Alexander John Greenlaw entered the East India Company as a cadet in 1834 and quickly rose through the ranks. He married in India in 1841 and made captain in the Madras Native Infantry by 1850. Exactly when Greenlaw began to practice photography as an amateur is not known, but it must have been in the early 1850s, for he showed works in an 1855 exhibition in Madras and was awarded a second-class medal for his “great variety of head size portraits, half-lengths, and groups,” as later cited in Reports by the Juries. Like many other British photographers in India, Greenlaw was drawn to its architecture, landscape, and ruins, and negatives on paper were the most practical way to obtain the best results. In order to cope with the heat, Greenlaw ordered a special camera from Richard Williams Thomas in London. For the 1857 exhibition in Madras, the Reports by the Juries concluded: “It would be supposed from the nature of Photography that all pictures executed by its means must possess a similarity of style . . . this is not the case.” Of the “the best Indian photographs in the Exhibition . . . the views by Capt. Tripe excel in finish and delicacy - those by Capt. Greenlaw in boldness, freedom and effect, the former are perhaps the best photographs, but the latter are the best pictures.” Had Greenlaw done nothing more in his life than make better “pictures” than the famous Linnaeus Tripe, that would have been quite an accomplishment, but in fact his influence would prove to be much wider and longer lasting. Adapting methods from several others, he greatly simplified the calotype process, reducing it to its essentials, mostly in order to cope with the heat of India. In 1869 Greenlaw freely published his method, and it was reported under his name in both Abney’s and Towler’s influential manuals. The last of the original practitioners to publish on the calotype, Greenlaw had tuned the process to perhaps its finest potential, and it was his process that was cited well into the twentieth century.
Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860
By Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf
Published by Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007
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