Interview - Alexander Hamilton
Travels without my camera
This article is from 2008.
Alexander Hamilton’s new exhibition uses ancient techniques to respond to a Scottish-set classic painting. Liz Shannon met him
It might seem laughably low-tech in a digital age, but the camera-less cyanotype, one of the earliest and simplest forms of photography, still enthrals Edinburgh artist Alexander Hamilton. ‘It’s just two chemicals mixed together and applied to watercolour paper. The object is placed on top of the paper, exposed to sunlight and the image is fixed by washing with water. The process is very permanent – work from the 1840s is still fresh.’
Hamilton’s new exhibition consists of cyanotypes of plants gathered at Glenfinlas Burn, the setting for John Everett Millais’s 1853-4 portrait of the art critic John Ruskin.
‘Ruskin spent four months standing on a rock at Glenfinlas so that Millais could paint a portrait that would be a ‘manifesto’ for landscape art,’ says Hamilton. ‘Millais was so busy dealing with the rocks, the plants and the water that he only managed to capture Ruskin’s outline.’
Hamilton spent some time searching for the precise spot Ruskin posed at.
‘I wanted to communicate a sense of the site – all the plants were chosen from around the rocks. I really had to hunt for it, but Millais’ depiction of the site was incredibly accurate. Often within a landscape there’s just so much information, you can be overwhelmed by the detail. Within one petal, all of nature can be contained.’
The beauty of the cyanotype for Hamilton lies in the slow, hyper-detailed process, and the utterly unique final product, unlike standard photography, where the photographer can take repeat shots.
‘You have to take the risk: you work with the plant, it will only allow you to make one image and each image is unique. You have to accept what you get, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. But that’s good. What is interesting in nature is actually imperfection, because every plant is different.’
Studio 11, 07800 574 651, until Sat 16 Aug, free.