. The image could also be manipulated and greater contrasts could be achieved. Skies could be made much darker; washing lighter; figures removed. These images become increasingly retouched to produce dramatic effect. The darker tones conveyed metaphorical meaning: the slums seem gloomy, dank and dangerous.

With photogravure, the soft paper and dense inking, as well as the plate mark (gravure is an intaglio process) are more suggestive of artistic endeavor. For the first time images are not pasted onto card and captions are fully integrated with the plates. With each of these processes, the meaning of the images changes.

Reading Photographs Closely: Understanding Annan’s Work

Photographs mediate between private and public worlds. You are probably looking at this image of a group taken in a public, outdoor space, alone, inside, and in a private space. Despite appearances to the contrary, all images are the outcome of hard graft, although increasingly this is conceptual, rather than material, work. This invisible labour takes place on both sides of the camera: the photographer who looks through the lens (and who asks you to step into his or her place and see the world from their perspective) and an observer who later looks at the photograph (and who can make a choice about where to stand).  As image-makers (we all are now) we still make photographs rather than simply take them (even if now digital technology makes it seem otherwise). But, we do so in the light of the representations that already exist. As we can see here, Annan would have been familiar with the popular print below and this would have informed his perspective.

Allan and Ferguson's Views in Glasgow (plate twenty), published 1843, image by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

Jonathan Crary therefore proposes the word observer, rather than the passive onlooker suggested by the terms ‘viewer’ or ‘spectator’. Observer carries with it its original meaning: ‘"to conform one’s action, to comply with" as in observing rules, codes, regulations and practices'. Language, and this includes visual language, has to be learned; the rules are laid down long before we enter the world. Writing in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin’s question seems prescient: '"The illiterate of the future", it has been said  "will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet, but the one who cannot take a photograph". But must we not also count as illiterate the photographer who cannot read his own pictures?'.

How the world ‘looks’ matters. Increasingly information is visually communicated. We ‘get’ meanings in a flash. We rarely look for very long simply because they seem so obvious.  Things start to look different, however, if we look slowly at one, single photograph instead of swiping or scanning through hundreds, or now sometimes even thousands. This brings us to a final question. Why should we look so closely  at photographs?

The photographer and writer Allan Sekula argued that a photograph is worth a thousand questions. By paying close attention we can learn how to excavate meaning: to decode, to contextualize and to critically interpret. Like all things, photographs are what the writer Arjun Appadurai calls ‘congealed moments’ in longer cultural, political and economic trajectories.

Photographs are history. Saltmarket from the Bridgegate, offers us a vantage point from which to consider the present from more nuanced and informed perspectives. We might think of photographs, then, less as objects and more as events where our gaze, here and now, meets the gaze, not only of the photographer, but also those on the other side of the camera who were in that place, at that time. We can learn not only to look, but also to listen carefully to what images want to tell us. Historical photographs matter because they belong to the future, as much as to the past. It is in the present that must lay claim to them as our own.


Robert Evans, ‘History in Albumen, Carbon and Photogravure’, in Nilsen, Micheline (Ed.), Nineteenth–Century Photographs and Architecture, Ashgate, Farnham, 2013

Lionel Gossman, Thomas Annan of Glasgow: Pioneer of Documentary Photography, Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, 2015

Sarah Stevenson and Amanda Maddox, Thomas Annan, Photographer of Glasgow, Yale University Press and J Paul Getty Museum, Newhaven, 2017

Anna Ventura Mozley, The Old Closes and Streets (Thomas Annan: Photographs of the Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow 1868/1877, with a Supplement of 15 Related Views, New York: Dover Publications, 1977


Interactive map of Glasgow showing where Annan’s photographs were taken

By Roberta McGrath, 31 March 2017