Scottish photography at the National Portrait Gallery.


Scottish focus

What is Scottish photography? A major exhibition arrives in Edinburgh after showing in Houston. Lorna J. Waite previews it and welcomes its diversity.

The National Portrait Gallery plays host to this major exhibition ofcontemporary Scottish photography. The late Murray Johnston was one of the co-organisers and the exhibition is a fine testament to his dedicated efforts to promote and encourage the development of photography within Scotland.

The show is catalystic in the sense that it aims to bring together and document the work of artists who have contributed to the resurgence or renaissance of Scottish photography in recent years. The work on show reflects a plurality of approach and an assortment of techniques. subject matter and aesthetic ideologies. The photographers chosen are Jean Baird, Lorna Bates, Peter Cattrell, John Charity, Calum Colvin, Thomas Joshua Cooper. Peter Finnemore, Annette Heyer, Owen Logan. Pradip Malde, Ron O‘Donnell, Roger Palmer, Ronnie Scott Simpson, Ruth Stirling, John Taylor. Andy Wiener. David Williams.

The construction of a renaissance in Scottish culture has been a predominant theme in funding circles and media stories. Women's history, silenced and untaught, remains a territory of knowledge to be discovered by every new generation of feminists. Likewise, oppression of cultural identity remains to be negotiated and reflected upon by every Scot; an economic and cultural fact, constant and diffuse, mirrored by endless ‘rebirths’. What ‘Scottishness’ means in this context is open to debate. Photography as an exploratory medium and its marginal position in relation to the politics of recent figurative painting can perhaps offer more space to deconstructing ideas of identity at all levels social, personal, political, aesthetic.

An oppressed country. embarrassed into inferiority, parodies its identity and becomes an impoverished myth. Calum Colvin’s work explores the historical and personal substance beneath the kitsch and stereotypes of Scottish life. His fusion of sculpture and photography gives depth to his constructed narratives meditating on cultural allusions and the artifice of humour. Scottish myths. historical auto/biography and culture as disposable

Ruth Stirling's “Noah Pivatuk'

commodity are all concerns prefigured in Ron O’Donnell‘s work, where collage, sculpture and text are incorporated into photographed scenarios.

The staging of scenes or sets incorporating objects and multiple references to be photographed is a technique used not only by Colvin and O‘Donnell but also by Andy Wiener. Wiener‘s focus is on the personal and social. His images portray the subject as social actor and victim of sex role stereotypes. Wiener’s subjects are hidden behind masks. playing out fantasies and roles which demand conformity, blandness and self-denial. Lorna Bates‘ work on personal identity is influenced by the innovative work ofJo Spence and her exploration of the Family Album. Old family photographs are restaged and. in doing so, she explores the changing nature of memory, family dynamics and the construction of her female selfwithin this.

Traditional genres within photography landscape, documentary are well represented in the work of Peter Cattrell, Roger Palmer. John Charity. Thomas Joshua Cooper and Owen Logan. David Williams and Pradip Malde share a focus on the technical and abstract properties of light and object from a formal perspective.

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Through her interest in semiotics, Jean Baird uses image/text to meditate on language structure and meaning. Her work combines elements to tell a story which is beyond language in definition. Annette Heyer's work also lends itself to semiotic ideas, as her concern with texture, substance and surface deals with questions of naming and originality.

The artists have been well chosen if the aim of the show is to illustrate the richness and energy within photography in Scotland. It also demonstrates that it cannot be pigeonholed or easily homogenised into a new Scottish tradition. The diverse approaches to photography in the show resist this. It is also reassuring and pleasing to note that one can think immediately of many other photographers who are not included, who have made a significant contribution in recent years. There is a lack of concern with direct political issues in the exhibition and the ratio of men to women is still too high but it is an impressive survey ofwork which is thoughtful, reflective and intelligent, displaying a Scottish generalism to the last.

New Scottish Photography can be seen at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh from 7Nov.

The List 26 October 8 November IWU 63