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Exhibition: Romantic Camera Scottish Photography & the Modern World (Saturday, 7 January 2012)

The recently refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery now has a gallery devoted to photography where they can show some of their vast collection of work. The current exhibition “explores questions of identity, specifically the close relationship between romanticism and photography in Scotland. Over 60 works are included, ranging from iconic images by Adamson and Hill to new acquisitions being shown for the first time.” It is organized into sections entitled Unfolding, Commerce & Art, War, Romantic City and Renewal; it continues till 3 June 2012.

The Hill and Adamson photographs date from as early as 1843 and include a half finished Scott’s monument as well as one of Hill nursing a hangover. They are justly famous not only for being from the dawn of photography but for their entrancing qualities. They are too well known to need further comment from me. Another photograph from around that time (1850) is of Melrose Abbey by John Muir Wood, presenting a study in flat shapes with shadow playing as big a role as detail.

There are photographs by James Valentine as well as George Washington Wilson who had independent large businesses supplying an increasing market in the 19th century. Some historians have been quite snooty about their work so it is good to have a chance to see it. No lost masterpieces but interesting to see all the same. There is a lengthy show of hand coloured lantern slides from two series (From Oban to Skye, The Outer Hebrides) by George Washington Wilson and Norman MacLeod; made around 1896. Well worth seeing with the ones of St Kilda giving an insight into a vanished way of life. They are projected digitally so the experience is perhaps not so authentic but more practical; do have a close look at the screen and savour those pixels.

Alexander Hutchison’s St. Kilda (1890) has a somewhat disturbing effect. The people of the island have obviously dressed up for the occasion and are presented in a group sitting outdoors with women at the front all looking serious and somewhat devout. The heads of the women are framed by the white bands of their headscarves drawing our eye to them. In sharp contrast there is, at the back high up and top centre, a well dressed “gentleman” looking full of confidence and perhaps proprietorial; this, probably unintentional, comment is very striking.

Amongst the highlights of this show are a couple of photogravure prints by James Craig Annan who learnt the method as a teenager from its inventor (perhaps more accurately the person who perfected the process). He was very talented in this as well as a photographer, working in the pictorial tradition, and was very influential in his day. The Dark Mountains (1890) is a very moody work with three figures walking into the picture frame on top of a mountain (thought to be Ben Vorlich). The Etching Printer (William Strang, 1902) was made in the family works and catches the intense gaze of a craftsman inspecting a plate. Annan uses pure black areas with the outmost skill allowing detail only where relevant; I don’t see him being a fan of HDR! He switched to using a hand held camera at a fairly early stage, saying the the negatives were of “quite sufficient sharpness”, what a refreshing attitude. The prints are fairly small, around 6×4 inches, drawing us in.

The exhibition also includes three films. Eriskay: A Poem of Remote Lives (1934) by Werner Kissling is the first ever to feature Gaelic (though is is somewhat in the background except for the singing). Kissling was an aristocrat who had a strong interest in ethnography and this film is one result of his work. Somewhat shaky in places and not so tightly controlled it does none the less give us some insight into the lives of people from long ago. The second film is The Singing Streets (1951) made by three teachers from Norton Park School. It shows children of Edinburgh (mostly girls) singing and playing with great skill. Not a fly on the wall approach by any means but I enjoyed it very much. The citizens of Edinburgh will smile ruefully at the brief glimpse of tramlines and a tram. The third film, made on 16mm, is of Kinloch Rannoch (1970) made by Joseph Beuys. This scans along at varying speed with no particular aim and no action. I did watch it long enough to see an abandoned decrepit car but really the idea is just too obvious. Taking time to look at the environment is certainly to be encouraged but I’d rather look at it directly and let things unfold that way, much more rewarding.

Returning to photographs I was very pleased to see Greyfriars Kirkyard (1905) by Alvin Langdon Coburn whose work I have been looking at for a while but only in reproductions. He made a series of photographs in Edinburgh intending them to accompany an edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Edinburgh Picturesque Notes. In the end publication had to wait till 1954. Thanks to the wonders of the internet I found a copy a while ago, one of my better purchases; the photograph from the exhibition makes a superb cover image for the book. Incidentally, Coburn’s autobiography is a great read and has many photographs well worth studying; an apt corrective to modern tendencies from the “wow look at the detail in that” crowd.

The documentary tradition is represented with several photographs. Castlemilk Lads (1963) by Oscar Marzaroli is described as an iconic picture of working class community dislocation, which seems a fair claim. Roger Mayne’s The Gorbals, Glasgow (1958) is described as having “spontaneity & exuberance” which is certainly the case. We are also informed that this “enthralled middle-class contemporaries”, maybe this is the reason that I have always viewed such work with unease and suspicion. We are also treated to one photograph each from Bill Brandt and Paul Strand as well as copies of Tìr a’ Mhurain (English and French editions).

Amongst the joys of the exhibition are several platinum prints. The portrait of George Mackay Brown by Prandip Malde (1986) is mesmerising. Silver gelatine prints are of course well represented. Thomas Joshua Cooper’s An Indication Piece. Isle of Staffa, Hebrides 1987 is a very original take on this well known subject. From a distance one could easily think that it is an image of a mountain, the basalt columns (top view) becoming clear only closer up.

Much of the contemporary work is in the conceptual/didactic arena. This approach is not to my taste; obvious points laced with games of cross reference do not, for me, justify these gargantuan products. For example Landscape 7/004 by Michael Reich (2007) greets us face on as we enter the exhibition. It is an example of the deadpan approach (and at around 10×6 feet it is impossible to miss). We are told that this work is “a conscious recomposition of traditional romantic views” and “Reish’s landscape reminds us that romantic representation has always been the work of imaginative transformation” (just in case you thought it was reportage). He removes all signs of human habitation using the “latest modelling software” (so maybe that’s my problem, I’m still on Phtoshop CS3). I looked at this picture, made in Glencoe and very green, for quite some time but was left entirely unmoved. Perhaps the real problem is that I am allergic to work that has critical theory as its raison d’être; presumably critics like it because it gives them something to talk about.

However let me end on a much more positive note. Richard Learoyd’s Agnes at Table (2006) is made directly onto cibachrome. It is around 4×4 feet and is stunning, but no bigger than necessary; we can enjoy the image from a distance and find other things in it closer up (OK including one strange white circular white mark on the subject’s right eye but this is of little significance). There is very little depth of field which helps to draw attention on the pin sharp eyes that sparkle.

To sum up, an exhibition not to be missed. It packs a lot into the space but it is possible to go round it without a feeling of saturation (no pun intended). In any case entry is free so going back is no problem, at least not if you are within easy reach. As mentioned at the start, the gallery in which it is presented is now a permanent photography gallery; I am looking forward to what else will be on offer.