Reverend William Ellis's interest in photography had more to do with his desire to further religious conversion than with an interest in art. Early in his career as a foreign missionary, he mastered typography and presented the people of Tahiti with their first printed book--the Bible. The Polynesians were impressed by the printed word, and Ellis believed that the power of a visual image would be even more monumental. He studied photography specifically to impress the people of Madagascar, an island off the southeast coast of Africa that had long resisted Christian influence. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, he made numerous portraits of the Malagasy that reflect his genuine interest in the people he served spiritually.
Born to a poor family, Ellis was trained as a gardener, but deep religious feelings prompted him to enlist as a foreign missionary. Ordained in 1815, he first traveled to South Africa, then to the South Sea Islands. He was very successful as a missionary, combining spiritual earnestness with scientific and historic research. He rose up through the ranks of the London Missionary Society to become its chief foreign secretary and published a number of books based on his research and experiences.