If proof were needed that Scottish photography isn’t exclusively tartan or covered in heather you need go no further than ‘Beyond the Border: New Contemporary Photography from Scotland’ which opened recently at Impressions Gallery, our near neighbours, and showcases the work of the collective known as Document Scotland.
If you’d like to know more about the history and development of Scottish photography feel free to join me for a lunchtime talk at Impressions Gallery on Thursday 17 July.
As a taster for the talk I can tell you that there will be at least one nineteenth century photograph of a kilted man whose sporran goes well beyond what would be considered decent in the present day and age – no presentation on the history of Scottish photography would be complete without one. But I’m happy to say that Scottish photography has never been defined by the presence of tartan, sporrans, heather or highland cattle. Some of these things feature to some degree but they don’t define Scottish photography.
All the images in the talk will be from the National Photography Collection which is held here at the National Media Museum, and will include some of the most striking as well as the most intriguing photographs from the Collection.
Consider The Island Pagoda, by John Thomson (1837-1921). Truly one of the most beautiful photographs in the Collection, Thomson has made the pagoda look as if it is floating on the river.
More than just a well travelled Scot, Thomson was born in Edinburgh and became one of the most significant photographer explorers of the nineteenth century. In late 1870 and early 1871 he made a 160 mile photographic expedition of the river Min in China.
As well as photographing foreign landscapes and architecture, Thomson’s sympathetic portraits were often published alongside text which revealed a genuine interest in places, people and their culture. An outstanding photographic pioneer, his work laid the foundations of what would later come to be called documentary photography.
If Thomson is a Scottish photographer who travelled the world with his camera, there is another Scottish photographer whose work could not be more different. Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822-1865) is renowned for the quietly intense photographic portraits of her family and circle of close friends taken in her palatial London home. The single largest collection of her work is held at the V&A Museum in London and I wonder if for these reasons she is often considered quintessentially English. However, Lady Hawarden was born into landed gentry and grew up on the family estate in Cumbernauld, in central Scotland.
Some of the most intriguing photographs in the Collection to be created by a Scot were not by a photographer, but by the electrical engineer Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton (1863-1930). Swinton is now considered a genius and used photography to record aspects of his scientific work. In January 1896 he made and published this alluring X-Ray photograph of a human hand only one month after Wilhelm Röntgen (1845-1923) announced his discovery of X-Rays in 1895.
Four years earlier Campbell-Swinton used photography to record the strange and delicate patterns created by electricity when it comes into direct contact with photographic paper.
I’ve already admitted that until recently I was guilty of taking the notion of Scottish photography for granted. As proof of this I offer you the work of Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) whom I had always assumed was Scottish because he had held the grand title of Astronomer Royal for Scotland. It was only when a colleague raised her eyebrow when I told her Smyth was to be included in my presentation that I thought I might be wrong. “You’re claiming him as Scottish, are you?” was her retort. We checked, and she was right. He wasn’t Scottish by birth. In my defence she hadn’t realised Smyth had held the title of Astronomer Royal for Scotland between 1846 and 1888. He was also made an ‘Honorary Member of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland’ in 1859. How Scottish can you get? In truth he was born in Naples to English parents, and is even buried in Ripon, in Yorkshire, fittingly, under a pyramid. But despite this he has strong associations with Scotland and for that reason I beg your indulgence and include him in the frame.
One thing is certain about Piazzi Smyth – he was unique and had many strange ideas which he relied upon photography to illustrate. For example, he believed that the British Imperial Inch was a divine measurement derived from the Egyptian Pyramid Inch, which had been handed directly to the Egyptians by God. To prove his theory he set about measuring the Great Pyramid and recorded his efforts in photographs. The scale of the task can be discerned if you peer at the small human figure holding a ruler against a portion of the Great Pyramid in the bottom right corner of the photograph below.
So, there you have it – just a few atypical Scottish photographs from the National Photography Collection. Not a sporran or a stitch of tartan in sight. If you’d like to see more classic examples of Scottish photography join me at Impressions Gallery, at 12.30 on 17 July.
See you there!