Experimenting with the chemistry involved in the wet collodion process, Wilson wrote, “When my subject is well lighted, I prefer pyro-gallis acid as a developer, but when there is a great contrast in the picture, and an undue portion of deep shadow, then iron is much to be preferred.”
This understanding of the issues of light and the means of manipulating the chemicals in the darkroom led to Wilson’s use of an iron developer to capture the subtlety of cloudy skies when previously they would have appeared entirely white; other photographers were known to have painted in this detail or to have combined two negatives of differing exposure or density.
Always aware of the vulnerability and whimsy of the market, as early as 1861 Wilson anticipated a waning in the demand for stereoscopic images and began producing single prints for sale to the public. These images may still be found pasted into Victorian photo albums, alongside family portraits and holiday snaps.
Concurrently Wilson also began producing larger ‘cabinet’ cards for the portrait market, again keeping an astute eye on the trends and demands within the photography industry. His frequent travels across the British Isles, including to London and other significant tourist spots, provided him with both new locations to document and also helped him to stay connected with the photographic zeitgeist.
This systematic cataloguing of the country’s most significant geography and tourist destinations allowed him to build a store of negatives described by J. Wood in an 1871 edition of the British Journal of Photography as “for number and excellence, I believe, will not soon, if ever be surpassed… (Wilson) left off numbering the proofs he had taken from them and sent out – at the time amounting millions – which are now profusely scattered over the habitable globe.”
George Washington Wilson handed over his business to his sons, Charles, Louis and John Hay Wilson, in 1888. Wilson’s images became so popular that other photographers tried to capture his success by photographing the same, popular locations; in an obituary in 1893, it was said that:
‘we know of some who did not disdain to follow Mr Wilson’s footsteps in such a literal fashion as, having one of his views in hand, and observing the relation of one portion of scenery to the other, to eventually by this means discover the identical spot where his camera had been planted, and there also plant their own tripods’
‘George Washington Wilson: Artist & Photographer (1823-93)’, by Roger Taylor, published Aberdeen University Press, 1981.‘By Royal Appointment: Aberdeen’s Pioneer Photographer. George Washington Wilson, 1823-1893. Papers from a conference organised by the University of Aberdeen to celebrate the life and work of Scotland’s pioneer photographer’ published by the Centre for Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen, 1997.
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