Better camera portraits have never been taken than some made when the photographic process was no more than 15 or 20 years away from its primitive beginnings. Even before Julia Cameron and Nadar, consummate works of art were taken by a pair of Scotsmen named Hill and Adamson during the 1840s. The techinique used was the caltoype, using sensitized writing paper. The rough texture of the paper precluded the mirror-bright detail of the daguerreotype, but, as Hill pointed out "this is the very life of it." Hill was a rather flashy minor painter who knew what pictures ought to look like. His partner knew how to make calotype. Their collaboration was a brilliantly successful meeting of two unlike personalities who alone could create nothing above mediocrity.
After less than five years Adamson died, aged 27, and it was all over. Hill donated three albums of their best work - 258 pictures - to the Royal Academy; he was thanked and the gift forgotten until a decade ago. This beautiful book - much the most complete and sensitive produced collection of their work yet published - includes every photograph in the albums, printed in sepia, as well as an excellent historical introduction and essay that points to the fashionable and sometimes banal model from which the inspired portraits were derived by Hill - the women straight from comtemporary fashion plates; the men, with their strongly lit faces and hands, from the late 18th-century tradition of Scottish portraiture. "The best of their work," says Roy Strong, "seems to gather to itself the achievements of Scottish painting in the golden age . . . and, by dint of the novel medium, to get it a final and most glorious luster." (Knof. $35)