|Dates: ||1832 - 1922|
|Active: ||Africa / Crimea|
Dr. John Kirk is particularly remembered for the photographs he took in 1855-1856 at British Hospital (B.H.) Renkioi in Turkey during the Crimean War. Later he was doctor and naturalist on David Livingston’s second expedition to Zambezi (1858-1864).
Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston, 1891, Livingstone and the Exploration of Central Africa, (G. Philip & Son), p. 236
The most important person in the expedition, however, after Dr. Livingstone, was John Kirk, an enthusiastic and ambitious young doctor and naturalist from Edinburgh, who, after obtaining his degree in the Edinburgh University, started for the Crimea, and was appointed physician to the British hospital at Renkioi in the Dardanelles, in which capacity he so far distinguished himself, that he found it not difficult to obtain one of the leading positions in Dr. Livingstone's expedition to the Zambezi . To this post he was appointed almost more as naturalist than as physician, because he had already evinced considerable qualifications as a botanist. His was the one appointment in this expedition which proved an unqualified success. Others failed from want of capacity, or bad temper, or weak health, or else circumstances were adverse to the display of their good qualities.
Scottish by birth, Kirk was elected a fellow of the Edinburgh Botanical Society while still an undergraduate. Taking his medical degree in 1854, he then volunteered for medical service in the Crimean War. He probably had begun photographing during his student days, for while in the Crimea Kirk took calotype negatives of a hospital ward at Renkioi and the various amenities of camp life. Following his return in 1857 he was on the verge of moving to Canada when he was offered the position of medical officer and botanist for Dr. David Livingston’s second expedition to Zambezi. Livingston’s brother Charles was the official photographer, but Kirk considered him hopeless, especially in his choice of the wet-collodion process. Observing the noxious fumes emanating from Charles Livingston’s dark tent, Kirk wrote in his journal on July 8, 1858: “I don’t anticipate much to come of the Photography. I certainly believe, as I said in London, that the paper process is the only one which at present is worth taking on an expedition such as this.” And he was correct, for virtually none of Charles Livingston’s photographs were successful. Kirk took numerous waxed-paper negatives during the expedition, including the first significant views of the interior of Africa and studies of unusual botanical specimens, but he was also impressed with Dr. Hill Norris’s new dry plates. He remained loyal to waxed paper as late as 1862, finding it even more forgiving in difficult circumstances than he had previously thought. Dr. Kirk moved to Zanzibar in 1866, serving there as a medical officer for two decades, but nothing is known of his photographic activity during this period.
Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007)
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is included here with permission.
Date last updated: 4 Nov 2012.
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