The Johnston Collection

How many archives have you ever come across that document one area of a country, that span 112 years, and from which all the images were shot by three generations of photographers from the same family ? Not many we expect. Is it even possible you wonder. But indeed, as great as it sounds, there is a collection which exists such as that described.

It is with great privilege and excitement here at Document Scotland, that today we run both a large article and a selection of images from the impressive Johnston Collection based in Wick, a collection spanning 112 years and encompassing the work of three generations of the Johnston family.

We only found the website of the Johnston Collection recently, after a tip-off from Niall McDiarmid, but with relish we’ve been perusing the images, and very kindly, Harry Gray, Chairman of the Collection, has granted us permission to feature some of the beautiful images, and also kindly provided the following article for us to publish.

We hope you enjoy the images here as a folio, and also the article below, and please visit the Johnston Collection’s website itself to peruse further great images.

Herring fishing boats off Wick harbour Stornoway fifie “Rambler” follows WK1 “First” to the harbour mouth. Estimated date : 1860 – 1869 ©The Wick Society, all rights reserved.

The Johnston Collection, by The Wick Society

In 1976 in the town of Wick in the far north of Scotland Alexander Johnston, photographer, retired. A not uncommon event in everyday life but in this instance his retirement brought to an end 113 years of the Johnston family photographic business. His retirement also affected The Wick Society, a local group founded by Wick historian Iain Sutherland who was concerned about the changing face of the town and its impact on the local heritage and its preservation.

Alexander Johnston was interested in the thoughts and ambitions of the Wick Society and approached Iain Sutherland with the offer of his photographic equipment and anything else of interest for the intended museum.

Former Wick Society Chairman and founder member of the Society Donald Sinclair takes up the story; “a group of us met with Alex Johnston and he first showed us his garage then took us upstairs to his dark room and store. There was little light, the walls were undecorated wood and everything was very damp. The main enlarger was on a small platform in a small room, this was because the light source was on the floor above i.e. the condenser lens box was fitted tight to the ceiling, the light source turned out to be an enamel bucket with a lamp holder fitted to the bottom. The enlarger was in fact an old plate camera which had been modified. When this was removed it simply fell to pieces, the joints had parted and any screws and nails had all rusted away. Another of the Johnston enlargers had been constructed as a reflected light enlarger and this can be seen in the reconstructed dark room in Wick Heritage Museum.

We couldn’t believe our eyes when we entered the former dark room and adjoining rooms. In those far off days there was very limited knowledge of temperature and humidity control or light levels on the longevity of photographic materials and there were thousands upon thousands of glass negatives some stacked in piles three feet high, others wrapped in sheets of blotting paper. Ironically it was the stacking that saved many of the negatives and although some were damaged at the edges most were okay. One secret of the survival of many of the plates was the use of Copal varnish. The proof of this was made clear when we came across some stereoscopic images where only one side had been varnished and remained clear while the opposite image had deteriorated. Many of the negatives seemed to have been made using a collodion based emulsion and the images on those were lost for good. Many were stuck together and others irreparably broken. So of the estimated 100,000 negatives about one half was destroyed. The only premise available to the Wick Society at that time was the old Pilot House overlooking the harbour and the remaining 50,000 or so plates were, with great effort moved into that building.”

Now fast rewind back to 1828 the year that French Photographer, Niecepore Niepce took what is recognised as the first photograph. One year later the firm of Charles Coventry, plumbers of Edinburgh sent one of their men north to Wick to work on the lead flashings on the roof of the new Parish Church of Wick. His name was William Johnston. When the church was completed in 1830 William decided to stay on in Wick. The new Thomas Telford designed fishing village and harbour of Pulteneytown on the south side of Wick bay which had begun in 1805 was a hive of building activity as the herring fishing industry expanded and William saw great possibilities for the future. He settled down, marrying a local girl Louisa Williamson and they had nine children, the eldest, Alexander was born in 1839. This was the year in which Jacques Mande Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot introduced the first commercially successful photographic processes.

Alexander Johnston, (1839-1896), photographer. ©The Wick Society, All rights reserved.

Alexander, who was destined to become the founder of the photographic business left school at the age of 14 to enter the family plumbing business working as a clerk and at one point he worked in the harbour office. By 1859 he was back in the family business but his interest was awakening in the new art of photography. By 1863 he had set up a small studio at his father’s house and very soon after that he had premises in Wick High Street. To the local population he must have cut a strange figure indeed as he walked the streets with his mobile darkroom and camera on a hand cart capturing the early scenes at the busy harbour. (This would have been the “wet plate” collodion process) Wick was now the “herring capital of Europe” and the “silver darlings” as the herring were known attracted over 1100 boats which crowded into the harbour over the fishing season June to September each year while thousands of migrant workers swelled the town’s population. They were photographed preparing their boats, setting the tan sails for sea, landing catches and onshore, were recorded in scenes of intense activity which show the teams of workers who gutted, cured and packed and carted the salted barrels of herring for export all over the world. The Johnston plates also show the boat builders, coopers, rope makers, basket weavers, plumbers, shop keepers and others in supporting industries and at leisure to give a wonderful glimpse of social history. The images seem to have been developed on location with a complicated mix of chemicals as, working by touch he poured the liquids on the plates hidden from sight and light inside his mobile darkroom.

