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HomeContents > People > Photographers > John Thomson

Dates:  1804 - 1881
Active:  Scotland

Preparing biographies

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

A pioneering photographer in Edinburgh, Thomson was self-taught in the daguerreotype. He was one of the legion of photographers who remembered starting with a camera made from a cigar box and a spectacle lens, although in his case using a polished silver coin as the plate. His later partner, James Ross, was very specific in describing a paper photograph taken by Thomson in 1841, so he must have experimented with calotypy early on. In 1844 Thomson went into partnership with a case manufacturer to form the short-lived daguerreotype practice of Macmillan & Thomson. In 1847 Thomson met Ross, a portrait painter who had mastered the calotype, and the resulting firm of Ross & Thomson quickly emerged as the finest Edinburgh calotypists. In a symbiotic partnership similar to that of Hill & Adamson, Thomson was the technical underpinning of the firm and Ross its artistic director. By 1849 they had largely converted to the underrated but splendid albumen-on-glass-negative process, but in the 1853 Mechanicsí Institution exhibition in Aberdeen they showed a large number of calotype landscapes. In 1855 Thomson published his Progress of Helio-chromy, or Painting in Colours by Light. Ross & Thomson had been exhibiting their glass negative images widely, but, curiously, in the 1856 Photographic Society of Scotland exhibition in Edinburgh they included many daguerreotype portraits. Perhaps the book and the daguerreotypes signaled the start of a change in Thomsonís thinking about photography. By the end of the 1860s Ross had acquired a new partner. Thomson had made his fortune and retired quite happily into obscurity. 
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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