This series revisits our Book of the Month archive to highlight some of our favourite articles and explore the ASC collections they describe with fresh eyes. This article was originally published in March 2006 and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive.
Thomas Annan was born in Dairsie, Fife, in 1829, as the fifth child of John Annan and Agnes Bell. In his early years, he was involved with the family trades of farming and flax-spinning, then in 1845, when he was sixteen, he was accepted as an apprentice lithographic writer and engraver by the local Fife Herald newspaper. Annan acquitted himself with distinction, completing his education in the fourth year of a projected seven-year apprenticeship. He then moved to Glasgow and took a position in the lithographic establishment of Joseph Swan, developing his skills over the next six years and producing a variety of illustrations for maps, books and topographical works.
The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow was created between 1868 and 1871 as part of a commission from the City of Glasgow Improvements Trust. This collection of images of the working class areas of old Glasgow helped document the impoverished living conditions at the time, following the passing of an act through Parliament to destroy the slums of the City Parish.
The mid 1850s and 1860s saw the rise of commercial photography and a corresponding drop off in the lithographic trade. This led Annan to set up in 1855 with a partner as a ‘collodion calotypist’, the production of calotypes being an early form of photography. Two years later Annan founded his own firm and enabled him to set up his own photographic printing works in Hamilton in 1859. The following year, Annan had acquired a large-scale camera to take photographs which echoed his feel for light, and his sense of emotion and power in landscape. He fostered a reputation as an expert in copying works of art, which in turn led to his first notable commission in 1862 from the Glasgow Art Union. Throughout his career he received praise for his work from respected publications such as the British Journal of Photography and the Photographic News. This recognition culminated in his first award in 1865 from the Photographic Society of Scotland for ‘the best landscape in Scotland’. Annan was now established as one of the leading photographic artists in Scotland and so was the obvious choice for this project.
In 1868, Glasgow was in the midst of the largest population boom in its history. The size of the city quadrupled between 1800 and 1850, and quadrupled again between 1850 and 1925 when its population peaked at 1 396 000. The influx of migrants, mainly from Ireland and the Highlands, caused the demand for housing to increase beyond supply. Most new housing was in the suburbs and more affluent areas in the west end, which meant new working class citizens were being crammed into the ever more crowded City Parish.
The ‘made down houses’ were former middle class houses whose occupants had joined the westward exodus. Each room in this type of dwelling was used as a separate house, frequently being subdivided by insubstantial partitions. The classic Scottish tenements were three or four storey stone buildings entered by a ‘close’ which gave access to the common stair and the back court. Off the stair were the apartments and beneath them the cellars, in which the working class lived. Very few of these tenements had internal sanitation or water supplies; a privy in the back court and a hand pump for water in the street would supply several hundreds of occupants. Existing tenements became more over-crowded, old houses were rapidly ‘made down’, subterranean earth floored cellars were pressed into service as accommodation, and gerry-built tenements thrown up wherever there was deemed space. This maze of dwellings became the notorious ‘Closes and Wynds’ of Glasgow.
Annan did not approach his subject as a social reformer or investigator with a camera, but simply sought to complete the commission from the Trustees. He had previously photographed some of the busier thoroughfares of Glasgow, providing us with historic record of the city’s populous streets. When his focus shifted to the confining closes, he provided us with a different record: the earliest comprehensive series of photographs of an urban slum – the very slum which was considered to be the worst in Britain. The closes were dark and narrow, requiring him to use the sensitive wet collodion process in order to create negatives of sufficient quality despite low light level conditions. This procedure was time and labour intensive, requiring both careful preparation and execution. This meant carrying the necessary chemicals and materials through the wynds, setting up a large camera, and coating the photographic plates on the spot. The difficulty of this exercise is highlighted by the occasional faults in the negatives, visible in the final prints.
Around thirty photographs were taken between 1868 and 1871, with the focus on the tenements themselves and not the tenement dwellers. Nevertheless, Annan successfully curated a moving account of the closes, moving beyond the remit of recording the buildings of the slums. His knowledge and expertise with the collodion process brought the same quality of subtle light and detail to these darker images as it brought to his landscapes. The low angle of most shots emphasises the oppressive nature of these streets, and a focus on various details is evident throughout.
The appreciation of this work has grown only recently. By the time of his death, Annan was chiefly remembered for his landscapes and as a copier of paintings. In the photographic world, his introduction of permanent processes of printing was lauded above his artistic achievements. It was only afterwards, when the wynds disappeared, that Annan’s skill in capturing them came to be recognised. Now, Closes and Streets is regarded as one of the finest photographic works of the nineteenth century.