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HomeContents > People > Photographers > John Shaw Smith

Dates:  1811 - 1873
Active:  Mediterranean / France / Italy / Malta/ Greece / Egypt / Holy Land / Syria
Irish amateur calotypist who toured the famous sites of the Mediterreanean, Egypt and the Holy Land between 1850-1852. He was not adverse to improving his negatives with pencil and ink additions and he added clouds and removed items when necessary to achieve his artistic purpose.
Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections, Reference: GB 237 Coll-20, Shelfmark: E99.41
Photographs and Diaries of John Shaw Smith (1811-1873)
The collection is composed of: a folder containing a typescript copy of a diary of a journey from Italy to the Holy Land, covering the period 18 December 1850 to 6 September 1852; two microfilms of diaries covering the period 1849 to 1850; and five boxes of photographs showing scenes of Ireland, Paris, Switzerland, Rome, Pompei, Athens, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Cairo, Thebes, Abu Simbel, Nubia, Petra, and more.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for John Shaw Smith
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

Smith is a true enigma. Born to Anglo-Irish landed gentry, he lived north of Dublin. He left few traces of his life, yet during a Grand Tour in 1850-52 he created one of the largest and best-documented bodies of calotype negatives, many of which survive. There is no record of how or why Smith learned the calotype process. His preparations for his 1850 trip were extensive, and it is apparent that he followed the newly developed guidebooks for tourists. His photographic work started in Paris and carried on in Italy, Malta, Greece, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. His diaries map out everything except his personal experiences. Nearly 350 of his calotype negatives survive from this trip, and they are the work of a master with a mature command of the art. Photo historian Helmut Gernsheim claimed rightly that Smith’s Egyptian work was “technically and artistically superior” to that of the well known master French calotypist Maxime Du Camp. Like many photographers, Smith opaqued the sky areas of his negatives to mask off the mottled appearance of the paper base. He then used this neutral ground to record extensive notes directly on the negative, preserving a historical record in ink on the originals that would not deface the prints. The negatives and prints were then carefully assembled in labeled groups. Not much more is known about Smith after he returned to Ireland. About 1854 he became a member of the Photographic Society in Dublin. Smith’s only known publication was a brief article in 1857 in which he explained his “modifications of the wet-paper process by which I have been enabled with great certainty to obtain negatives of excellent quality in Eastern climes. . . .” His only known public showing, in the 1865 Dublin International Exhibition, received an honorable mention for “photographs from paper negatives.” Smith’s photographic work and journals were preserved by his descendants, but they made no attempt to preserve his memory. The Times reported at the beginning of 1873, “Mr. John Shaw Smith, who was possessed of considerable landed property in the county of Cork, committed suicide by shooting himself with a revolver at his residence.” 
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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