The existence of a few variants of this photograph indicates that Hill and Adamson (David Octavius Hill [1802-70] and Robert Adamson [1821-48]) experimented with the subject on a number of occasions. The theme of The Letter harks back to seventeenth-century genre paintings, such as those by Vermeer (1662-75). This influence did not go unnoticed—an article on Scottish fishermen of New Haven in the North British Review in the summer of 1844 (vol. I, no. II, page 326-365) comments on the similarities between Hill and Adamson's calotypes and work by Dutch artists. The fact that the piece mentions the Newhaven prints makes it clear that the photographers had begun creating pictures of the fishing community very soon after the formation of their partnership.
In addition to the beauty of the images, the article also remarks upon their truthful qualities. This notion of truth is one that is bound up in the very mechanics of the camera, which is looked upon as an objective tool. This is, of course, an inaccurate assumption, as compositions can be contrived and negatives altered. In this print the fisherwomen—from left to right, Marion Finlay, Margaret Dryburgh Lyall, and Grace Finlay Ramsay—are posed; traces of headrests are faintly visible in the background. There is even speculation that the picture was made at Rock House, the photographers’ residence, and not in Newhaven. However, Hill and Adamson have succeeded in presenting a humble scene from everyday life in this seemingly genuine portrayal.
Anne M. Lyden. Hill and Adamson, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999), 78. ©1999, J. Paul Getty Museum.
For more information about Hill and Adamson’s photographic series on Newhaven see: Hill and Adamson: Place