In four and a half years and nearly 3,000 images, the Scottish team of Hill and Adamson pioneered the aesthetic terrain of photography, creating the earliest substantial body of self-consciously artistic work in the new medium. Hill was a locally prominent painter in Edinburgh with a keen sense of composition and an affable manner that put his sitters at ease; Adamson, 20 years his junior, brought to the partnership an extraordinary mastery of the negative-positive photographic process invented just a few years earlier by the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot. Although Hill and Adamson’s portraits lacked the extraordinary precision of contemporaneous daguerreotypes, they were much admired for the warm tones and Rembrandtesque massing of light and shadow that were characteristics of Talbot’s process.
Their portrait of Dr. Munro is one of some 200 the team made as preparatory studies for a grand history painting that Hill planned in commemoration of the establishment of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843. Ultimately, these photographic studies proved to be a far more powerful record than Hill’s large but lackluster painting.