Photography exhibition review: Retina 2017

Dutch photographer Hellen Van Meene has a wonderfully comic series of portraits of young people with dogs; and children wearing  expressions far beyond their years
Dutch photographer Hellen Van Meene has a wonderfully comic series of portraits of young people with dogs; and children wearing expressions far beyond their years
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Finding good exhibition spaces in Edinburgh isn’t easy, and Edinburgh’s annual photography festival has lost two of the major venues it used last year: Gayfield Creative Spaces and the Customs House in Leith. This year, audiences must seek it out in the basement of Summerhall, the top floor of Ocean Terminal, and in Out of the Blue, Dalmeny Street, where the Royal Photographic Society’s International Print Exhibition is due to open on Tuesday (11 July).

Various venues ***

The result is a festival which feels smaller and less sure of itself, but nonetheless there is work worth finding. Bryn Griffith (Summerhall) has produced a remarkable body of work from Chernobyl, photographing buildings abandoned since the nuclear disaster in 1986. He used the opportunity of being made a Hasselblad Master (an award from excellence bestowed by the camera maker) to step outside his comfort zone as a commercial photographer and tackle something very different.

While the idea of photographing at Chernobyl isn’t new, he does it beautifully, reveling in the textures of decay in the former houses, workshops, a swimming pool, and capturing the residue of human presence in sumptuous detail: peeling paint and yellowing wallpaper, a rotting armchair, a gas mask. One can see why he would want to contrast this with examples of his more usual practice – a shiny green sports car, an abstracted bicycle seat on a saturated black background – but the effect of placing them in amongst the Chernobyl pictures has a jarring effect for the viewer, and the “soundtrack” by Justin Wiggan proves a little distracting.

Nearby, Dutch photographer Hellen Van Meene shows a series of works from her book The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits. Like the Chernobyl pictures, they feel perfectly at home in Summerhall’s grungy basement. Van Meene has photographed children and young people on the cusp adulthood, capturing the moment when a child wears an expression far beyond her years, or when she is physically poised between innocence and experience.

She draws on elements of myth and story: young women have their hair combed mysteriously over their faces, or sleep on a pile of mattresses like the protagonist in The Princess and the Pea. There is a wonderfully comic series of portraits of young people with dogs, the earnestness of the animals accentuating the element of the absurdity.

The other exhibition at Summerhall shows the category winners in the Association of Photographers (AOP) Awards (annual awards for commercial photographers) and a selection of the finalists from the student category. Sophie Ebrard’s body of work about basketball players is worth noting, as are Dan Princes’ protraits in snow. Among the students, there are a number of stand-outs: Chelsi Donaldson’s portrait of a child holding a baby, Robert Patterson’s old woman smoking, John Buckley’s Kincardine Bridge in frosty morning light, Morgan Stephenson’s kingfisher.

Meanwhile, at Ocean Terminal, the work of nine photographers is showcased under the banner of Emerging Talent. One would welcome some information about them and their projects, but Jimmy Reid’s striking pictures of tropical fish, Tim Pearse’s grainy, mysterious nudes and Olli Wiegner’s portraits of collectors of Americana are all worthy of attention.

SUSAN MANSFIELD

Summerhall shows until 15 July; Out of the Blue until 21 July; Ocean Terminal until 30 July. www.retinafestival.com