Framing Glasgow’s art scene is a snap for Alan Dimmick

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Compulsive snapper Alan Dimmick, who recorded the rise of Glasgow’s art scene in countless photos, describes the genesis of his own retrospective

ALAN Dimmick just can’t stop taking photographs. When we meet in his Glasgow studio, to talk about 300 of his photos of the Scottish contemporary art world that will go on show at the city’s Gallery of Modern Art next month, he can’t resist telling me about a quite different scene in Ayrshire that caught his eye earlier in the day.

“There was a whole flock of sheep in someone’s front garden,” he laughs. “The road had been blocked by the police and the poor woman was looking out of her window in horror at the state of her lawn. I stopped to take a photograph and, of course, the police are looking at me, wondering what I am doing, thinking about checking my number plate. That’s the impulse and, even at the age of 50, I just have to keep doing it.”

That impulse has resulted, almost accidentally, in the creation one of the most important archives of Glasgow’s thriving contemporary art scene. Dimmick, a photographer since his early teens, started visiting exhibition openings and events at the artist-led Transmission Gallery in the mid-1990s.

“My friend [the artist Alan Michael] took me to openings,” he explains. “I went a couple of times without my camera, there were all these people milling about talking and drinking, there was art on the wall. I thought, ‘I should really be photographing this.’”

He handed in a couple of black and white prints as a gift to the gallery in 1995, and shortly afterwards, they asked him to start documenting their work. Word spread and soon Dimmick became an understated but essential figure in Scotland, behind the camera everywhere from a flagship venue like Dundee Contemporary Arts to a tiny artist-led space like the Duchy in Glasgow’s Duke Street where he has just spent this weekend.

Crucially, as well as taking formal photographs of exhibitions and artworks for documentation purposes, he continued to follow his initial instincts. Exhibition openings are a curious halfway house between work and play, and it was at these events that he captured some of the collective magic that has made Glasgow, in particular, one of the most important art centres in Europe.

Dimmick never set out to record history being made, but “as people became more famous I would think, ‘it’s quite nice I’ve got a picture of him when he was young or when his hair was different’. I didn’t think it was an exhibition or a book, it wasn’t self-conscious. Latterly, I did understand that people’s careers were taking off. I always thought, I’m really glad I’m in Glasgow doing this, seeing people getting somewhere, knowing how hard people have worked and kept at it.”

Amongst his images there are individual stars: the musician Alex Kapranos, for example, in the days before Franz Ferdinand; Turner Prize winners such as Simon Starling and nominees like Jim Lambie, Cathy Wilkes and Nathan Coley.

But it’s the whole body of work that counts as much as the individual pictures. In 15 years and hundreds of prints he has captured artists as they make art and friends, perform, fall in love and out of it, cut their hair into new styles and drink a heck of a lot of beer.

Dimmick talks about himself as an outsider, always behind the camera. “It came to a point that I was there so often that I would disappear.” But he has lots of good friends in the art world and his gentle presence means he is often asked to record significant private moments.

He was there to catch the family party when Toby Paterson won the Beck’s Futures prize in 2002, for example. And when the artists Jacqueline Donachie and Roddy Buchanan were married he photographed both the hen and stag parties.

“At the Mitre Bar, I was the only man, apart from the barman, and he had the bar to protect himself,” he recalls. “At one point I did have the feeling that anything could happen. The whole night was mental. I went straight from there to the [Glasgow Designers] Timorous Beasties’ studio for the stag do. By the time I got there, it was 11 o’clock. They had set up a game where you tied your hands together and then had to race up the print table. I managed to get a terrible group photograph of them and fled.”

He has spent a lifetime in photography. “When I was a young boy, about 12 or 13, I had loads of hobbies and I think my mother despaired. I got a little snappy camera of my mum’s and there was something about looking through the viewfinder that totally transfixed me. But even more than that was the idea, by the time I was 14 and 15, of buying poisonous chemicals and getting an image from them.”

At Hyndland Secondary School, he laughs, “It was like Gregory’s Girl, trying to take photographs of pretty girls and getting paid for it. It was all trial and error. At that age I was never taught by anyone.” At home he used his parents’ cupboard as a darkroom, at school there was a disused girls’ toilet. Later he studied photography at college and, as a flatmate of musician Justin Currie from Del Amitri in the 1980s, photographed the Glasgow music scene.

These days, Dimmick’s filing cabinet is full of thousands of images. Future historians and current publishers would be well advised to take a look. “When Ben Harman from the Gallery of Modern Art phoned me up,” he says, “I was flattered and honoured and quite taken aback.”

But it won’t be his first involvement with the gallery: not only has he recorded scores of exhibitions and events there, but his two sons appear in one of its best known contemporary works: Roddy Buchanan’s 1999 video Gobstopper.

The short film records a bunch of children holding their breath in the back of a van as it is driven through the Clyde Tunnel. When Buchanan had the idea he got on the phone. “He said, ‘Can we borrow not only your sons but all their friends?’ I was in the back of Roddy’s van, his dad was driving. We had to go through the tunnel at least a dozen times and on the CCTV cameras, of course, we would be going round and round. We had floodlights on in the back of the van and the kids weren’t wearing seatbelts. I’m surprised we didn’t get arrested.”

The work went on to win the Beck’s Futures prize. The rest, as Alan Dimmick’s impulsive eye continues to capture, is history.

• Alan Dimmick: Photographs from the last 15 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland is at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow from 17 February until 13 May