City Art Centre: In Focus: Scottish Photography

Curator Dr Helen Scott - In Focus Scottish Photography (Thomas Begbie)(
Curator Dr Helen Scott - In Focus Scottish Photography (Thomas Begbie)(

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We live in an age over-saturated by photographic images, almost anyone who owns a smartphone considers themselves a photographer. The hashtag #Edinburgh alone brings up over six-million posts on Instagram, featuring both tourists’ and locals’ views of the city. It is in Edinburgh that the exhibition In Focus: Scottish Photography will showcase Scotland’s integral role in the development of photography as an art form. The exhibition reminds us that photography as art grew from the very practical desire to document every-day life thus bringing the discussion full-circle to the various bloggers and Instagram personalities of our day.

The exhibition is housed in the basement of the City Art Centre where the lights are dimmed to protect the delicate surface of the historic photographs. The scope of the exhibition ranges from as far back as the 1840s. The beginnings of photography as an art form were very much shaped in the very city housing the exhibition. It was in Edinburgh that the history painter David Octavius Hill and the professional calotypist Robert Adamson collaborated. Entering the exhibition, the visitor faces a large wall upon which a great number of Hill and Adamson’s images have been mounted. The photographs are small and it is only upon closer inspection that their individual characters come to light. Though the portraits appear very staged, the occasional blur caused by individuals stirring, allows the images to come to life. Suddenly these scenes and individuals from the 19th century seem not all too far removed.

Thomas Vernon Begbie, St Anthony's Chapel, Edinburgh, c.1857-1860. City Art Centre, Museums & Galleries Edinburgh.
Thomas Vernon Begbie, St Anthony’s Chapel, Edinburgh, c.1857-1860. City Art Centre, Museums & Galleries Edinburgh.


In contrast to these historical photographs, the more recent productions mounted on the walls to the left and right have been produced by Scottish artists of the last fifty years. The colours of these polychrome prints appear all the more vivid in contrast to Adamson and Hill’s black and white images. The visibly textured watermelon pulp in Christine Borland’s The Velocity of Drops has a similarly animating effect to the soft blurs of impatient children in the photographs of Adamson and Hill. By 2006, however, the role of the artist-photographer such as Borland has changed from documenting the world around them to creating new meanings in abstracted situations.

Maud Sulter, Terpsichore, 1989. © Maud Sulter / The Estate of Maud Sulter (Photo: Street Level Photoworks)


A further exciting juxtaposition which the exhibition provides is Joseph Mackenzie’s gritty ‘Caledonian Images’ series alongside Wendy McMurdo’s polished but thought-provoking classroom photos. While Mackenzie’s photographs were produced in the 1960s, McMurdo’s date from less than forty years later and yet they differ immensely. What does lie between the works of these deliberately juxtaposed artists is the birth of the world wide web. The ability to digitally manipulate photographs, as McMurdo has done, adds a further dimension to the playing field of the artist photographer. Further artists featured in the exhibition such as Catherine Yass and Calum Colvin make use of these modern developments in photographic production.

An interesting conclusion to the exhibition are the two female portraits on the furthest wall, quite literally on the other side of Hill and Adamson’s works. Maud Sulter’s larger-than-life portraits problematise the lacking representation of black women in art galleries and exhibitions. Perhaps these two photographs propose a new direction which photography might take in the future to reconsider the cultural influence of those previously marginalised by the canon.

Isabelle Thul

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