Photography highlights at 2017's Edinburgh Art Festival

Photographic highlights at 2017's Edinburgh Art Festival

Hill & Adamson, Lady Mary Hamilton (Campbell) Ruthven, 1789 - 1885

Including Hill & Adamson, Retina, Kate Davis and Rolls & Shutters

In 1843, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson stumbled on a working partnership which began when painter Hill asked the younger Adamson to take a picture of more than 400 renegade clergymen from the newly formed Free Church of Scotland. Little did they realise that by documenting such a key moment of Edinburgh life in such a new-fangled fashion, they were kick-starting a revolution of their own. Photography had only been invented four years before, but the pioneering collaboration forged by the pair paved the way for what would become one of the major art forms of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The result of the partnership can be seen in A Perfect Chemistry, the first major showing of Hill and Adamson's work in 15 years. As part of Edinburgh Art Festival, the duo's array of social documentary studies of Newhaven fisherfolk and their portraiture of Edinburgh's society set is being shown in a room named after another iconic photographer, the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

It took decades for photography to be taken seriously as an art form in the city, despite the efforts of the Edinburgh Photographic Society, which is about to host its 155th Edinburgh International Exhibition of Photography. In fact, it took 134 years from Hill and Adamson's first collaboration for a gallery devoted solely to photography to open in Edinburgh. That gallery was Stills, which ushers in its 40th anniversary celebrations with its own Edinburgh Art Festival show featuring work by 2016 Margaret Tait Award winner, Kate Davis.

Over its 40 year existence, first at two addresses on the High Street before moving to its current Cockburn Street premises in 1994, Stills has played host to numerous exhibitions by major international figures whose work was being shown in Scotland for the first time. These have included the likes of Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe and Walker Evans. Throughout the gallery's existence, an extensive educational programme has run alongside its exhibitions, offering practical workshops and outreach work.

The seeds of Stills were planted in 1976 by an exhibition called Recent American Still Photography, which was presented at the Fruitmarket Gallery by the Scottish Photography Group. At a time when the only public photography galleries in the UK were the Photographer's Gallery, London, Impressions in York and Amber/Side in Newcastle, the SPG, made up largely of photographers, was born of frustration at a lack of a permanent space for photography in Scotland's capital.

Photographic highlights at 2017's Edinburgh Art Festival

Kate Davis, Charity (video still)
The group's aim was to 'promote a greater understanding of photography as an art form with a particular emphasis on the latent capacities of the medium to search into and investigate the world around us; and to encourage and assist those working in this medium, particularly in Scotland.' Stills: The Scottish Photography Group Gallery, opened on 19 October 1977.

At that time, for photography to be actively collected by museums in the UK and elsewhere was still a relatively new pursuit. As Stills developed to include work by artists fusing photography and film with other art forms enabled by new technology, the National Galleries of Scotland set up its Scottish National Photographic Collection in 1984. This was established on the basis of it already holding original photographs by Hill and Adamson, taken between 1843 and 1847.

With Street Level Photoworks established in Glasgow in 1989, Edinburgh had already fostered other independent initiatives, including the Candlemaker Row based Portfolio gallery. This was set up by former Stills staff with an accompanying magazine, both of which aimed to showcase more Scottish-based photographers. Such a widening of outlets across the country gave rise to Fotofeis, a biannual Scottish international festival of photography that existed throughout the 1990s.

While a permanent national photography centre was mooted a decade ago, this evolved into the Institute of Photography Scotland. This partnership between NGS, Stills, Street Level, the University of Glasgow and University of St Andrews aims to support photography in Scotland through collections, exhibitions, and programming. The Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery, meanwhile, where Hill and Adamson have come to rest, opened in 2012, and is the first purpose-built photography space of its kind in a major museum in Scotland.

Beyond this, independent projects flourish. A major example of photography as social history as much as artwork can be found in Rolls and Shutters, a retrospective of work by Angela Catlin and John Brown from the 1970s, shown alongside a new film created by Stina Wirfelt. The exhibition documents some of the incident and colour from Craigmillar Festival Society, the internationally renowned community arts initiative which much of Edinburgh and Scotland's current cultural high heid yins could learn much from. Elsewhere, Retina is an annual showcase of photographers being staged in various spaces throughout the city. Photography in Edinburgh, it seems, is still very much in the frame.

Retina, various venues, Edinburgh, until 31Jul, free.
A Perfect Chemistry: Photographs by Hill & Adamson, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, until 1 Oct, £10 (£8).
Kate Davis; Nudes Never Wear Glasses, Stills Gallery, 28 Jul-8 Oct, free.
Rolls and Shutters, Craigmillar Library, 1-14 Aug, free.

Kate Davis 

  • 4 stars

Kate Davis’ first solo exhibition in Edinburgh includes her recently commissioned Margaret Tait Award film, Charity. Charity questions how the essential, but largely invisible and unpaid, processes we employ to care for others and ourselves could be reimagined. The exhibition will also include work in other media…

Retina Photography Festival

Festival of international photography celebrating the best in world photography as well as emerging talent in Scotland.

Rolls and Shutters: Stina Wirfelt, Angela Catlin and John Brown

In the 1970s Craigmillar was a hub for community arts. Local people created their own Festival Society and staged plays, exhibitions and commissioned public artworks. The arts were used as a tool for social empowerment in an area that was, and continues to be, one of the most deprived communities in Scotland. This…

A Perfect Chemistry: Photographs by Hill & Adamson 

Only four years after the invention of photography was announced to the world in 1839, two Scots had mastered the new medium and were producing works of breathtaking skill, in extraordinary quantities. A Perfect Chemistry: Photographs by Hill and Adamson, an engineer – started out making highly skilled portraits of church…

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