Among the first to produce a large body of self-consciously artistic photographs, the painter Hill and the photographer Adamson are best known for the hundreds of Rembrandtesque portraits made during their brief but prolific partnership. This image is part of a social-documentary project—the first in photography—that the team carried out in Newhaven and other small but vital fishing towns near Edinburgh. Because their early paper-negative process could not record the fishermen at sea, Hill and Adamson focused instead on Newhaven's fishwives; dressed in traditional striped aprons and woolen petticoats, the women baited lines, unloaded and cleaned the catch, hauled the laden willow baskets up the hill to Edinburgh, and hawked their fish. In the age of the Industrial Revolution and its attendant social problems, Hill and Adamson presented Newhaven as a model community bound by tradition, honest labor, and mutual support—qualities emphasized by the careful posing of figures and by the graphic strength and gritty effect of the medium itself.
This rare large-format print and twenty-five other exquisitely preserved photographs acquired by the Museum were among those that Hill selected as his finest achievements, assembled in albums, and presented to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1852.