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Photographs by Alexander Young Shortt

Photographs by Alexander Young Shortt

The group of photographs (20 waxed paper negatives and 3 albumen prints) associated with the name of Major-General A. Y. Shortt is interesting chiefly as late examples of the continuing use of paper negatives. Those showing a Hindu temple were taken in 1867; one showing exotic vegetation is dated 1874 (75876); and the views of the family tomb were taken in 1870 and about 1875. The latter are particularly unusual, to have been taken at such a late date back home in Scotland. What ensured the continuing use of the primitive paper process in places such as India was the waxed paper negative's ability to endure the hotter climate, as well as its easier manipulation in comparison to the wet collodion process, on glass plates, and not least its extreme lightness of weight when travelling.

The process by this date is certainly Le Gray's integral waxed paper process invented in 1851 (the paper waxed before sensitising), rather than Talbot's calotype of which it was a variation (generally waxed after development); earlier specimens of the 1850s are impossible to tell apart. Waxing improved translucency and durability; but the papers were also prepared in advance, used dry, and developed later, saving the troublesomeness for which the wet collodion process was notorious.

Generally speaking the advantage of a glass negative was its ability to record much finer detail than paper. The photographs of a Hindu temple almost belie this principle, and represent the fine and complex carvings on the building with an unexpected degree of detail and clarity. The albumen prints made from the paper negatives (42664 and 75792) demonstrate such fine detail that if they survived in isolation there would be no reason to doubt that they were printed from glass negatives. It is probably the closest that paper negatives ever came to emulating the detail and high resolution of a daguerreotype or a large glass negative. Great care was obviously taken in their production, as Shortt's manuscript notes indicate (11957), recording with military exactness the camera positions and orientation of the monument. It was part of a deliberate project of photographic archaeology, to record these remote buildings and their elaborate carvings. Further examples and documentation can be found in the Bodleian Library.

Alexander Young Shortt was at the time Political Resident (a kind of adviser or liaison under the British colonial government) in the native state of Palanpur. He held this post during the 1860s, and the several photographs showing a colonial residence and bungalows are believed to be of his residence at that period. He was born in Dumfries and educated at Oxford, the son of John Macourtie Shortt, also a Major-General. The photographs of the family tomb in St Michael's churchyard, Dumfries, originally erected in memory of his grandfather Francis Shortt, show it both before and after the addition, in or soon after 1875, of a tablet commemorating both his father, who died in 1866, and his young wife, who died at the age of 32 in 1875. The photographs were given to the Museum in 1941 and 1947 by the photographer's son, Lieutenant-Colonel A. G. Shortt.

There is no question that most of the photographs in the Museum and the Bodleian Library were taken by A. Y. Shortt. The identification of the photographer in a recent publication as the father J. M. Shortt is an error. He died in 1866, before the dated photographs, and is commemorated on the tomb shown in some of the photographs. There is however some uncertainty regarding several of the Indian residence images, one of which bears an inscription reading 1847 (11946). That date would make them waxed calotypes rather than waxed paper negatives, and quite early for photographs taken in India; and it would mean they must either be juvenile efforts by the same photographer or the work of his father. They are certainly inferior in quality to the 1867 images. The distinctive handwriting of '1847' is however identical to that of A. Y. Shortt's 1867 document, and his son believed they could not have been taken earlier than 1860. Without being able to explain the apparent date, it is safest to assume that the photographs are at least (as the donor believed) the work of the same man.

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Related Objects:

Inventory No. 11942, "Photograph (Calotype or Waxed Paper Negative) of a Colonial Residence in India, by A. Y. Shortt, 1860s" [1941-6], Shortt, Alexander Young