Visual art review: Romantic Camera: Scottish Photography and the Modern World | War at Sea

A large, contemporary photograph by Michael Reisch, just glen and mountain, greets you as you enter the Romantic Camera exhibition
A large, contemporary photograph by Michael Reisch, just glen and mountain, greets you as you enter the Romantic Camera exhibition
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By contrasting stark images of urban and rural poverty with more familiar Victorian notions of the Highlands, the SNPG is challenging some of the more romanticised myths of our nation

‘OH WAD some power the giftie gie us / To see ourselves as others see us.” Burns’s impassioned plea for self-awareness is proverbial. As our national Bard, however, his words also have a corollary: how indeed do we see ourselves, not just individually, but collectively? Most of us live in the towns and cities of the Central Belt, but part of our self-image is still, in the words of Walter Scott, “the land of the mountain and the flood”. How did this idea take such firm root when it has so little to do with the way we actually live?

The calotype of the Scott Monument in 1843, when it was still under construction

The calotype of the Scott Monument in 1843, when it was still under construction

Questions like this lie behind the arrangement of the reborn Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The displays in the galleries are intended to change over time with different bits changing at different speeds, the large galleries more slowly than the small. There will also be temporary exhibitions, however, and currently there are two – hence my revisiting the gallery so soon after celebrating its reopening.

One is a loan exhibition from the Imperial War Museum of paintings by Sir John Lavery, a war artist during the First World War. The second exhibition, Romantic Camera: Scottish Photography and the Modern World, is directly pertinent to my original question in that it focuses on identity.

In its richness this exhibition first of all celebrates the National Photographic Collection, however. The most recently formed of our national collections, it has grown quickly to international significance and now has its home and a permanent gallery in the new SNPG. This exhibition makes clear why that is its proper place and how important photography has been in the creation of our collective self-image.

The collection began with the acquisition of a large body of the calotypes of DO Hill and Robert Adamson. True pioneers, they were among the very first to exploit photography as an art form and not just an experimental medium. Their calotype of the Scott Monument in 1843, when it was still under construction, makes the point, too, that they began their brief, but historic partnership barely a decade after Walter Scott’s death. The monument and nearby Waverley station, the only railway station in the world named after a novel, testify to the reputation of the man who shaped the image of the land of the mountain and the flood, of Scotland as a poetic wilderness.

The St Kilda Parliament

The St Kilda Parliament

It is an image that is still with us, too. A large, contemporary photograph by Michael Reisch that greets you as you enter invokes it. Just glen and mountain, any sign of human presence carefully deleted, a critique of countless images of Highland wilderness, this picture is also their epitome. One splendid earlier example of the genre here is Loch Coruisk seen from the Cuillins by Ashley and George Abraham, pioneers of mountaineering photography. In a short film made on Rannoch Moor almost a century later, Joseph Beuys still pays tribute to the enduring idea of the Scottish wilderness.

Postcards and other images of the Scottish wilderness became an industry in the 19th century. James Valentine was their most prolific publisher. A beautiful example of his work, Loch Lomond from Luss, mist effect, demonstrates how good he was,. I am not sure that a rowing boat on the glassy loch is, as the label suggests, a reference to The Lady of the Lake, Scott’s defining poem of the Highland landscape. Nevertheless we are invited to reflect how big a role the humble postcard may have had in defining our sense of our identity, and how it reflects Scott’s vision.

But there is surely more to Scotland than Walter Scott and wilderness. Hill and Adamson, after all, were famous for their portraits, not their landscapes, and for their humour too. The morning after “He greatly daring, dined” shows Hill with a serious hangover being attended by his medical friend, James Miller, a temperance reformer. A classical bust turns away, frowning with disapproval at Hill’s self-inflicted suffering.

Scotland’s cities became a popular subject, as did their colourful street life. Four Edinburgh street characters photographed anonymously 100 years ago include the Blind Scripture Reader who, it is noted, “used to swear somewhat awful”. Later, too, a picture of boys playing in the street in the Gorbals by Robert Mayne is full of vitality; Singing in the Street is an enchanting short film by Nigel McIsaac, Raymond Townsend and James T Ritchie of a group of girls playing children’s games and singing children’s songs around the streets of Edinburgh in 1951.

The centrepiece of this whole remarkable show, however, is a series of hand-coloured slides made by George Washington Wilson and Norman MacLeod in the Western Isles in about 1886. Projected onto the screen, you can really appreciate their quality, but their content is amazing too. Here are spectacular images of mountain wilderness, but even more memorably of the people of the Isles, especially of St Kilda. They were, no doubt, Scots but they seem to inhabit another world. The famous picture of the St Kilda parliament is here, but less familiar are pictures of the women. One group is sitting knitting, barefoot outside a cottage built of stones without mortar and a blanket for a door. There is nothing remotely sentimental in such a stark image and when you put the inhabitants back into the picture so dramatically, the simplifications of the conventional imagery of Scotland become too obvious to stand up.

More than half a century later, Paul Strand also visited the Hebrides with his camera. His pictures are memorable, but a portrait of a melancholy Highland cow, knee deep in seaweed, suggests he was willing to question the validity of the iconographic burden our landscapes so often carry. Nevertheless, looking at his photographs of the people of the Hebrides, you suspect his motives were still touched with sentiment, however striking the results. Such sentiment is powerful, nevertheless. Strand’s Tir A’Mhuirain (Land of Bent Grass) was evidently one of the most successful photography books ever published.

Our contemporaries, Ron O’Donnell and Calum Colvin, both examine Scottish identity and the conundrum of imagery it incorporates. To do so they construct their images using variations on photomontage. It is as though photography alone is too compromised, that it now carries too much baggage to capture truth. Implicitly these two artists suggest how tendentious and selective photography can be, how artistic in fact, even though its reputation is beyond challenge as witness of history and the primary medium of record.

As a war artist, however, painting was Lavery’s medium and, as he used it, he really was a witness. When the German High Command met the British High Command to negotiate the surrender of the German fleet, Lavery was hiding in a corner with his easel. The resulting group portrait, though half the sitters were unaware they were being painted, is a remarkable document. There is much else that Lavery has seen directly and recorded that is fascinating here too. The view from an airship with a crew member out on a bare strut, holding on with one hand as he peers into an engine a thousand feet above the fleet steaming through the blue sea below is one of the most vertiginous pictures I have ever seen.

Perhaps it is unfair to show film of these great ships alongside Lavery’s paintings of the fleet at anchor in the Forth, or in the icy waters of Scapa Flow. It is only a few minutes of grainy film, but I am afraid it steals the paintings’ thunder.

Romantic Camera: Scottish Photography and the Modern World

*****

War at Sea

****

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

• Romantic Camera until 3 June 2012; War at Sea until 31 October 2013