The Annans in Studies in Photography

The Annan Lectures are named for the Glasgow-based Annan family of photographers - particularly Thomas Annan and James Craig Annan. 

Thomas Annan began his career in Glasgow as a lithographer and engraver. He gained a reputation for making prints of fashionable paintings, and producing commercial portraits and landscapes. in 1883, when he was in his 50s, he travelled to Vienna with his Son James Craig Annan to learn the process of Photogravure from its inventor Karel Klic. He put this new process to use in the third edition of his famous Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow. He was commissioned by The Glasgow City Improvement Trust in 1866 to record ‘Old Glasgow’ before much of it was demolished, and The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow is Annan’s most celebrated work. Most of the images show the closes and wynds deserted due to the long exposure times. 

The overall effect created in Annan’s images is one of deep space, and a penetrating view. There is also a feeling of stillness, a kind of loneliness and isolation. When people do appear they seem trapped in a maze of buildings (verticals are narrow) and they are also set safely at some distance from the photographer, and from us, as observers looking at the image now. We have little sense that these were in fact bustling thoroughfares teeming with life.

- Dr Roberta McGrath, National Galleries.

By the mid 19th century, the population was growing rapidly and life-expectancy was plummeting:

By the middle of the nineteenth century much of the centre of Glasgow has become a huge foetid slum. Once a handsome burgh, famous for its broad streets and well-built hoses, the city has made no attempt to cope with one of the most serious consequences of the Industrial Revolution. This was the pressing need to house the overwhelming influx of people pouring into the city from the Highlands, from Ireland and from other rural areas to labour in he city’s growing number of mills and factories. Soon the long, ample gardens behind the old stone houses fronting the main streets became filled with an almost doily mass of shoddily built tenements. These, Glasgow’s notorious backlands, were so tight packed together that neighbours could shake hands across the narrow winds separating them, and so dark that was almost impossible to read a newspaper in broad daylight. From the old College down the High Street, along the Gallowgate and the Trongate, on down the Saltmarket and the Briggait to the River Clyde, the tide of misery flowed, until such depths were reached that the City Surveyor of London could say that he was unaware of anything like it in any city in Europe. Between the landlords’ geed and the workingmen’s need there appeared to be no solution other than the age-old one of pestilence and fire.

- A.L. Fisher, Thomas Annan’s Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow (Part I), Studies in Photography, Spring 1987.

The Annans have been the subject of much discussion in Studies in Photography. If you would like to look back through past issues, you will find articles on Thomas and James Craig Annan in:

1986 Spring
Early Photographic Collections in Glasgow University Library
Nigel Thorp

1987 Spring
Thomas Annan’s Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow
A.L. Fisher 

1987 Autumn
Thomas Annan’s Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow A Catalogue of Images
Part One
J. A. Fisher

1988 Spring
Thomas Annan’s Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow A Catalogue of Images
Part Two
J. A. Fisher

1990 no.2
The Problem of Poverty and the Picturesque: Thomas Annan’s Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow 1868 - 1871.
Julie Lawson

1992 no. 2
‘A Long Drawn Out Pleasure’ - The Art of James Craig Annan
(Review) Ray McKenzie

J Craig Annan Walks Again: The Photographic Convention visits Glasgow, 1898
William Buchanan 

Thomas Annan’s Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow are regarded as some of the greatest photographs taken in the nineteenth century. That there is a problem raised by Annan’s photographs of the Glasgow slums is, however, not to be denied. The apparent contradiction or moral questionableness of admiring photographs which have as part of their intrinsic subject matter the suffering of fellow human beings is properly disturbing to us. The problem has been raised in several ways and with varying degrees of pertinence… writing about Atget [Walter] Benjamin said that he photographed the streets of Paris as if they were the scenes of a crime… All of this applies equally to the photographs by Annan under consideration. They are, like Atget’s photographs of Paris, in terms of their stated purpose, architectural studies. However, there is much more to them than the impersonal recording of the condition of buildings. They too, are photographs that ‘challenge’ the viewer, and they are highly specific - mere visual satisfaction is not their purpose. It is in the realm of purpose, intention, and ultimately Function that the solution lies.

- Julie Lawson, The Problem of Poverty and the Picturesque: Thomas Annan’s Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow 1868 - 1871, Studies in Photography, no.2, 1990.


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