Early photography and photographers

The beginnings of photography in Northern Ireland

The story of photography in Ireland begins with engraver and linen ornament manufacturer Francis Beatty who, within a year of 1839 invention of photographic processes, was advertising ‘photogenic drawings’ of Belfast buildings for sale.


Beatty carried out his first portrait in 1841, and in August 1842 set up in business in Castle Street. One photographer in Derry, Robert McGee, was declared bankrupt in 1843. Another named Cherry was working in Belfast in 1845. Throughout the 1850s, photographers—often small businessmen or semi-itinerant tradesmen—appeared briefly in Belfast, Derry and other towns around the north. 


A short-lived Belfast Photographic Society existed between 1857 and 1860, and from the 1860s onwards Armagh, Ballymena, Enniskillen, Newry and Omagh each saw the establishment of at least one studio.


Stationer James Magill opened a studio in Belfast in 1861, specialising in portraits and highly fashionable ‘cartes’, small visiting card sized landscape and portrait photographs. Alexander Ayton, newly arrived from Scotland, was successful enough to move into a purpose built studio in Derry’s Kennedy Place in 1864. Ayton’s portraits of Donegal landscapes and scenes of crimes made him a substantial small businessman.


Alexander Ayton Donegal


Nearby Strabane was, for a time, home to David Welch, a committed amateur photographer from Kircudbright in Scotland. He took up the trade professionally in 1863. Welch worked in Enniskillen, Newry and, after a period in England and the south of Ireland, in Bangor, Co Down. This reflects the insecurity of the photography business outside the larger towns.


Welch’s son Robert became one of Ireland’s most outstanding photographers. An Ulster Amateur Photographic Society was established in 1885, meeting for the first 25 years in the Belfast Museum in College Square North.


By the turn of the century, a City of Belfast Camera Club was active, as was a YMCA Camera Club. By 1904, the trade was secure and professionalised, and Belfast’s Municipal Technical Institute employed a photography instructor.


Discover more early photography from Ireland north and south on the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland's Flickr stream.