Art review: Retina 2016, Edinburgh

One of the photographs by Jason Bell at the main festival hub. Picture: Jason Bell

One of the photographs by Jason Bell at the main festival hub. Picture: Jason Bell

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These days, Edinburgh seems to have a festival for most things, and a photography festival is such a natural addition to the mix that one wonders why it took so long.

Retina 2016 | Various venues, Edinburgh | Rating ***

The organisers of Retina, now in its third year, have wisely chosen the month of July, when the city’s diary is in something of a lull after the Film Festival and before the all-round jamboree of August.

Retina has the feel of a festival which is gradually finding its feet and its (no pun intended) focus. With a steering group who come largely from the photographic industry (press, advertising, commercial photography), it is this rather than art photography which makes up its major thurst. The 2015 competitions run by the UK Picture Editor’s Guild and the Association of Photographers are showcased, and there is a variety of shows by individual practitioners. Any involvement by the city’s gallery or museum sector is conspicuous by its absence.

Gayfield Creative Spaces, the building which once housed Doggerfisher Gallery, is perhaps the closest the festival has to a hub, housing its three headline shows. The glitziest of these is Jason Bell, who photographs A-list celebrities for magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair. Here is Michael Caine on a Routemaster bus, Keira Knightley in evening dress in a greasy spoon cafe, the many faces of Steve Coogan montaged into one composition, an impressively grumpy-faced David Bailey, that famous picture of William and Kate with Prince George at the window. It’s fun and interesting (you can play a game to see how many you can name, as none is labelled), but they are delivered with such polish, both on the part of the photographer and their subject, that it feels as if it’s more about surface than depth.

The show in the next room, Road Wallah, by Scots-born Dougie Wallace, takes a completely different tack. Wallace (who has the moniker ‘“Glasweegee”) spent four years hanging around on street corners in Bombay, documenting the city’s colourfully decorated Premier Padmini cabs (since phased out due to emissions legislation).

These large-format high-gloss prints have a splendid degree of depth and clarity. Wallace’s subject is really people, not cabs – the toothless, grinning driver, the child whose serious eyes meet and hold those of the viewer. Yet, the sense of the bustling, chaotic city is there, always, just beyond the edges of the frame.

The building’s grungy-looking basement makes the ideal stage-set for the work of New York based Kareem Black, with its streetsy feel, but the body of work doesn’t really hang together. Some more information would help: is this a range of work, or a single project? It’s the same story with work of advertising photographer David Boni in the cafe at Summerhall. Were these immaculate, subtly expressive portraits taken for advertising campaigns, or are they part of a project in their own right?

The second of the festival’s main venues is the Customs House in Leith, a once-grand building which was used a museum store for decades, and is now seeking a new life. The award-winners from the UK Picture Editor’s Guild make up the largest show here, a showcase of some of the best press photography – and most memorable moments – of the last year.

Port Glasgow-born CJ Monk is a relative newcomer on the photographic scene, with an interest in fashion and portraiture. The work here shows an idiosyncratic take on these genres, a lively imagination, a sense of humour, and an interest in playing with unconventional light sources. London-based Alma Haser’s Cosmic Surgery is a series of unsettling conceptual portraits which combine photography and origami.

Janeanne Gilchrist, a photographer who is also a keen diver, shows underwater images which illuminate the oceans as strange and beautiful. Iran-born Kayhan Jafar-Shaghaghi does some old-school documentary work in photographing workers in the saffron industry in Iran.

It’s also worth seeking out Retina in some of its other outposts: at the Roamin’ Nose restaurant on Eyre Place, Edinburghers Paul and Lynn Henni present The Elements, a show of their photographs of their city. Shot mainly in black and white, often at night, they show the city at its moody, mysterious best, reminding us of the power of a good photograph to reveal a familiar place in a new light.

Finally, tucked away on the second floor of Ocean Terminal is Kevin McElvaney’s #RefugeeCameras project. A photographer looking for a fresh way to document one of the biggest issues of our time, he hit on the idea of giving single-use cameras to the refugees themselves, about to leave Turkey.As such, they are incredibly valuable, and perhaps worthy of a more central place in the festival.

• Gayfield Creative Spaces and Customs House exhibitions until 30, for complete listings see www.retinafestival.com

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