William Jerome Harrison was born in Hemsworth, Yorkshire, England on March 16, 1845. The family decided to move to Australia in an attempt to restore his father’s declining health, but the senior Harrison died shortly after their arrival. After returning to England, Mr. Harrison received his teacher training at Westminster College and continued his postgraduate studies at Cheltenham College, where his outstanding performance earned him the highest government certificate. Upon graduation, he became headmaster of a Leicester boys’ school, which is where his studies in chemistry commenced. Within two years, he was named as Leicester Municipal Museum’s chief curator, and became a Fellow of the Geological Society (FGS) in 1876.
Mr. Harrison believed in combining business with pleasure, and so he would always vacation or holiday near the geologically rich coastlines of Yorkshire and Dorset. With his favorite Scovill whole-plate camera always within reach (and his 4x5 camera not far away), he would take pictures of the seascapes, from which he would make enlargements and lantern slides. Mr. Harrison was among the first to recognize the camera as an important scientific tool, a philosophy he articulated in his geological primer, A Sketch of Geology of Leicester and Rutland, in which he emphasized the reciprocity between scientific education and photography.
Throughout his illustrious career, his passions for geology and photography were frequently intertwined. He received the Darwin Medal in 1884 for his geological contributions, which were greatly enhanced by his photographs. He turned his discerning lens away from the human form, supplanting it with rock formations and manmade objects. Mr. Harrison was an active member of several photography organizations such as the Birmingham Photographic Society, serving as its vice president in 1885. Two years’ later, he completed the first bibliography of photography, which included 328 book annotations. He also authored A History of Photography, which has not been out of print since 1887. Mr. Harrison ultimately arrived at the conclusion that science and photography were virtual extensions of each other, a matter of utilizing light to make impressions on skin, glass, or paper. He firmly maintained that scientific knowledge trumped artistic ability, stating in his introduction to The Chemistry of Photography, “No one will deny that a knowledge of chemistry is absolutely necessary to the proper comprehension of photographic processes.
In later years, Mr. Harrison wrote numerous editorials, under the pseudonym of Talbot Archer, attacking the Royal Photographic Society for being “too fossilized a state to furnish the men, the energy, and the funds that are needed to inaugurate this great movement.” In protest, he resigned his memberships in all photographic societies and retired from photography. He died quietly in Birmingham, England on June 6, 1908 at the age of 63. Despite his classification as an amateur, William Jerome Harrison’s numerous literary and photographic contributions to the medium are deserving of the recognition usually reserved for professionals. In A History of Photography, he celebrated his hobby as one of the most valuable and ingenious of modern inventions. The Library of Birmingham currently houses approximately 600 of Mr. Harrison’s negatives.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 635-637.
2013 Episodes from a History of Scalelessness: William Jerome Harrison and Geological Photography by Adam Bobbette (URL: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/o/ohp/12527215.0001.001/1:7/--architecture-in-the-anthropocene-encounters-among-design?rgn=div1;view=fulltext).
2018 Five Photographs That (You Didn’t Know) Changed Everything (URL: https://www.historyextra.com/period/five-photographs-that-you-didnt-know-changed-everything).
1905 The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol. XVI, edited by Rossiter Johnson (New York, NY: The National Alumni), p. 338.
1887 A History of Photography by W. Jerome Harrison (New York, NY: Scovill Manufacturing Company), pp. 135-136.
1992 Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society, Vol. XLIX (URL: http://pygs.lyellcollection.org/content/pygs/49/2/local/front-matter.pdf).
1893 Wilson's Photographic Magazine, Vol. XXX (New York, NY: Edward L. Wilson), p. 89.
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