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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Thomas Keith

Dates:  1827, May - 1895, 9 October
Born:  Great Britain, Scotland, Kincardineshire [now Grampian], St Cyrus
Active:  Great Britain / Scotland
Scottish photographer.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Thomas Keith
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

Dr. Keith saved the lives of a higher proportion of his female patients than any of his contemporaries, wielding his surgeon’s knife with such speed and precision that, simply, fewer of them went into shock. His photographic eye was no less adept. Born near Aberdeen, Keith came from a family of high accomplishment: his grandfather was an authority on weights and measures; his uncle was the gardener to the Duke of Orleans; his father, Dr. Alexander Keith, made daguerreotypes in the Holy Land; and his brother, Rev. Alexander Keith, took part in the 1843 Disruption and was calotyped by Hill & Adamson. Keith teamed up with his friend John Forbes White, probably in the summer of 1853, to take waxed-paper views, which they entered into that year’s exhibition of the Aberdeen Mechanics’ Institution. The only other time Keith participated in a major public exhibition was at the 1859 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in his native Aberdeen. During the 1850s Keith mastered the waxed-paper negative like no one else, producing views of architecture in Scotland and urban studies of Edinburgh that had no equal, then or since. Light itself was his most formidable tool, and in 1856 he confessed to Photographic Notes: “I never expose my paper, unless the light is first-rate. This I have made a rule, and nothing ever induces me to deviate from it.” Keith was elected to the council of the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1856 and 1858, but was rarely able to attend meetings, for the demands of his medical practice crowded out his beloved hobby of photography. At the time of his death the Scotsman described Keith as “decidedly picturesque” in personal appearance, adding, “no one could see him without recognising that he was in the presence of a man of unique power.” For Alvin Langdon Coburn, writing in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine in 1915, Keith’s “Old Edinburgh” series stood out “as his most remarkable achievement with the camera,” and he included fifteen of Keith’s photographs in a pivotal exhibition at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo that year. 
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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Further research

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If you have a portrait of this photographer or know of the whereabouts of one we would be most grateful.
Family history 
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Visual indexes

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Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
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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 Thomas Keith.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Thomas Keith are included in this classic history.] 
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