This is the first post in a new weekly series highlighting images featured at the upcoming St Andrews Photography Festival, 1 August – 11 September 2016.
By 1870 Thomas Rodger was well established as a professional photographer in St Andrews. Under the tutelage of Dr John Adamson he had learned the calotype process as a teenager in the late 1840s, and with Adamson’s encouragement he decided to pursue photography as a career. His timing was perfect. The craze for photographic portraits was about to take off, and Rodger was well placed to meet the demand. With a clear mastery of composition and technique he began to produce a body of commercial work that cemented his place in the history of the town and the history of Scottish photography.
This particular portrait, in the cabinet card format, appeals to me on many levels. While it is almost chokingly formal in some respects, the photographer has captured the elegance, grace and humanity of the sitter without the stiffness so often seen in portraiture of the era. The lighting is soft, picking out every little detail of Mrs Broughton’s dress, hat and jewels – all no doubt chosen very carefully for such a portrait sitting. The classic painted backdrop is pleasantly out of focus, and the light and dark patches gently complement and contrast with the light and dark complexions of the two sitters. It is the second sitter that, to me, completes the combination of elements that give this image such charm. While his mistress gazes off to the side of the frame, presenting a pleasing three-quarter profile, the dog stares straight down Rodger’s lens. Even as the viewer’s eye wanders over the picture, taking in the beautifully embroidered gown, the elaborately trimmed hat and the tasteful accessories, it is inevitably drawn back to the simple, unadorned, noble face of the dog.
Thomas Rodger was widely acclaimed during his lifetime for having a particular gift for portraiture, one reviewer of his work at the Photographic Society of Scotland’s exhibition in 1856 noting that “Nothing can excel Mr Rodger’s power of catching a characteristic expression or attitude, and the tints are soft and delicate”. His work earned him a number of medals and awards as well as the respect of his photographic peers, and, perhaps most importantly, the satisfaction of many happy customers.
St Andrews University’s collection of Thomas Rodger’s work can be viewed on our website here. An exhibition of Thomas Roger’s work will be on display at his old studio, now the Careers Centre, as part of the photography festival.