Friday, August 9, 2013

The First Photo-Montage

Photography was yet in its infancy when David Octavius Hill began taking Calotypes (sometimes referred to as Talbotypes) in Scotland in 1843. The Daguerreotype had been announced to the world only four years previous, and it remained unclear whether Daguerre's patent, which he had assigned to France, permitted unlicensed photography elsewhere. Licenses were issued to Claudet and Beard in Britain, but since Hill was in Scotland he believed his work did not infringe on these licenses. Having been present at the meeting at which the Free Church of Scotland was formed, Hill hit upon the idea of photographing every person present, then transferring their likenesses to a group portrait. Unfortunately, with so many heads to squeeze in to the scene, it wasn't always possible to insert them in a natural manner; if you look closely you can see heads growing in clusters like grapes, perched at unnatural angles, and out of proportion with their neighbors.


  1. *Love* the little groups at the skylights -- gives it an appropriately biblical feel and perhaps consciously mimics the iconography of all those Renaissance paintings of the lame man lowered down through the ceiling for Jesus to heal. Fascinating to see how exactly Hill mimics the painting conventions of the day like Haydon's painting of Clarkson addressing the Anti-Slavery Society ( Hayter's of the Commons passing the Great Reform Act (

  2. Thanks, Jonathan, for your comment, perceptive as always. The resemblance to aspects of Haydon's painting (which is close to it in time) is especially striking. I am still trying to hunt down a better digital copy of Hill's work. The Wikipedia describes it as a 'painting' but no more specific medium is listed; their image is a scan from an engraved two-page spread in a book with the images clumsily merged. The oddities of juxtaposition suggest Hill's was a painting -- but the oddities of proportion suggest something more like a collage, since a painter could have -- at least -- made the heads of adjacent persons roughly proportional. Another sign, I think, that what we think of as 'naturalism' or 'realism' took a long time to construct!