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HomeContents > People > Photographers > William Ellis

Other: Rev. William Ellis 
Other: Reverend William Ellis 
Dates:  1794, 29 August - 1872, 25 June
Born:  Great Britain, London
Active:  Madagascar
William Ellis was a 19th century English Nonconformist missionary who was taught photography by Roger Fenton. On behalf of the London Missionary Society he visited Madagascar three times (1853-1857) and returned there in 1863. He recorded some of the earliest photographs of Madagascar.
An entry on his life is included in the 1911 "Encyclopedia Britannica".

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for William Ellis
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

Disparaged as a “political missionary” by the Foreign Office, Rev. Ellis took an activist approach in his work for the London Missionary Society. The souls he sought to convert were as much in England as among the native populations to which he ministered. Ellis believed that science could be of service in his work, and when he prepared to go into the newly opened country of Madagascar, photography was one of his tools. Not a young man and already a seasoned traveler when he took up photography, Ellis sought the help of Roger Fenton, perhaps his first contact in the field, probably when he joined the Photographic Society in London in 1853. His son later recalled that in “the interval between receiving the appointment and leaving England [he] was diligently employed in preparation. . . . That the collateral advantages of the journey might be fully secured, Mr. Ellis made himself practically familiar, as far as limited time would allow, with the principles and manipulations of photography, and provided himself with the requisite apparatus and chemicals.” In Mauritius, “from Dr. Powell, the superintendent of the lunatic asylum, who was an accomplished chemist, he gained much valuable information, and improved his practical knowledge of photography.” Ellis at first used both waxed-paper and collodion negatives, although later he would turn mostly to glass. Part of the reason for this is that much of his work was portraiture, at first intended to win over local leaders and later to record the indigenous peoples. Ellis’s Three Visits to Madagascar (1858) was illustrated with woodcuts based on his photographs. The Journal of the Photographic Society found it to be of “intense interest” and the most important book of travel photography since Charles Piazzi Smyth’s Teneriffe. 
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. 
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J. Cochran (engraver)
Revd. William Ellis, Hoddesdon, Herts 
1840s (or later, published)
Family history 
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