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Picture This – Snapshots of Edinburgh's Photographic History

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 artforms of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The result of the partnership can be seen in A Perfect Chemistry, the first major showing of Hill and Adamson's work in fifteen years, which is currently on show in the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery, situated in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh as part of Edinburgh Art Festival. The fact that the duo's array of social documentary studies of Newhaven fisherfolk and portraiture of Edinburgh's society set is being shown in a room named after another iconic photographer with the sole function of show-casing work by snappers old and new is itself a wonder.

It took decades, after all, for photography to be taken seriously as an artform, despite the efforts of the Edinburgh Photographic Society, founded in 1861, and about to host its 155th Edinburgh International Exhibition of Photography. It took almost 150 years too since Hill and Adamson's shot at immortalising the moment for a gallery devoted solely to photography to open in Edinburgh. That gallery was Stills, which ushers in its fortieth anniversary celebrations with its own Edinburgh Art Festival showNudes Never Wear Glasses, featuring work by 2016 Margaret Tait Award winner, Kate Davis.

Over its forty 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 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.

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 October 19th 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 artforms enabled by new technology, in 1984, the National Galleries of Scotland set up its Scottish National Photographic Collection. 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 1980s. The exhibition documents some of the incident and colour to be found through Craigmillar Festival Society, the internationally renowned community arts initiative which much of Edinburgh and Scotland's current cultural high hid yins could learn much from. Elsewhere, Retina is an annual showcase of photographers being shown in various spaces. Photography in Edinburgh, it seems, is still very much in the frame.

Retina runs at various Edinburgh venues until July 31st; A Perfect Chemistry: Photographs by Hill & Adamson, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh until October 1st; Kate Davis – Nudes Never Wear Glasses, Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, July 28-October 8. Rolls and Shutters, Craigmillar Library, Edinburgh, August 1st-14th.

The List, July 2017

ends

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