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REVIEW: A Companion Guide to Photography in the National Galleries of Scotland

A Companion Guide to Scottish PhotographyPhotography has always held an important place in Scotland ever since its announcement in 1839. The relative freedom with which photographers in Scotland could practice Talbot’s calotype process was instrumental in establishing a nucleus of amateur and professional photographers who quickly became masters of their art. Throughout the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries Scottish photographers have continued to engage with the medium producing engaging art and documentary work.

This book, written by two of the collection curators, sets out to provide an overview of the Scottish National Photography Collection (SNPC) which is held at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The collection features not just Scottish photographers from the 1840s to the present day, but also the work of others. Bill Brandt, Annie Liebovitz, Edward Steichen and Diane Arbus, for example, are all represented within the collection. Set up in 1984 to collect, research and exhibit Scottish and international photography the SNPC now houses some 38,000 photographs. It has also produced some forty books or exhibition catalogues and held over eighty exhibitions, more than fulfilling its original aims. It continues to have a dynamic acquisitions policy, adding new historic material through donation and purchase, within carefully thought-through criteria. Equally important, it is continues to commission new work to ensure that it remains engaged with current practitioners and to add their work to the collection.

This book highlights over 200 photographs from the collections of the SNPC and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It starts with a daguerreotype of Dr Andew MacLagan from 1843, moves through the calotypes of Hill and Adamson, and concludes with an image from David Williams from 2000. Several more recent works are also included. Geographically the photographers and subject range from Scotland, to the United States, Europe and Asia. An introduction by Sara Stevenson, who has been the driving force behind the collection, provides a wider perspective on it and its aims.

The book is not a catalogue of the SNPC. Instead, it offers a careful selection of photographs from the collection. These can be seen individually, or collectively as a way of looking at the wider history of photography. It does this extremely well with good reproductions of the photographs. Each image is accompanied by a physical description and text outlining an historical and contemporary context. Overall the book reinforces the important role that Scotland has played and continues to play within photography. It also shows the care and thought that has gone into forming what has, undoubtedly, become one of the world’s great photograph collections.

This book, which is excellent value, is highly recommended.

A Companion Guide to Photography in the National Galleries of Scotland
Sara Stevenson and Duncan Forbes
Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2009
ISBN: 978 1 906270 20 9
£9.99, 224pp, paperback, 220 illustrations

Reviewed by Michael Pritchard

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