Until 16th February 2020
The MacKinnon Collection of photography was acquired for the nation in 2018. This was a joint effort by the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland to keep the collection together and in Scotland with assistance from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Scottish Government and the Art Fund. Once privately collected/owned by Aberdeen-based collector Murray MacKinnon, the collection now contains over 14,000 photographs, having begun with a small group of atmospheric photos by George Washington Wilson.
Since acquiring the Mackinnon Collection, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has been working with volunteers to catalogue the works and make them digitally available for public access. Cataloguing each photograph remains a work in progress with many locations and people as yet unidentified. It is hoped that by giving public access to the collection, every item can be labelled and identified.
Scotland’s Photographic Album, The MacKinnon Collection is a taster exhibition which gives us a flavour of the range of photography amassed in this collection. There’s also a smaller exhibition at the National Library of Scotland and a touring exhibition is planned for 2021/2. Curator Blake Milteer confirmed in a talk earlier this year that the collection will be available online within the next couple of years.
What comes across clearly in the exhibition’s curation is the diversity of photographic representation of Scottish life, culture and identity from the 1840s through to the 1940s – a century of dramatic transformation and innovation. When you realise that 1839 was the year that introduced photographic images to the world (daguerrotypes in France and William Henry Fox Talbot in the UK), you get the sense of the value of making these early photos accessible to the public.
There are plenty of memorable pieces in the exhibition, from William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, Thomas Annan, James Craig Annan, Roger Fenton, Linton M Gibb and George Washington Wilson. There’s also a reminder of how influential Hill and Adamson were in the history and development of photography. It also showcases Scotland’s significant role in pioneering photographic techniques in the latter half of the 19th Century.
One of the most unexpected elements to the exhibition is how the idea of Pictorialism (presenting photography as a work of art) took hold long before the early 20th Century efforts of Stieglitz and the Photo-Secessionists. The artistic element was there from the start – David Octavius Hill was a painter. Photogravure, which lies somewhere between photography and printmaking, also features. In the early 20th century, Alexander Wilson Hill, Mary E Watts and John Simpson carried on the fine art of photography yet citing the influence of predecessors such as Hill and Adamson.
Another point that curator Blake Milteer makes is the hint of a non-linear history of the mechanical process of photography. Some early images are sharper and more intensely detailed than any later photographic images. You also get that sense of diversity, of different contexts in which photography becomes an accessible medium for recording social history, as well as artworks in themselves.
This is a fascinating glimpse into Scotland’s collective history which appears to captivate both visitors and locals to the Portrait Gallery. There’s a feeling of gratitude that we can access this glimpse into the past. It’s also a reminder that it’s too simple to dismiss the future value of the digital photograph in our contemporary, image-saturated culture of selfies and ‘instagram-able’ moments.
Also showing in Edinburgh, At the Water’s Edge: Photographs from the MacKinnon Collection, is a companion display to tie in with the 2020 Year of Coasts and Waters, on display at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge.
1 Queen Street,
Edinburgh EH2 1JD
With thanks to Julie Boyne for this review.
Image: Linton M Gibb, The Mercat Cross, Aberdeen, c1920s, silver gelatin print