The Calotypes of Sir John Kirk

Sir John Kirk is best known as a British diplomat who was hugely influential in finally ending the slave trade in East Africa, during his many years spent as British Consul in Zanzibar. If you want to know more about his life in this respect then read the superb book “The Last Slave Market” by Alastair Hazell. Kirk was also an accomplished photographer, preferring calotype to collodion because of the climatic conditions he found himself in. He accompanied David Livingstone on his Zambesi expedition (1858 – 1864) and took his camera and chemicals and made calotype images along the way. The official expedition photographer was Charles Livingstone, brother of the mythical explorer himself. Charles Livingstone was something of a divisive character, and a charlatan. He had only learned the wet collodion technique in the weeks before the expedition sailed from England. However, he seems to have had quite an influence over his brother and was malicious and lazy. Few of his images have survived despite his having sold his collodion plates to the Foreign & Colonial Office on his return. In contrast, quite a few calotypes by Sir John Kirk survive. To my mind the most striking image is of the Elephant Marsh in Malawi (a print of which is held by the National Library of Scotland and is one of my favourite calotypes from the nineteenth-century), where the expedition travelled up the Shire river (pronounced Shee-Raay, by the way) and “discovered” Lakes Shirwa and Niassa.
Elephant Marsh, salt print from calotype by Sir John Kirk (Reproduced with kind permission from the National Library of Scotland)

Elephant Marsh, salt print from calotype by Sir John Kirk (Reproduced with kind permission from the National Library of Scotland)

This entry was posted in History.

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