Paul Walton’s ‘Hum’, reviewed by Frank McElhinney

This week I attended the opening of Paul Walton’s Hum, which runs until 9th February in an exhibition space on the 5th floor of Glasgow University’s St. Andrew’s building. I have been an admirer of Paul’s work for a number of years, and was impressed to see this collection of over 70 hand printed silver gelatin prints, brought together as Hum: Dispatch from the Lower Anthropocene. Walton, an ecologist and environmental campaigner by profession, uses photography to break down distinctions between science and art and explore a personal understanding of the human place in nature, of the history of life, and of environmental processes. The exhibition is reviewed here by Frank McElhinney, another contemporary Scottish artist whose work we have long admired, and has himself been interviewed for this blog (link below).

Hum: Dispatch from the Lower Anthropocene – an exhibition of photographs by Paul Walton

5:29am July 16th 1945, the precise moment of the first detonation of a nuclear weapon and, Paul Walton proposes, the commencement of the Anthropocene. It is this release of radionuclides imprinting directly upon geology that marks the crossing of the line into a new epoch when human impact on the environment becomes the defining characteristic of the period we currently live in.

In his exhibition of more than seventy hand made silver gelatin prints, Walton shares with the viewer his silent, slow burning rage. Cobwebbed daddy long legs and snail feeding trails, coexist alongside distressed plastics and metals. All show traces of decay and whether organic or manmade all are imperceptibly dusted with radioactive isotopes, touched by the cold winds blowing in from Siberia. All are strikingly presented in threes – triptychs, little trinities, the Trinity test, Jornada del Muerto desert, New Mexico 5:29am July 16th 1945.

Mabel Barber’s marine plankton, © Paul Walton 2017

In justified rage there is also a glimmer of hope. The hope that others will see what the photographer sees if his vision is communicated well enough. Photographs are anchored in stillness. Paul Walton’s photographs ask us to stop and think about time and humanity, to think about our place as aberrant species on this planet. If we see what he sees, that the Anthropocene is upon us, then surely we will change in ways that might yet stop the rot? That is one proposition or heartfelt plea of the work. And how much work, how much labour is vested in these photographs? This exhibition is Walton’s first but he has spent five years worth of weekends in the darkroom of Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow, slowly accumulating and developing the skills and the imagery to construct this rich multilayered narrative. This exhibition shows us his vision of the contemporary, precariously poised between the blind march toward End time and a conscious step away from the precipice.

Crane fly, © Paul Walton 2017

Re-photographed archival images are presented alongside new and unusual still lives that were made throughout Scotland. A nuclear blast in the Nevada desert, Paleolithic cave drawn men from Spain, and microscopic slides of marine plankton originally made by a woman who was run over by a coal truck on her bicycle after ten weeks of marriage to the photographers father. These vie for attention with sea torn aluminium from Seil, beached plastic on Tiree, bullet riddled steel plate from Perthshire and spilt milk in the Gorbals. Still life triptychs are bounded on a very long wall by grids of snagged carrier bags, little archaeologies of detritus flying in the wind like torn flags of forgotten nations. The perceived physical feat of production in such volume also plays its role in expressing the maker’s obsession with his subject. The viewer responds to the material reality encountered as well as to the visual aesthetic of the closely observed inter-connected still lives.

Slug feeding trails, © Paul Walton 2017

Hum: a low steady continuous sound. Jornada del Muerto: journey of the dead man. In a talk given at the exhibition opening Walton spoke about the influence of his late geologist father on his world-view, his obsessions and indirectly his photography. He spoke of his own professional interest in declining sea bird species and tracing root causes back through the food chain to the impact of global warming on marine plankton. Climate change and the power games humans play with nature hum, ever present, weaving their way into the fabric of our lives through our environment and eventually into our bodies themselves. Walton’s quiet photographs signal a mortal struggle. He remembers as a boy more than forty years ago, standing on a hill with his father, being inspired by stories of the wide-open plains of Siberia. This was a space of freedom and ‘fresh air’. Air that blows across Europe from the east, air that carries low level radiation: “he and I breathed in the cooling soviet isotopes, gyred in from Siberian test sites, down into our bellies, and there they stay, as geology hums, shrugs like the eider, and a new epoch begins.”

 – Frank McElhinney

Hum: Dispatch from the Lower Anthropocene  is on display at St Andrew’s building (5th floor), Eldon St, University of Glasgow, until February 9th. Mon – Thur 7.30 – 21.00, Fri 7.30 – 17.30.

Frank McElhinney was interviewed by Sarah in January 2017 – read the feature here.

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When We Were Young

We’re delighted that the next photography exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, ‘When We Were Young’, will include work from the Scottish photography archive by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert. Included in the group show will be Jeremy’s images of Roma children, photographed in Sintesti Roma camp in Romania in the early 1990’s, part of his multi-year project photographing the Roma settlement on the outskirts of Bucharest, ‘Satra, The Roma of Sintesti.