In 1869 the Kildonan Gold Rush in Sutherlandshire brought over 700 miners to the area in search of riches. Alexander accompanied by a friend in a borrowed horse drawn carriage adapted to make a darkroom, made a four day journey to the diggings at “Baile an Or” (the place of gold) to capture the scenes, only seven plates survive and these are the only known photographs of gold diggings and shanty town in this country

Portrait photography had begun to catch the public imagination. The studio part of the business expanded quickly. By 1872 Alexander had to move to much larger premises in Wick’s Bridge Street as people began to come to him and his younger brother James (now a partner) to have their photographs taken. Their business continued to grow and in 1892 new spacious premises were acquired in Wick Market Place. In 1895 a branch had been opened in the town of Thurso which was attended to by Alexander.
Alexander did not enjoy the best of health and in 1896 while he was in Edinburgh for medical treatment he died suddenly at the age of 57.

His son William now 17 appears to have had some experience of the business as he assumes a partnership with uncle James and travelling each day by train takes on the running of the Thurso branch. The opening of the Thurso studio created a rich collection from that end of the county as William, as well as looking after the studio travelled all over the area capturing an invaluable collection of images of town and rural life of the time.

With the outbreak of WW1 there was a surge in portraiture as men departing for military service had images of their loved ones recorded as reminders of happier days at home. This has also resulted in a rich vein for today’s genealogical researchers. James Johnston passed away in 1922 and William shouldered the business until his son Alex returned from Art College in 1932 and joined the business, working there until 1942 when he was called up, serving as a photographer with the RAF for the duration of WW2. The Johnston’s were never tied to the studio and although portraiture provided the bulk of their income the working and social life of the county was caught through the twenties and thirties, scenes that are highly regarded today as an important social commentary but were in the words of Alex Johnston “simply a way of making extra income by selling picture postcards.” Their first love was painting and indeed this talent ran through the family from the beginning and examples of their art are displayed in Wick Heritage Museum. William passed away in 1950 and Alexander ran the business until his retiral in 1976 bringing 113 years of Johnston photography to an end. Alexander passed away in 2011 at the age of 101.

In 1979 the local Council offered the Wick Society the lease of numbers 18 – 27 Bank Row a row of early 19th century terraced houses. This was accepted and in 1981 the new centre was opened. Concurrently with all the work renovating and repairing the buildings the Johnston Collection was moved into its new home.

The Johnston Collection website

The first stage of cataloging could now begin and the negatives were sorted into two initial categories “scenes” and “portraits” the latter were passed a box at a time to a group of volunteer ladies who, using an old x-ray screen examined each image and recorded any information that the photographer had scribed along the edges, usually a name, address and date, some of the negatives were wrapped in blotting paper with the information written on the paper. At this point the Society invested in conservation quality boxes and envelopes and for the first time the negatives were in a safe environment.

The “scene” images were initially handled by Donald Sinclair and the late Willie Lyall the latter choosing the images while Donald, using the enlarger as his light source began to produce copy contact prints. They worked two hours every Tuesday and Thursday evenings and at the weekends. While Willie chose the images Donald set up the dark room, mixing and stabilising the temperature of the developer, stop bath and fixer. In the early days frequent test prints were made to assess the negative density/f-stop to adjust the light intensity and the exposure time and as techniques improved 50 prints were processed in two hours.

By 2002 a new age was entered, the scanning of the prints onto a computer was begun and a numbering system worked out and at that point it was possible to produce good quality prints up to A3 size.
In 2008 a new group was formed in the Wick Society named the Johnston Section and people were recruited into this new section which was given the remit to bring forward the digitisation of the entire Johnston Collection. At first, time was spent gathering information, making contact with other groups with digitisation experience and trying to produce costs and planning for the project. Computers, an A4 flatbed scanner and large format printer were acquired making it possible to scan, restore and exhibit A1 size prints which showed up the incredible detail captured within the glass negatives. Exhibitions have been held in Wick, Thurso and in the rural villages of Halkirk and Castletown. These exhibitions were very popular but the intention of the group was to preserve the collection as well as to display it.

In digital form the collection can be used on the w.w.w., for viewers within the museum and in presentations off site. This would also result in the decreased handling of the original images and enable the museum to make hard copies.

In 2009 North Highland College saw an opportunity to join a national project, Joint Information Services Committee (JISC), which aims to make historic documents and images available to the College/University network. This would be done via a website from which students can download material for study projects and the North Highland College proposed that the Johnson Collection would be suitable material for this project. The North Highland College had the further objective of setting up a training course in the practise of scanning/ digitisation/archiving as a contribution to supplying trained manpower for the UKAEA Nuclear Archive planned for Wick.

The agreed standard for scanning resolution was 1200 dpi, to allow large scale printing and high quality files to be stored as tiffs for the Society, as lower resolution jpegs suitable for student projects and as low resolution images for the newly created web site Un-restored tiff files are kept by the Society as well as copies of those cleaned up for exhibition.

Facilities, training and equipment were provided by North Highland College for Wick Society volunteers to work alongside the College Media Unit to digitise the ten thousand images required for the JISC project and the equipment has become the property of the Wick Society on its completion. In July 2012 North Highland College took the decision to close the Wick Campus where the Johnston Section had been working on the digitisation process. This had been expected and The Wick Society had already converted attic rooms in the Wick Heritage Museum into a workshop and all of the equipment was moved to there. The efforts to scan the remaining forty thousand negatives in the Collection continue and to date the Johnston Collection web site contains nearly twenty thousand images.

Visit the website of The Johnston Collection, and the Johnston Collection Facebook Page.

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