Here, Robin Longbottom examines the life and career of textile-worker-turned-photographer David Smith

BY the age of fourteen, David Smith’s working future appeared to be quite settled.

He had followed in both his father’s and his elder brother’s footsteps and become a warp dresser.

Once a semi-skilled job, warp dressing involved preparing the warp threads for a loom, the ones that the shuttle passed through with the weft to produce a piece of cloth.

In 1861 he was 22 years old and was working at his trade from his home in Harper Square in Sutton.

Like many young men, he probably found the work monotonous and tiresome and yearned for something more interesting and fulfilling. Therefore, having saved a little money, he bought himself a camera.

Today we not only have an array of digital cameras but also cameras in our mobile phones, together with selfie sticks so that we can take that spur-of-the-moment snap of ourselves.

But go back four or five generations to the 1860s and photography was still in its infancy.

A camera was a large wooden box with a lens at one side and a black cloth, to hide under, at the other.

The latest technology was the collodion process, which required a glass plate to be coated in liquid collodion (a highly inflammable solution of nitrocellulose, ether and alcohol).

The photographer had to insert the plate into the camera, remove the lens cap, count to five or six seconds to expose the plate, and then quickly replace the cap.

He then had to process the plate in chemical solutions to make a negative before he could produce a print. It was a long, drawn out, but exciting new process and captured an exact likeness of your subject – and the public couldn’t wait to have their photographs taken.

David set-up his first studio in Sutton before finding a more suitable one in Cross Hills.

He produced what were known as ‘carte de visite’, which were thin paper photographs mounted on a paper card somewhat smaller than a modern playing card.

His customers would order several and then hand them out to friends and family and it became popular to collect them and put them into specially-designed albums.

Later he also produced a ‘cabinet’ size, which was about three times larger.

In 1869 he bought a photographic studio and gallery in Sowerby Bridge from the widow of the late Mr Oliver, who had established it in 1856.

He advertised not only the printed photograph but now offered a colouring service in “Oil or Water Colours on Carbon and other enlargements, up to Life size”.

Although established in Sowerby Bridge, he also travelled to other towns and villages where he set-up temporary studios creating a scene with painted backdrops and items of furniture.

He returned to Sutton on many occasions over the years, as revealed in an album found in a house in King’s Court in the 1960s.

It contains dozens of his photographs of local villagers, from his early years in Sutton and Cross Hills, through the 30 years or so that he was working from Sowerby Bridge, to his final years between 1900 to 1910, when he lived with his son in Bingley.

The photographs in the album span nearly 50 years and are a fascinating record of changing fashions through this period.

They reveal ladies’ fashion particularly well, showing an array of bonnets and hats and dresses supported by hoops and bustles. There are also dapper-looking men in frock and tail coats together with some early photos of characters who could have stepped out of Pickwick Papers.

Whilst David Smith was chiefly a portrait photographer, he also took pictures of his home village, which provide a valuable record of properties long demolished and fields now developed for housing.

The locations of the photographs he took of the village can be identified but sadly the owner of the album found in King’s Court did not put any names to the sitters – surely a salutary lesson to us all to put names on our photographs so that future generations can identify them.