Francis Frith (1822 –1898) was an English photographer of the Middle East and many towns in the United Kingdom. Frith was born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. In 1850 he started a photographic studio in Liverpool, known as Frith & Hayward. A successful grocer, and later, printer, Frith fostered an interest in photography, becoming a founding member of the Liverpool Photographic Society in 1853. Frith sold his companies in 1855 in order to dedicate himself entirely to photography.
Frith was “recorded” as a Quaker minister in 1872 (at this time there were little more than 250 recorded ministers in England and Wales). He served on numerous committees, and frequently spoke in favour of pacifism and abstinence. In 1884, he published (with William Pollard and William Turner) A Reasonable Faith, a highly controversial pamphlet which challenged evangelical orthodoxy by questioning the factuality of the Bible. Francis Frith and his co-authors who began the liberalisation of the Quaker movement and paved the way for the philanthropic and educational reforms for which the movement is well known today.
Middle East Travels
He journeyed to the Middle East on three occasions, the first of which was a trip to Egypt in 1856 with very large cameras (16″ x 20″). He used the collodion process, a major technical achievement in hot and dusty conditions.
During his travels he noted that tourists were the main consumers of the views of Italy, but armchair travellers bought scenes from other parts of the world in the hope of obtaining a true record, “far beyond anything that is in the power of the most accomplished artist to transfer to his canvas.” These words express the ambitious goal that Frith set for himself when he departed on his first trip to the Nile Valley in 1856.
He also made two other trips before 1860, extending his photo-taking to Palestine and Syria.
In addition to photography, he also kept a journal during his travels elaborating on the difficulties of the trip, commenting on the “smothering little tent” and the collodion fizzing – boiling up over the glass. Frith also noticed the compositional problems regarding the point of view from the camera. According to Frith, “the difficulty of getting a view satisfactorily in the camera: foregrounds are especially perverse; distance too near or too far; the falling away of the ground; the intervention of some brick wall or other common object… Oh what pictures we would make if we could command our point of views.” An image he took known as the “Approach to Philae” is just one example which elaborates his ability to find refreshing photographic solutions to these problems. (cited from “A World History of Photography”)
Survey of Britain and Francis Frith & Co.
When he had finished his travels in the Middle East in 1859, he opened the firm of Francis Frith & Co. in Reigate, Surrey, as the world’s first specialist photographic and postcard publisher, a firm that became one of the largest photographic studios in the world. In 1860, he married Mary Ann Rosling (sister of Alfred Rosling, the first treasurer of the Photographic Society).
The same year he embarked upon a colossal project—to photograph every city, town and village in the United Kingdom; in particular, notable historical or interesting sights. Initially he took the photographs himself, but as success came, he hired people to help him. Frith’s ‘views’ were predominantly of places with social or historical significance but also included a great number of more mundane but equally valuable street scenes.
Frith died in Cannes, France at his villa on 25 February 1898.
The ten-part BBC series Britain’s First Photo Album, presented by John Sergeant, was first shown on BBC2 in March 2012 and takes a look at the history of Francis Frith’s pioneering photographic work. A 320 page book also entitled Britain’s First Photo Album has been published. The Frith and Co. brand continues today, and it’s possible to purchase prints and other merchandise from the online store.
Graham Clark (1997, p.73) remarks:
“… the landscape photograph implies the act of looking as a privileged observer so that, in one sense, the photographer of landscapes is always the tourist, and invariably the outsider. Francis Frith’s images of Egypt, for example, for all their concern with foreign lands, retain the perspective of an Englishman looking out over the land. Above all, landscape photography insists on the land as spectacle and involves an element of pleasure.”