Arts review: St Andrews Photography Festival

A photograph by Keny Drew printed on glass on display at Rusacks Hotel. Picture: Alan S. Morrison
A photograph by Keny Drew printed on glass on display at Rusacks Hotel. Picture: Alan S. Morrison
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The inaugural St Andrews Photography Festival shows lots of promise, but is lacking in focus, writes Moira Jeffrey

The St Andrews Photography Festival | Rating: *** | Various venues, St Andrews

Carrying peats, Fladday, Harris, 1937, by Robert Moyes Adam. Picture: Alan S. Morrison, ASM Media & PR

Carrying peats, Fladday, Harris, 1937, by Robert Moyes Adam. Picture: Alan S. Morrison, ASM Media & PR

I’ve always suspected that I had more than a little of the Victorian matriarch in me, but it was established conclusively at the inaugural St Andrews Photography Festival. By chance during my visit I happened upon festival director Rachel Nordstrom, the enthusiastic keeper of the photographic collections at the University of St Andrews, conducting some experiments outside the university library with Richard Jones. Jones was using a modern reconstruction of a bellows camera – it had been built by an American civil war re-enactor – and he was experimenting with the tintype, the quick and (relatively) cheap photographic technology that transformed popular image making in the 19th century. The pair offered to take my portrait.

The process uses a chemically prepared wet metal plate and requires a dark room, in this case a pop up in the form of a beautifully designed red tent. The results were impressive. Well, kind of. You can’t really smile without moving for five seconds (try it you’ll see what I mean) and this length of exposure means you must keep your head still in a clamp. In addition, the wet collodion process does tend to make us light-haired, blue-eyed types look rather ghostly. Getting my portrait taken this way made me much more sympathetic towards my scary ancestors. I think I look rather…historic. But my children have made me promise that I will keep the stern and forbidding image in a drawer.

Tintype photography never took off in Britain as it did in America, the nascent art form’s elite gatekeepers liked to keep the money and the mysticism to themselves. But a quirk of intellectual property law meant that Scotland, and St Andrews in particular, was an epicentre of pioneering photographic processes. When Henry Fox Talbot, the leading pioneer of photography this side of the channel failed to patent his negative/positive calotype process in Scotland, the field was wide open. In St Andrews his friend, the physicist Sir David Brewster, was at the centre of a pioneering group of photographers that included Dr John Adamson and his brother Robert Adamson, who, with the painter David Octavius Hill, went on to “invent” documentary photography in Edinburgh and Newhaven.

It is this history that the festival is attempting to revive, with an exhibition of the university’s treasures opening this weekend and a series of more than 20 small exhibitions in town centre locations linked to the St Andrews Business Improvement District, mainly the town centre’s bars and restaurants. The town and gown intentions are good, but can you really run a festival by relying on hostelries as venues?

A rack of Tintype photographs from a workshop at the festival. Picture: Alan S. Morrison

A rack of Tintype photographs from a workshop at the festival. Picture: Alan S. Morrison

In the Rusacks Hotel, the established centre of much golf tourism, the large screen telly was set to sports, but the Made in Denmark golf tournament was suspended amidst pouring rain and risk of lightning. Here, the festival had cannily chosen to show the work of George Middlemas Cowie, whose documentary photographs focused on golf’s luminaries like Old Tom Morris and the fascinating detail of golf as a social sport, including ladies on the putting green.

The Adamson Cocktail bar is named for the town’s photographic pioneer and was a canny place to host the elaborately constructed images of Calum Colvin. At the Old Union Coffee Shop, images by the late feminist Franki Raffles linked the labour of women workers in Beijing factories with the laundresses of the NHS in Scotland. At Taste Coffee shop, sweet cyanotypes by the artist Kit Martin had their sources in glass slides by the late marine biologist Michael Laverack.

There is much to like about the idea of this festival, not least its obvious heritage and its energetic programme of talks and events. But as it stands, while it may get the punters in the town’s many upmarket bars and restaurants to recognise that there’s more to St Andrews than golf and the university, it may not yet have sufficient programming pull for out of town visitors.

Not all exhibitions were showing original works – instead many were exhibition boards showing reproductions of historic works or digital images on printed banners. An honourable exception to the difficulties this generates is the work of Document Scotland, the group of four documentary photographers including Sophie Gerrard and Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, whose images, affixed to the railings on The Scores, had depth and real story-telling. Everywhere I turned up I was welcomed kindly by staff more used to pulling pints or plating up, but craning at images over diners’ heads or rushing in and out of crowded bars at lunchtime is not the most pleasurable or nuanced of visitor experiences.

A longer run-up to the festival would allow the chance to commission new works and engagement projects, and works on loan from the excellent photographic and contemporary collections in Edinburgh and Glasgow could provide a real cultural draw. Also, a wider variety of venue types might help attract new visitors to the centre of the town and allow them the see more actual photographs.

In recent years Fife Contemporary Art and Craft has been flying the flag for visual arts in the area. It would be good to build wider partnerships. In time The St Andrews Photography Festival might emulate StAnza, the town’s focused and very credible literary festival. It’s not there yet, but it is full of potential. In the meantime I enjoyed my welcome and, in particular, channelling my inner Victorian.

• Until 11 September