Past Obsessions: Ron O’Donnell at City Art Centre Edinburgh

'Boiler, Caledonian Brewery, Slateford Road', 1983
'Boiler, Caledonian Brewery, Slateford Road', 1983

Edinburgh: A Lost World

Daily 10:00 - 17:00

From: 19 Nov 2022

To: 5 Mar 2023

City Art Centre
2 Market St
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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‘I was still young and I just cycled around with a cardboard box tied on with bungees and a tripod and did it… it was an obsession in a way, an addiction.’ That’s how photographer Ron O’Donnell describes capturing his early work, now on display at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. Cycling his way around the city throughout the 1970s and 80s, Ron documented unremarkable locations – spots no-one else had ever paid attention to.

Now, 50 years later, the collection acts as a reminder of the changes in our society. But he insists that wasn’t his intention: ‘I wasn’t interested in going around documenting these things, or making them for posterity. I just did it because they were unusual… They looked like theatrical sets to me – like a play was about to take place.’ 

Indeed, there’s a sense of detachment in all of Ron’s photographs, a total absence of people – a play without its players. Ron has captured the reality that exists, but in a way he constructs his own, by dramatising the everyday in a photographic form. Most of his photos look like sets, as if the stage has been prepared and something dramatic is about to take place. 

The interesting thing is that none of his older work is staged at all – instead Ron capitalised on pure circumstance. There’s an element of the surreal here, maybe even an unintentional nod to Duchamp’s readymades, though I’d say Ron’s work in this exhibition is much less self-indulgent than that of the Surrealists. 

He does have a grandiose vision for this collection of photographs, though, which is not always so easy to achieve: ‘The images were supposed to be very big, so that when you stand in front, you feel like you’re actually absorbed into the scene. Unfortunately, as with most exhibitions, you don’t have the real estate for that, so a lot of them are quite small, which doesn’t give you the same heroic quality.’

The City Art Centre’s Maeve Toal, who curated the exhibition, selected photographs which would have a universal appeal. She says, ‘Ron’s photographs have unintentionally become historic documents of the city. Visitors will be able to reminisce and draw comparisons between then and now. His photographs have unintentionally become historic documents of the city.’ 

Perhaps this is the appeal: in his photographs Ron has captured an Edinburgh that is at once familiar and yet belonging to a different world entirely. Some of the spots he pictured have only recently closed, and some have been gone for a long time. They all seem to have a story behind them, just waiting to be told.  

I had the privilege of going through some of Ron’s photos with him, and he delved a little deeper into their backgrounds. One particularly mechanical-looking image (see top) merited an explanation: ‘This is a double Albion boiler from the Caledonian Breweries in Slateford Road, which actually, incidentally, closed down last Friday. The manufacturing of beer there was becoming so expensive, because the system was antiquated, it would probably have cost them about £9 a pint… sadly, it’s probably going to be a block of flats.’

'Laundrette, South Clerk Street', 1978
‘Laundrette, South Clerk Street’, 1978

As a former resident of Newington, Ron was no stranger to his subject matter – the laundrette on the exhibition poster is actually one he frequented. He laughs at the memory: ‘The day that I photographed that laundrette, I remember I had to ask everyone to stand behind the camera. It wasn’t empty because it was done before anyone went into it, I just got everybody who was doing their washing to move! So there was a whole bunch of people, like ten people, behind my camera. These people wanted to get on with their washing! So I had to be quick!’

While Ron is quick to clarify that any sense of record-keeping in his photographs was purely coincidental, he is keen to emphasise that the lack of people was very much a stylistic choice. As he puts it, somewhat bluntly, ‘I’m not that fussed about people!’

'Bobbie's Bookshop', 2010
‘Bobbie’s Bookshop’, 2010

Then there are places that may still exist, but no longer operate in the same way. Some photos in the exhibition are more recent, yet still capture history. Bobbie’s Bookshop on Morrison Street is one example, as Ron explains: ‘He doesn’t sell anything these days… he told me, the people who used to be in the tenement blocks are all dead now, so it’s all students that live in them, and students don’t buy true detective magazines!’

Ron goes on, chuckling again at another memory: ‘Through the back here, he wouldn’t let me photograph it, but there’s a bit that has… censored magazines, shall we say… he went “oh no you can’t photograph in there!” I was really a bit miffed by that.’ 

Much of my conversation with Ron goes like this – he smiles when recalling tales of his capers, and one story leads to another. What he’s created is very much a personal history, but it has universal appeal – there’s no specific demographic. It’s a cheery glimpse into a bygone world that still has relevance now. As he says, ‘I think photographs always have a sense of nostalgia to them.’

Entry is free to the exhibition, which runs until the 5th of March, so you’ve got plenty of time to rediscover Edinburgh, no longer a lost world.

With grateful thanks to Eilidh Tuckett for this review, and for speaking with Ron O’Donnell and Maeve Toal. Alongside her colleague Georgia Heggie, Eilidh covered the opening of Edinburgh: A Lost World in the form of a radio package, which will be available on the City Art Centre social media pages. For his photography training, Ron credits his alma mater: Edinburgh Napier Polytechnic.  

Also showing is ‘Glean’, a ground-breaking exhibition of fourteen pioneering women photographers and filmmakers working in Scotland during the early 20th century.

City Art Centre, Edinburgh
City Art Centre, Edinburgh

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