Missing Persons 5: James Craig Annan

Another important figure from the 1890s omitted from ‘How We Are: Photographing Britain was the second son of photographer Thomas Annan (whose work was included.) James Craig Annan joined the family fine-printing firm when he was 19 in 1883, and went with his father to Austria to the studio of Karl Klic to learn his novel photogravure process for the reproduction of photographs, for which they bought the sole UK rights.

The firm specialised in the reproduction of works of art, and in the early 1890s, James applied his skills to making carbon prints and photogravures from the negatives of calotype pioneers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. The Annan family had known Hill, and had moved from Glasgow to live in his Calton Hill studio in Edinburgh for the last year of Hill’s life.

At the same time, James decided to become a photographer, and his first show, on the company premises in Glasgow in 1892 made a great impression. His landscape work from Holland inspired Alfred Steiglitz, who went to a similar area of the coast and made a his own, in some ways similar image. Soon he was a member of the ‘Linked Ring’ and his work was shown to critical acclaim in London, New York, Paris and Russia, and later in many other cities in Europe, America and India.

James Craig Annan was included with Hill and Evans in a 1906 show at Alfred Steiglitz’s ‘291’ gallery in New York, as well as in the great show Stieglitz organised in Buffalo in 1910 which in some ways marked the end of the Pictorialist movement (and the Linked Ring dissolved in the same year.) Steiglitz published eight of his images from a trip to Spain in 1913 in ‘Camera Work’ the following year. This more or less marked the end of James’s photographic career, and he apparently took few photographs after this time. He retired from the family firm around 1940 and died in 1946, his photographs largely forgotten.

I’ve never fully appreciated the work of Annan, probably because of his use of photogravure as a printing method. I can testify from limited personal experience that this is an extremely tricky method. I made one print, largely to see exactly how it was done and never wanted to repeat the experience. It is a process that requires (and allows) great control. Although I can appreciate the photography of Annan, I find the prints themselves have too pictorial an aesthetic for my more ascetic taste.

There are many photogravures by other photographers that I admire, but his work has always left me with an uneasy feeling of compromise between the photographic and the pictorial, which to some extent characterizes almost all the art photography of this era.

Peter Marshall

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