ART: St Andrews launches annual photography festival

It started with a patent. Or, more accurately, the absence of one. When Henry Fox Talbot invented the calotype in 1841, he patented his idea in England only (at the time, patents were separate in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, with each country incurring further expense and administration). His decision had one important result: it opened the way for a small town on the east coast of Scotland to become a hotbed for the development of photography.

Natural Magick by Calum Colvin, at St Andrews Photography Festival
Natural Magick by Calum Colvin, at St Andrews Photography Festival

One of those who believes that more should be done to celebrate the role of St Andrews in the history of photography is Rachel Nordstrom, photographic collections manager at the town’s university. Given the job of curating the town’s first ever photography festival, she has no shortage of ideas, nor, with an archive of more than one million images spanning the 175-year history of photography, a shortage of material. As she says: “The main challenge is choosing which ones to show.”

The first St Andrews Photography Festival in August will not only celebrate the town’s achievements in early photography, but will also bring the story right up to the present day. Thanks to an initiative by BID, the town’s Business Improvement District, exhibitions will spring up in 19 locations around the town, in cafés, restaurants and even a nightclub.

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“St Andrews is widely recognised within the field as being very important in the history of photography,” says Nordstrom, but it is so often overlooked. Photography is a very accessible art form. By putting a series of photos in a café or an ice cream parlour or a nightclub where people are going to go anyway, I’m sneaking it into their lives in some way, opening up their world to it a little bit.”

Some of the earliest photographs connected with the town will be shown in reproduction at Scotland Through the Lens: 175 Years of Documentary Photography, at the university’s Gateway Gallery on the North Haugh. Nordstrom says: “There are three themes – working at sea, living on the land and building the city, and all of this comes together in St Andrews. I think it will be interesting to see photographs of fisherfolk from the 1840s by Hill & Adamson next to Paul Duke’s ‘At Sea’ work from the last decade, both wanting to document these lives of professionals who worked on the sea, telling a similar story.”

In the 1840s, a group of people came together in St Andrews to share their interest in experimenting with fledgling photographic processes. Among them were David Brewster, the principle of the United Colleges (the forerunner of today’s university), physician John Adamson, local chemist Alexander Govan and the town’s provost Hugh Lyon Playfair. Brewster was a friend and correspondent of Henry Fox Talbot, and may have had a hand in persuading him not to patent his invention in Scotland.

After the invention of the calotype in England, and the daguerrotype in France, the race was on to find ways to make image-making quicker and easier, the results clearer and less fragile. The St Andrews group was at the forefront of this experimentation, a story told in Robert Crawford’s book The Beginning and the End of the World. It was here, for example, that artist David Octavius Hill was introduced to Robert Adamson (younger brother of David) who went on to form the most important partnership in early photography. Their pioneering work came to an end with Adamson’s early death in 1848, but their archive is one of the most important in photographic history.

The first photography studio in St Andrews was opened by a young man called Thomas Rodger in 1849, a medical student who ditched his studies in favour of a career behind the lens. “I don’t know how his parents felt when he said he was going to become a photographer and not a doctor,” says Nordstrom. “But he was an amazing photographer, and he set up a wonderful studio which carried on after he died.” One of the highlights of the festival will be to see Rodger’s work in what was his purpose-built studio on St Mary’s Place (now the university careers centre).

Workshops and demonstrations on historical photography processes will cater for the resurgence of interest in getting one’s hands dirty with paper and chemicals, while travelling Victorian-style tintype photographer Richard Cynan Jones will have his outdoor studio in the town offering visitors the chance to have their picture taken in the style of the beachfront photographers of the 1880s. Nordstrom says: “A daguerrotype, for example, cost probably about a month’s salary for an average person. Tintypes were very quick, very easy, very cheap, so photography all of a sudden went from the studio to the outdoors. You got travelling photographers showing up on beaches, town fairs, it was accessible to many, many more people.”

Meanwhile, exhibitions throughout the town will showcase a range of photography from the past century: the rock music photographs of Harry Papadopoulos at The Vic pub and nightclub; the street photography of David Peat at Taste Cafe; the political work of Franki Raffles, the feminist photographer behind the Zero Tolerance advertising campaign in the 1990s, at the Old Union Coffee House. She died in 1994 at the age of just 39, and her archive is housed at the university, where she was a student.

The work of Document Scotland, the four-person collective who came together to capture the state of the nation in the months leading up to the independence referendum, will be shown on the railings of the Scores, while one of Scotland’s top contemporary artists working with photography, Calum Colvin, will show work from the past 30 years in the Adamson restaurant, Dr John Adamson’s former home. A recent – and timely – addition to the programme is Alicia Bruce’s portfolio, Menie: Trumped (at Luvian’s ice cream parlour), about the residents of North-east Scotland, whom Donald Trump tried to evict from their homes to make room for his golf resort.

Nordstrom says: “Our goal isn’t just to celebrate St Andrews or the special collections, or local photography, we really want to have the full gamut of Scottish photography, because Scotland has contributed so many influential photographers over 175 years. It’s a big story to tell, but at least it’s an annual festival now. I feel like we already have a line-up for next year.” n

The St Andrews Photography Festival runs from 1 August until 11 September. Scotland Through the Lens is at the Gateway Galleries, North Haugh, from 1 September until 20 December,