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David Eustace – New York Polaroids, 2004

Time has changed things for David Eustace. This should be apparent in New York Polaroids, 2004, a new exhibition by the internationally acclaimed photographer, which opens at SWG3’s Acid Bar in Glasgow this week. It should also be the case when Eustace becomes the first photographer to show at the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts a few weeks later with Mar a Bha, which translates as As it Was.

The latter is a collection of images taken on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Both shows are a long way from the celebrity portraits Eustace made his name with in the 1990s working for Vogue, Tatler and Elle, with the likes of Sophia Loren, Tracey Emin and Sir Paul McCartney all captured by Eustace’s lens. Like the world around him, however, Eustace keeps on moving, physically as much as artistically as he follows his own obsessions and avoids complacency.

Each exhibition marks how Eustace’s work has progressed in different ways, just as they did when the two portfolios appeared last year at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh alongside two other works. These were Desert Lines, a set of images of Death Valley in California, and Bridge, which featured photographs of a rusted bridge. Like them, the sixteen images that make up New York Polaroids, 2004 are about moments in motion that cram multiple layers of action into each small frame.

“To a certain extent doing the polaroids felt part of something,” says Eustace, enthusing from a sofa in a light-filled room in his house on Edinburgh’s south side. “That something transpired to be a bigger exhibition, but it was also about something to do with a change in my career and my mind and my photography, and I realised that all these portfolios are linked. It’s almost like a jigsaw, but within this jigsaw, each individual component has its own voice. With the polaroids, there’s sixteen images, but it’s one piece. It’s like those mirrors up there,” he says, pointing to a wall beside us. “You’ve got all those different components, but they become one mirror.”

The New York polaroids were taken of a wall in Wooster Street at a time when the area it borders in SoHo, Manhattan and Greenwich Village was in the throes of gentrification. The pictures capture a mish-mash of peeling posters, street art and graffiti, so at first glance they look like collages containing criss-crossing layers of a city in motion. Look closer, and their of-the-moment urgency becomes even more evocative.

“I made it as a statement,” says Eustace, who lived in New York for several years before returning to Scotland. “It’s one piece, and the whole essence of the work, it’s all about time. At the time in New York when I was making it, Wooster Street and SoHo was all being developed. It wasn’t the shopping centre SoHo is now. There were still wee edges the further south you went out, and what I noticed and found interesting was the whole essence of time.

“The polaroids were all made on building site walls. So it was a transient wall, not a permanent wall. So the first thing you notice is a sign saying post no bills. The second thing you see is people start posting bills on it, and then somebody will come along and graffiti it, and then it will rain and start washing it away, and what I like is these unknown contributions by strangers that add things up. That wall no longer exists, obviously. Some of what’s in the pictures will have been gone later that day. That, at the time, wasn’t fully charged in my mind. I knew I was photographing it, but I didn’t know why. I suppose it was more a statement of how things are constantly changing, how there’s nothing permanent, and how everything’s quite transient.”

Eustace recognises something similar in his beloved Glasgow, where, before he ever picked up a camera, he worked as a prison guard in Barlinnie. Today, Sauchiehall Street is still partly cordoned off by temporary hoardings following the major fires that occurred at either end of the street over the last year. It’s there as well even closer to home.

“I may stay in a nice house in Edinburgh, but I’m building it as we go,” says Eustace, pointing out the changes. “This room wasn’t like this when we moved in. There were asbestos walls round here, right through the middle, that was all cut away, and there was a wee old toilet in that corner. It was a halfway house.”

Eustace relates this to photography.

“People come in and say this is a beautiful room, and it is a beautiful room, but there’s been a lot of sweat and sleepless nights to try and get it like that. And that’s the same with photography. People think it’s just magic that happens overnight.”

Showing such a street-smart collection as New York Polaroids 2004 in the speak-easy confines of SWG3’s Acid Bar was a no-brainer. Eustace has been connected with the ever expanding west end venue and arts complex co-founded by its visionary managing director known only as Mutley since the start.

“I go way back to day one of SWG3,” says Eustace. “It was a mad idea Mutley had, and I remember going to the initial creative meeting. It was Mutley’s mother, two other friends, David Mullane, who used to own The Warehouse in Glasgow, and myself, and we were just sitting talking about this idea. That’s fifteen years ago now.”

More recently, Mutley showed Eustace around the site of what would become The Galvanizers, SWG3’s recently opened 1250 capacity venue, which has already hosted the Yardworks international graffiti festival.

“The deal hadn’t been done yet,” says Eustace, “but Mutley said to me, just in case I do get this, would you do a document of it.”

Eustace did so, again charting a changing urban landscape in a set of images yet to be printed up.

“I’m a massive fan of these guys,” he says. “They’re full of enthusiasm. They’re full of bright light, and are really making a difference down there.”

Eustace compares this with other developments in Glasgow.

“Glasgow’s a city I love,” he says, “and I see people sticking plasters on things, whereas the people at SWG3, they’re actually creating something that’s more long-term, rather than just to get you through a couple of years. The whole essence of having this exhibition of the polaroids in SWG3 feels right, and the balance is the stuff at the RGI, which is, I wouldn’t use the phrase more conventional, but a lot of people might see it that way. When people see the polaroid stuff, they might think they’re just polaroids, and do you know what, they are just polaroids. But they’re a statement, they’re a comment, they’re a thought, and they took a lot of hard work to get to that. You’re not trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. You’re saying, this is who I am, this is what I do.”

David Eustace – New York Polaroids, 2004 runs at the Acid Bar, SWG3, Glasgow, February 22-March 29.

The Herald, February 19th 2019

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