The Fine Art of Photography

November 2001

Publication: The Times

As this exhibition shows, photography was, from the outset, never merely an objective medium but, rather, a highly subjective way of interpreting the world. Draw from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery's 25,000-strong collection this grouping of around 200 photographs provides an insight into the art-form's one-hundred-and-sixty year history.  As David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson show (in their world-renowned calotypes dating from the 1840s) photography was always about much more than documenting life.  For here, in their photographs of the fishermen and women of the Firth of Forth, they show that from the first photography — and the act of being photographed — changed the nature of what was being depicted.

As the iconic image,  'Sandy Linton, his Boat and Bairns' (1843-46) shows, there was an expectation on behalf of sitters and the photographer about the nature of portrayal, heavily influenced by the tradition of painted portraits.  Linton is not photographed as he goes about his business, fishing or mending nets, but rather as the proud and cocksure man of means.

If the central purpose of this collection is to present a view of Scottish life by Scottish photographers its scope is, however, far from parochial.  And although Scottish photographers such as Hill and Adamson, John Muir Wood, George Washington Wilson and may others were often at the forefront of the medium's development there is also an important international dimension to this fledging collection (begun only in 1984).  For example,  F. -J  Moulin's 'A Game of Chess in Algeria' (1856) demonstrates how the quasi-ethnographic and artistic agenda of the photographer coincided in what once again seems to be an elaborately constructed composition.

Although less ambitious in its scope, the curators of this collection have attempted — with comparatively scant resources — to parallel the approach of other leading international collections such as that in George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. Indeed, prints of a number of works are common to both collections, such as James Nasmyth's 'Back of Hand and Wrinkled Apple', dating from 1874, in which the Scottish engineer attempts to demonstrate lunar geology through rather more mundane means.

As one might expect some of photography's most famous names are to be found here including Robert Capa, Bill Brandt, George Rodger, Inge Morath and Eve Arnold.  Arnold's 'George Lincoln Rockwell, Head of the American Nazi Party at a Black Muslim Meeting' (1960), makes highly uncomfortable viewing, not least because of topicality to be found in the expedient alliance of conflicting political agendas.

This is not only a historical collection but also one with a resolute sense of contemporaneity, shown by the inclusion of  Mark Johnston, Andreas Gursky, Jane Brettle and Calum Colvin amongst others.  Brettle, for example, deliberately situates her work in an art historical tradition through her reinterpretation of Canova's 'Three Graces'.

This show, and the collection it represents, further demonstrates the need for a National Museum of Photography, a project which, it can only be hoped, will be realised in the not too distant future.

 

The Fine Art of Photography

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Queen Street

Edinburgh

0131 624 6000

Until January 13

 

Published in The Times, Around the Galleries, 21-11-01