Susan Mansfield on two fascinating new exhibitions in the capital this month
Who knows how many photographs will be taken in Edinburgh this summer? As the festivals roll into town, it’s as if the city turns into the shutter-snapping capital of the world. In spite of this, however, the art of photography has never been well represented in the various festival programmes.
There is good news this year, though, as a summer of photography is on its way. The big blockbuster at the National Gallery of Scotland is a retrospective of the work of David Bailey (see cover feature), while at the National Museum of Scotland, Photography: A Victorian Sensation celebrates the city’s links with the beginnings of photography, showing that an obsession with capturing and sharing images is nothing like as recent as we might think.
Alongside these, two very different festivals of photography celebrate the achievements of those working in the medium. Retina showcases the work of Scottish photographers alongside international talent. Headliners this year (both to be seen at Gayfield Creative Spaces) include Tim Flach, known for his arresting portraits of animals, and Hamish Brown, whose striking celebrity portraits of rock stars and actors, from Iggy Pop to Gary Oldman, grace the pages of magazines and newspapers. “we aim to bring photographers from outside the UK to Scotland and mix that with the photographers who practice here and aspiring professionals from the colleges,” says Retina chairman Roddy Mcrae. “‘Educate, inform, inspire’ sounds like a corporate statement, but that’s pretty much my perception of what Retina does.”
Norwegian (but Edinburgh-based) Kenneth Sortland Myklebust will not only exhibit work from his nude series, 1000 Bodies, but will also continue to add to it during the festival, photographing locals and visitors in a studio next to his exhibition at Gayfield Creative Spaces, while international invitees include Luigi Gianneti from Italy and Bartek Fural from Poland (both at Out of the Blue Drill Hall).
Mcrae says: “Kenneth is someone I’ve known about for a long time, his work is very different and unique, and was at the top of the list of things we wanted to do. I was asked if I would pose, and I said I would like to, but I suspect my teenage children would disown me.”
Retina made its debut last year, after discussions between Mcrae (who has worked for photo agencies, including Image Bank and Getty Images) and photographer Chris Close, best known for his innovative pictures of authors at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Mcrae says: “Going round the galleries in Scotland, I wasn’t seeing a lot of the great material I came across when I was selling commercial photography. I would see fine art photography from abroad, but where was all the Scottish material? It’s well known that there’s a lack of gallery space in Edinburgh to show photography. A discussion about why there’s no photography festival turned into a spur for action.”
The broad range of material on display as part of Retina also includes work by press photographer Doug Corrance, whose book Scotland: Five Decades of Photographs, celebrates a career behind the lens, and a selection of work by Gordon Jack, who died suddenly in April after suffering a heart attack outside Dunblane Cathedral, where he was covering Andy Murray’s wedding rehearsal.
Meanwhile, an exhibition at the Scottish Parliament will showcase political portraits from the 1960s and 1970s, including Mandela, Churchill and Khrushchev, by Hungarianborn Michael Peto, whose archive is kept at Dundee University.
The team behind Retina is also
keen to take photography out of the gallery to a wider audience. “I’d like to make an exhibition happen on railings in the city centre,” says Mcrae. “I’m becoming quite an anorak about railings. We want to do more outdoor exhibitions, use outdoor spaces, stimulate more interest and discussion.”
Meanwhile, in various art spaces across the city in July, the Actinic Festival celebrates photography in a very different way. In a world where digital photography has become ubiquitous, and millions of pictures are uploaded daily on social media, many artists working with photography are turning back to traditional hands-on chemical processes. “people are embracing forgotten and lost processes,” says Actinic director Brittonie Fletcher. “There’s a bit of a fascination for ghost technology, dead media. It’s very popular to have revivals, and look back and reinvent things. I think that’s how we’re going to reinvent the new genres and canons of 21st-century photography.”
Actinic – the name refers to chemical reactions stimulated by light – celebrates photography containing an analogue element. Building on the success of the Alternative Photography Festival in 2013, Fletcher has shifted the emphasis to include not only artists who use traditional processes, but those who combine them with the latest digital techniques. “I’m a huge fan of analogue photography, but also interested in the intersection of that with other arts,” says Fletcher. “Photography is a medium, it should be mixed with anything an artist wants to mix it with.”
An international call for submissions led to an “amazing” response. The festival will show the work of 50 artists from five continents, at venues including Edinburgh Printmakers, Summerhall and the Traverse. Japan’s Takashi Arai, one of the top artists working with the daguerrotype, will show at Stills Gallery, and talk about his work. Other highlights include the work of US artist S Gayle Stevens at the Botanic Gardens, using the wet-plate collodion process to make a series of works about the decline of the honey bee, and the atmospheric landscapes of Aberdeenshire-based Anne Campbell.
The festival brings together artists working with techniques ranging from Polaroids to pinhole cameras – including one made using an ostrich egg – and marrying antiquated print processes with the latest digital technologies. There is also a chance to see rare tintypes, from the collection of photography historian Sheila Masson, at the Englishspeaking Union Scotland Gallery.
Fletcher says that the explosion in digital photography has stimulated many art photographers to reconnect with hands-on techniques. “There is a very quickly growing interest in non-straight photography. The strength and diversity of the people who’ve wanted to participate in Actinic are just great. You could compare it to alternative music, which used to be a genre which incorporated grunge and lots of different things, then became a very mainstream umbrella. I think that’s the way alternative photography is going.”
Traditional processes remind us photography is not always instant, but is also a little magical. Take, for example, the cover of the Actinic programme, printed using photochromatic ink: when exposed to bright daylight, the white paper reveals an image of butterfly wings. “Isn’t it cool,” says Fletcher. “This is what I feel every time I’m in the darkroom. I’ve been a photographer for 15 years, but I always get excited by an image developing. There’s childlike wonder about it. There is more to photography than the image on the bus stop, or Facebook. I’m hoping Actinic will encourage people to experiment more with photography.”
Retina – Scottish International Festival of Photography 2015 is at various venues, Edinburgh, 10-30 July, www.retinafestival.com; the Actinic Festival is at various venues, Edinburgh, until 26 July, see www. alternativephotographyscotland.org
Left, from the Actinic Festival, one of Sheila Masson’s tintypes. Top tier, images from the Retina show, from left: panda portrait by Tim Flach; swans on Edinburgh’s St Margaret’s Loch by Doug Corrance; Gary Oldman by Hamish Brown