During the rise of industrialisation in mid-19th century Scotland, Thomas Annan ranked as the most important photographer of Glasgow. For more than 25 years, he prodigiously recorded the people, the social landscape, and the built environment of the city during a period of rapid growth and change.
Now, Thomas Annan: Photographer of Glasgow, on view 23rd May – 13 August at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, presents the first exhibition to survey Annan’s prolific career and legacy as both a photographer and printer.
The exhibition includes more than 100 photographs. Among the works to be featured are recently rediscovered prints Annan made at the end of his career and photo books that demonstrate technical innovations he perfected and championed on the streets of Glasgow.
“This exhibition is the first to explore Annan’s deep fascination with Glasgow and fully contextualise his contributions within the city’s history,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “His work effectively recorded the transformation of greater Glasgow over the course of several decades, during an era when this ‘Second City of the Empire’ flourished. Annan’s photographs underscore the notion of progress that dominated this era and directed urban growth in the 19th century.”
Thomas Annan opened his own photographic firm in Glasgow in 1857 and remained active until his death three decades later. He worked at a time when the city’s population increased dramatically and industry neared its peak.
Initially Annan garnered attention for work that ranged from studio portraiture and reproductions of artwork to landscapes, but he also quickly emerged as an important documentarian of Glasgow and its outskirts.
Near the outset of his career, Annan was tasked with documenting the construction of a 35-mile long aqueduct—located in a picturesque wooded glen called the Trossachs—from Loch Katrine to Glasgow. His photographs reveal how this colossal feat of engineering impacted the scenic landscape of the Scottish countryside
Today, Annan is remembered principally for his haunting images of tenements and closes, slated for modification or demolition as a result of the Glasgow City Improvements Act of 1867. Considered a precursor of the social documentary tradition in photography, Annan’s Photographs of Old Closes and Streets series (1868-71) reveals the difficult living conditions of working class Glasgow at the time, but also hints at progress underway.
Transformation of the built environment in Glasgow during this time largely shaped the appearance of the city as we know it today, and Annan effectively documented this evolution.
Annan is also credited for promoting various photographic processes, specifically carbon printing and photogravure, for which he owned the licensing rights within Scotland. His legacy was extended by his eldest sons, James Craig and John, who worked as photographers and managed their father’s photographic firm upon his death.
“Though a pioneer in his field, Annan has remained a relatively marginaliSed figure in the history of photography,” says Amanda Maddox, assistant curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and curator of the exhibition. “This exhibition seeks to highlight the breadth of his output and the extent of his contributions to the medium, which we hope will prompt further scholarship and greater appreciation for this important 19th century practitioner.”