[Newhaven Fishwives]

Photography Studio: Hill and Adamson (British, active 1843–1848)

Artist: David Octavius Hill (British, Perth, Scotland 1802–1870 Edinburgh, Scotland)

Artist: Robert Adamson (British, St. Andrews, Scotland 1821–1848 St. Andrews, Scotland)

Date: ca. 1845

Medium: Salted paper print from paper negative

Dimensions: 29.5 x 21.7 cm (11 5/8 x 8 9/16 in.)

Classification: Photographs

Credit Line: The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Harriette and Noel Levine, and Alexandra R. Marshall Gifts, 1997

Accession Number: 1997.382.19


Between 1843 and 1845, Hill and Adamson produced an extensive essay-some 130 images-of the fishermen and women of Newhaven, the first sustained use of photography for a social-documentary project. At a time when the burgeoning industrial revolution generated great concern over the dismal living conditions of the working class-and the social unrest that those conditions might breed-the fishing village of Newhaven, a mile and a half down the hill from the slums of Edinburgh, seemed a model society. Each person in this insular and self-sustaining community of 2,100 had his or her task, and each supported and was supported by the others. The men fished; the women baited lines and mended nets, cleaned and dried the catch, and climbed the hill to Edinburgh to hawk haddock, herring, cod, and oysters. One writer described the typical Newhaven fishwife, "the heavy fish basket at her back hardly stooping her broad shoulders, her florid face sheltered and softened in spite of its massiveness into something like delicacy by the transparent shadow of the white handkerchief tied hoodwise over her fair hair, and her shrill sweet voice calling 'Caller haddie!' all the way she went, in the melancholy monotone that resounds through the thoroughfares of Edinburgh."

Since most of the men's work was at sea and therefore not only beyond the reach of the camera but also impossible to capture with the long exposure times of the calotype process (thirty seconds or more in full sunlight), Hill and Adamson paid particular attention to the labor of the women and to the sense of community that bound them together. "There is much stress laid on what may be called 'chumming,' or close companionship …," observed one commentator. "Each considers it her duty to help or attend to her 'chum' in time of need." It is just such mutual support that Hill and Adamson portray in the rare large-format print shown here. The women pause from their work. One has set down her willow basket and taken a seat, her body turned inward, her face downcast and largely hidden, as if burdened by sorrow or worry. Beside her, another woman stands tall, shouldering her willow creel with strength and grace, her apron more broadly striped and sculptural than that of the seated woman, her gestures open and her attention focused on her friend.

The calotype's characteristically strong contrasts of light and dark and its gritty texture are honest and earthy, rather like the wool petticoats and aprons, giving the prints a graphic strength perfectly suited to the subject.