The Isles of Scilly, off the coast of the English county of Cornwall are some of the most treacherous waters in the Atlantic. For hundreds of years, the ships wrecked on their shores were lost to the sea and to history. Until John Gibson, a seaman-turned-photographer brought his camera to the rocky cliffs and photographed each shipwreck, rescue attempts, and more, and transmitted the news throughout the country. Photographing the wrecks became a family tradition that would last more than 100 years and produced some of the most captivating photographs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
John Gibson, born in 1827 on the Isle of Scilly, was a seaman by trade. Historians are unsure how Gibson purchased his first camera, as photography was typically reserved for the wealthy in society, but by 1860 he had established a photography studio in Penzance. In 1865, he returned to the Isles of Scilly and employed his two sons‑Alexander and Herbert as apprentices. Over the next 130 years, four generations of the Gibson family would go on to photograph over 200 shipwrecks.
The Gibsons were pioneers of photojournalism, photographing their first shipwreck in 1869, the same year that the first telegraph arrived on the Isles of Scilly. The telegraph was rapidly changing the way the world received its news and the Gibsons became the local news correspondents. With John as the photographer and his son Alexander as the telegraphist, they were able to transmit the identity of the ship, the number of deaths, and other important facts around the world in record time.
At this time in photographic history, photographing on location required a portable darkroom like a wagon or handcart, glass plates, a heavy large format camera, chemistry and other equipment. Transporting the cumbersome equipment was made more difficult by the harsh weather conditions as ships rarely crashed during pleasant weather. Through the storms, high winds, and churning seas, the Gibsons traveled by pony or rowboat to reach the ship before nightfall, or it sank, whichever came first.
After Alexander’s death, his son James continued the tradition throughout the twentieth century and began using film to keep up with the demands of the profession. After his death in 1985, his son Frank carried the tradition until his own death in 2012. England’s National Maritime Museum acquired the Gibson family archive in a 2013 auction at Sotheby’s for £100,000. The collection includes 1,360 glass and film negatives of over 200 shipwrecks.