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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Alexander Greenlaw

Other: Alexander John Greenlaw 
Other: Colonel Alexander John Greenlaw 
Dates:  1818 - 1870
Active:  India / Burma
During his long career with the British armies in India he took calotypes and waxed paper negatives.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Alexander Greenlaw
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

Greenlaw entered the East India Company as a cadet in 1834 and quickly rose through the ranks. He married in India in 1841 and made captain in the Madras Native Infantry by 1850. Exactly when Greenlaw began to practice photography as an amateur is not known, but it must have been in the early 1850s, for he showed works in an 1855 exhibition in Madras and was awarded a second-class medal for his “great variety of head size portraits, half-lengths, and groups,” as later cited in Reports by the Juries. Like many other British photographers in India, Greenlaw was drawn to its architecture, landscape, and ruins, and negatives on paper were the most practical way to obtain the best results. In order to cope with the heat, Greenlaw ordered a special camera from Richard Williams Thomas in London. For the 1857 exhibition in Madras, the Reports by the Juries concluded: “It would be supposed from the nature of Photography that all pictures executed by its means must possess a similarity of style . . . this is not the case.” Of the “the best Indian photographs in the Exhibition . . . the views by Capt. Tripe excel in finish and delicacy - those by Capt. Greenlaw in boldness, freedom and effect, the former are perhaps the best photographs, but the latter are the best pictures.” Had Greenlaw done nothing more in his life than make better “pictures” than the famous Linnaeus Tripe, that would have been quite an accomplishment, but in fact his influence would prove to be much wider and longer lasting. Adapting methods from several others, he greatly simplified the calotype process, reducing it to its essentials, mostly in order to cope with the heat of India. In 1869 Greenlaw freely published his method, and it was reported under his name in both Abney’s and Towler’s influential manuals. The last of the original practitioners to publish on the calotype, Greenlaw had tuned the process to perhaps its finest potential, and it was his process that was cited well into the twentieth century. 
Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 4 Nov 2012. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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John Falconer, British Library 
A Biographical Dictionary of 19th Century Photographers in South and South-East Asia

Amateur, India
Madras Army from 1835. He showed portraits at the 1855 Madras Exhibition and made a large quantity of waxed paper negatives of the architectural remains at Vijayanagar, c.1856. He also took a number of photographs in Burma.
At the Madras Exhibition of 1855, ‘ Captain Greenlaw exhibits a great variety of head size portraits, half lengths, and groups, many of which have been carefully focused and exhibits the half tints and delicate shades which give rotundity to the figures, but several have been spoilt by being left too long in the hyposulphite solution; the attitudes however are good and the proportions artistic. Some of the groups contain from 8 to 11 figures well arranged though not all in focus. Capt. Greenlaw exhibits a very good clear positive upon glass with delicate half tints and well focused features, but the dress and background are a little flat. The Jury recommends a 2nd class medal for Capt. Greenlaw’s groups.’[1]
Showed prints from collodion negatives to the Bombay Photographic Society in 1856. [2] Originator of Greenlaw’s Process.
Some of his photographs of botanical subjects were seen by H. Cleghorn, Conservator of Forests, in 1858:
During a recent visit to Bellary, I received from Captain Greenlaw, a number of Photographs, representing the arboreous vegetation of the Ceded Districts, and forwarded the illustrations as acceptable contributions to a work denominated ‘the Plant Scenery of the world’ now being published in England by two eminent Botanists.[3]

  1. Λ Madras Exhibition of raw products, arts, and manufactures of Southern India, 1855. Reports by the Juries, Athenaeum Press, Madras, p. 134. 
  2. Λ Journal of the Bombay photographic society, Feb/Jun 1856. 
  3. Λ H. Cleghorn to W.H. Bayley, Acting Secretary to Government, Revenue Department, Fort St George, dated 21 June 1858. Fort St George, Public Consultations of 2 July 1858, IOR/P/249/67 p. 41. 

Visual indexes

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Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Alexander Greenlaw.] 
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