 

WHEN WE WERE YOUNG:
PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHILDHOOD FROM THE
NATIONAL GALLERIES OF SCOTLAND
14 October 2017 – 15 April 2018
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JD
Admission FREE
nationalgalleries.org | 0131 624 6200
#WhenWeWereYoung

Part of Photography Scotland’s 2017 Season of Photography

The magic and wonder of childhood will be the subject of a new exhibition of photographs at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (SNPG) this autumn. When We Were Young will delve into the rich collection of the National Galleries of Scotland to explore how the lives of children have fascinated photographers from the earliest days of the medium to the present. More than 100 images, which capture children at play, at work, at school and at home will reveal how the experience of being a child, and the ways in which they have been represented, have changed radically in the past 175 years.

The photographs not only reveal the shifting attitudes towards children and their representation, but also show the evolution of the photographic processes from early daguerreotypes to contemporary digital prints.

Opening on 14 October 2017 at the SNPG, When We Were Young is the second in a series of thematic exhibitions being held to inspire a new appreciation for this extraordinary art form.

One of the earliest works in the collection is a daguerreotype of a family photographed by James Howie (1791-1858). Having trained as an artist, Howie was known as a portrait and animal painter; he switched to photography and established the first professional photographic studio in Edinburgh in 1841 (only two years after photography was first introduced). His customers had to climb multiple flights of stairs, then use a ladder to access a skylight leading to the roof of his outdoor studio, where they would then perch several floors above a bustling Princes Street below and were told to “sit as still as death”.

Some photographers’ directions for children were more amenable. Julia Margaret Cameron’s literary and religious evocations of the 1860s brought an imaginative element to the depiction of childhood. In her portrait of Kate and Elizabeth Keown, titled The Red and White Roses, the two sisters are shown close up with one clutching a sprig of flowers, the other has hands clasped as if in prayer. The work was not intended as simply a portrait of the photographer’s neighbours on the Isle of Wight, rather it was a metaphor for youthful beauty and the passage of time. Cameron has posed the girls to create an artistic scene and deliberately records them in soft focus so as to create a dreamlike, ethereal quality in the photograph.

Some of the photographs show young children at work or in a work environment—apprentices at ship yards, fisher girls on the beach, or children working family farms and crofts, such as Larry Herman’s 1974 portrait of John Watson at work on a dairy farm in Ayrshire, and Paul Strand’s portrait of John Angus MacDonald on his family croft on South Uist in 1954. In the work of MacMahon of Aberdeen, the photographic studio captured three young boys at a fish processing plant in the town in order to provide a sense of proportion and scale for the giant cod that was being shipped overseas to Portugal. The picture shows the smallest boy in the middle of the composition, dwarfed by gargantuan fish.

From uniformed school pictures to class outings and lessons, another selection of photographs shows children within an educational context. Among the works on display is a series of images by Edith Tudor-Hart (1908–1973), whose intimate pictures of teachers and pupils from Camphill School, Aberdeen, were originally commissioned for a magazine essay in 1949. Tudor-Hart explored the teaching philosophy of the institution which is displayed in the tenderness of the work that addresses the school’s ethos of providing support and education for children with developmental disabilities, mental health problems and other special needs.

The exhibition also explores the notion of play, a subject synonymous with childhood. From portraits of Victorian children with their dolls and books to explorations of today’s virtual playground, the photographs reveal that while children may have vastly different toys from the past compared with the present day, there is still the desire to escape into a world of make-believe and imagination. Many photographs reveal the street playgrounds of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Roger Mayne’s Children playing on a lorry, Glasgow (1958). Like so many of Mayne’s highly contrasting, black and white photographs, it captures perfectly the children’s vitality and abandon in a simpler time, whereas Wendy McMurdo explores the state of modern play which often is situated both in the real and virtual worlds. Inspired by the recent phenomenon of Pokémon GO, which involved young children searching out computer-generated characters inhabiting physical sites and landscapes, McMurdo photographed a number of children and utilised digital technology to obscure their faces and create a splintered portrait—symbolic of their fractured play between two worlds.

When We Were Young is also a chance to see, for the very first time, new works recently acquired by the Gallery from artists including; Wendy McMurdo, Glasgow-based Margaret Mitchell and leading South African photographer Pieter Hugo. The carefully selected photographs, all from the national collection, celebrate the notion of childhood as recorded by the camera since the 1840s with a delightful and engaging selection and coinciding with the Year of the Young Person in 2018.

“This is the second of our thematic exhibitions drawn from the photography collection here at the National Galleries of Scotland. This fun and engaging display of childhood from all over the world will feature iconic images alongside less well known works, old favourites and new acquisitions—essentially something for everyone, no matter what your age!”

Anne Lyden, International Photography Curator, Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Part of Photography Scotland’s, Season of Photography 2017, a lively series of exhibitions and events taking place across Scotland from September to November 2017.

Part of Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing festival
Luminate runs a diverse programme of creative events and activities throughout the year, including a nationwide festival of arts and ageing. Luminate’s sixth festival takes place 1 – 31 October 2017.

About the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery
When We Were Young: Photographs of Childhood from the National Galleries of Scotland is being shown in the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery and is part of a continuing series of photographic exhibitions (including Lee Miller & Picasso and Ponte City) in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery, named after the renowned American photographer, is supported by a very generous donation from The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. The gallery is the first purpose-built photography space of its kind in a major museum in Scotland.

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