Historical photographs of the Far North bear witness to a long line of family creativity

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Jenny Bruce, who recently published a pamphlet on life at the village post office about Berriedale, looks at old photos from the north

Glass negatives from Maison Berriedale. Photo: Johnston Collection, Wick Society

Whenever I have embarked on historical research synchronicity has always arisen, so it was not surprising, while working on the Berriedale Post Office story, that something new materialized.

Having an old sepia photograph in my possession of Berriedale House, I decided to use it to illustrate the story as it also had ties to Alexander Johnston, the famous 19th century Wick photographer.

He had taken this photograph on his trip to the Kildonan Goldfields in 1868 to photograph the miners, and had likely stayed at the Berriedale Inn before continuing his journey south. A night’s rest for the horse would have been essential, because a cart was necessary to transport the heavy equipment allowing the collodion photos to be developed on site.

When I contacted Fergus Mather and Ian Leith of the Wick Society for permission to use Berriedale’s photograph, I was amazed that they had never seen a real sepia print, as the one they were holding in the collection was the original glass negative.

Apparently they had an unusual photomontage which is quite remarkable. In it, Alexander Johnston took a self-portrait of himself sitting next to plants in his studio, but also overlaid a second photographic image of Berriedale House in the background. This photomontage has never been printed before, so permission has been given to use this rare image in my booklet.

Photomontage is a process where two separate images are combined into a new composition, which then appears as a single photograph. The first evidence of this seems to be around the 1850s, when photographers experimented and tried to imitate images that might be accepted as fine art.

French photographer Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1879) is considered the first to be successful in this field, but this approach to creativity sparked a lot of controversy with many photographic societies at that time, as the images were not a recording truthful.

“Combination printing”, as it has been known, was developed at the end of the 19th century by Oscar Gustav Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson. In Scotland, George Washington Wilson (1823-1893) whose collection of 37,000 glass negatives is part of the University of Aberdeen was also an exponent of this new imaging process.

Alexander Johnston in a photomontage with Berriedale House in the background.  Photo: Wick Society, Johnston Collection
Alexander Johnston in a photomontage with Berriedale House in the background. Photo: Wick Society, Johnston Collection

In 1857 he produced a group portrait that involved the first recorded use of photomontage in Scotland, achieving this by cutting and pasting small portraits together into a small oval, then photographing the composition collage. However, we have another connection from Caithness to photography from this period in that of James Sinclair, 14th Earl of Caithness, who had experimented with collodion photography from 1859 and had been part of the London Photographic Society since its inception in 1853. .

In 1862 the Earl was elected Honorary Fellow of the Edinburgh Photographic Society and received medals for his photographic views of winter scenes at the Dublin International Exhibition of Art and Industry in 1865. It is interesting to Note that these same photographs were exhibited at the Caithness Art and Industry Exhibition in Wick in 1874.

One wonders then if Alexander Johnston was greatly influenced by the Earl of Caithness, as he was known for his remarkable inventiveness and creativity in design solutions, and Johnston may have visited his home in Caithness for plumbing business. and thus engaged in a conversation about photography and its most recent processes, and there is a photograph of the Earl and Countess taken in the grounds of Chateau de Mey. Alexander’s brother Charles, who helped run the plumbing business, had also been a member of the committee to organize this unusual art exhibition in Wick and the industrial one in 1868.

From these early images, artists such as George Grosz and others elevated this photographic technique to a new role and a new perception where photomontage was a work of visual construction where artists skillfully assembled images and engineering precision. Later, “constructivists” would combine dynamic graphic design and photography in a revolutionary approach to art with propaganda posters, while surrealist artists would adopt experimental photomontage as part of their unique vision with Salvador Dali, Magritte and Man Ray being their main representatives at this time.

The growing visual awareness of photography in 1909 led filmmakers to embrace the photomontage process in a new and sophisticated way, which gave us the beginnings of modern film. Now images could be cut and pasted and therefore joined to combine fantasy and realism. Today’s digital technology portrays the same photomontage of imaginative creativity but using more advanced visual effect technology using electronic and mechanical ingenuity.

The Kildonan Gold Rush of 1868.
The Kildonan Gold Rush of 1868.

The Johnston’s, as Wick’s photographers, documented Caithness County’s most remarkable social history spanning three generations from 1863 to 1975. Alex Johnston, upon retirement in the late 1970s, donated the archives notable now known as the Johnston Collection, which included his own, photographs of his father and grandfathers – including 100,000 glass negatives – at the Wick Society, which is held in trust by them with approximately 50,000 negatives that have been scanned.

But we forget that these three generations of photographers were first and foremost artists and that their oil paintings, their pastel drawings and their watercolors are also part of the strengths of the Wick Society. One of Alexander’s oil paintings depicts Provost James Reiach at Wick Town Hall, showing Johnstone’s distinctive portrait talent.

However, the creativity of this family is not over and Hugh Alexander Johnston, a grandson of Alex James’ brother and a great-great-grandson of the original photographer Alexander, continues the family tradition.

Throughout his childhood, Hugh was interested in art and photography and as a first class graduate he is now developing new methods of visual communication which are synonymous with his great-great-grandfather. , where they both wanted to push the limits of creativity.


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