Viewpoint David Healey
Photography is a powerful tool. We should remember one individual who was an exile, photographer and pioneer
Enjoying a spot of winter light, I came across this inscription on a gravestone in Edinburgh’s Grange cemetery: ‘He came as an unknown refugee and left a respectable citizen’. Human history is a story of migration. Empires were founded by people who moved. Countries have been shaped by people who came from elsewhere to live in them. We have numerous words to describe those who find themselves somewhere other than where they expected to be – for example, refugees, émigrés, expatriates, and economic migrants. Humans do not only experience the pain of exile because of persecution, punishment or flight, but countless humans also feel alienated because of loss, illness, oppression, the breakdown of relations, betrayal and cultural isolation.
In such circumstances art can be therapeutic. Photography is a creative outlet – a private moment where you, the subject, and the creative act create the image. Many exiles have found solace in some form of creativity: look how many eminent 20th- century photographers fled Europe. Exiles, keen to ‘make a life’ in their new homeland, often make a big contribution to their place of exile.
Photographers also document exile; most of us have been moved by images depicting the Mediterranean refugee crisis in recent years. Photographer Andy Spyra’s images of the persecuted Christians of Iraq document a tradition and sub- culture under terrible pressure, with all the clarity of gritty black & white. Digitally, Mahtab Hussain has documented the social and cultural isolation of young British Asians, just as Dorothea Lange and others once documented, on film, the plight of rural Americans and John Bulmer photographed ‘the North’. Cultural outsiders frequently perceive what they encounter in a different way, which can make their subjects feel uncomfortable: photography often reveals what we cannot see or choose not to see.
The legacy of Ivan Szabo
The 36-year- old whose 1858 epitaph I quote at the beginning of this column was Ivan Szabo. Born in what was then Hungary, Szabo served in the Hungarian revolutionary army, and came to Scotland in 1849 when the revolution against the Habsburg Empire failed. He opened a studio at St. Andrews and moved to Edinburgh where, like his contemporaries Hill and Adamson, he was an early adopter of Fox Talbot’s calotype technology. Szabo participated in several photographic exhibitions that took place in the 1850s. He photographed Fox Talbot, among others.
This pioneering early film user must have made his mark as a photographer and as a man. Grange Cemetery contains the graves of many of Scotland’s most eminent people. Another inscription on the grave says ‘Praise him for what he did for the art of photography in his short life’.
Grange Cemetery (Edinburgh EH9 1TT) runs alongside Grange Road and Beaufort Road in Marchmont