A PERFECT CHEMISTRY: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HILL & ADAMSON

A PERFECT CHEMISTRY:
PHOTOGRAPHS BY HILL & ADAMSON
27 May – 1 October 2017
SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
1 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JD
Admission: £10 (£8) | 0131 624 6200
#HillAndAdamson

Hill and Adamson, Sandy (or James) Linton, his boat and bairns ca.June 1845

This summer the Scottish National Portrait Gallery will explore the captivating images produced by the unique partnership of Scottish photographic pioneers David Octavius Hill (1802-1870) and Robert Adamson (1821-1848). A Perfect Chemistry will comprise over 100 photographic works dating from just four short years in the 1840s, when these two men changed the path of photography and created a remarkable body of work that has had an unparalleled impact on the medium. This will be the first time in 15 years that these treasured photographs will have been the subject of a large exhibition in the UK.

The artistic partnership between the painter Hill and the engineer Adamson was remarkable in many respects: only four years after the invention of photography was announced to the world in 1839, the Scottish pair had not only mastered and improved upon the new medium, but were producing breathtaking works in extraordinary quantities. Their innovative images appear surprisingly fresh even today and their subjects range from intimate portraits to beautiful cityscapes that document the urbanisation of the Scottish capital. A Perfect Chemistry will also feature fascinating images of the Newhaven fisherfolk which form one of the most significant groups within Hill and Adamson’s oeuvre; these outstanding photographs belie the technical challenges faced by the duo and are arguably among the first examples of social documentary images in the history of photography.

The meeting between Hill and Adamson was precipitated by a polarizing religious dispute: on 18 May 1843 a group of ministers walked out of the Church of Scotland’s annual General Assembly in Edinburgh and officially established the Free Church of Scotland. The event rocked the nation and political status quo, sending reverberations around the world. Hill was so moved by the ministers standing up for their beliefs that he decided to commemorate the event in a large-scale painting representing all 400 of them. He turned to Adamson, 19 years his junior, as the first and only professional calotypist in Edinburgh, to photograph the sitters as preliminary sketches for his grand painting.

Hill quickly became smitten by the new art form and within weeks of meeting, the two men entered into a partnership and began making photographs together. Within a matter of months their works were featured in exhibitions and receiving critical acclaim, often being compared to Rembrandt’s etchings due to the strong chiaroscuro (or contrasting dark and light) quality of the prints.

Ironically, Hill had approached photography as a means to expedite his painting yet it took him 23 years to finish his large commemorative canvas: The First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland; Signing Act of Separation and Deed of Demission (1843-66).The imposing picture was ultimately sold to the Free Church of Scotland and it continues to hang today in their headquarters in Edinburgh.

The success of Hill and Adamson’s partnership relied on professional alchemy as well as personal affinity, with both men working and living in Rock House, a landmark building located on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. Since making calotypes required natural sunlight, the photographers used the house’s south-facing garden as their studio, employing a series of props and several different backgrounds for their outdoor images.

These portraits made at Rock House represent a real ‘who’s who’ of Edinburgh’s society and illustrate the vibrancy of the capital’s cultural life in the 1840s; eminent sitters ranged from the artist Sir David Allan, to Isabella Burns Begg, the sister of poet Robert Burns, and the inventor of chloroform James Young Simpson. A string of foreign sitters also attested to the international nature of the capital at this time.

Hill’s artistry gave him an eye for composition, evident in an intriguing portrait of Lady Ruthven, whom he posed with her back to the camera to exploit the intricate lace detailing of her shawl against her dress. The image reads as a metaphor for photography itself: the negative and positive image captured on paper. Adamson appeared to push the boundaries of photography—demonstrating skills few possessed at such an early period in the history of the art form. To create calotypes the photographers dealt with a complex process of applying light-sensitive chemical solutions to paper in order to create the images. The steps involved were cumbersome and variable, yet the consistently high quality of the prints indicate they had perfected the process and mastered the fickle chemistry of early photography.

The exhibition also will reveal how Hill and Adamson made clever use of stylistic and practical devices when creating their pictures. Books not only suggested the sitter was educated, but the white pages allowed light to bounce back on the subject (at a time when there were no studio lights), while the actual object would keep the sitters’ fidgety hands occupied for the duration of the exposure. Poses were held anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes depending on the available sunlight, and any fidgeting during that time would result in a blurred image. The resulting photographs nevertheless display remarkable vitality, and in some, carry the sense of spontaneity of a modern snapshot like in the group portrait Edinburgh Ale where the sitters exhibit relaxed poses and faint smiles.

Hill and Adamson also captured the fisherfolk of nearby Newhaven. The men and women of the village were known throughout Edinburgh and beyond for their distinctive costumes, and their reputation for bravery had made them a part of popular culture in the nineteenth century, even featuring as characters in novels by Sir Walter Scott. With the limitations of the medium, the photographers could not capture the boats at sea and interestingly some of their most iconic works from the series, depict the men beside their beached boats or tending to their fishing lines ashore. These shoots were not a casual day out at the shore; in order to record these subjects the two men had to transport all their cumbersome equipment (wooden box cameras, tripods, paper, and support stands) to the site. Such complex requirements didn’t stop Hill and Adamson from travelling around Scotland—Glasgow, Linlithgow and St Andrews — and even as far afield as Durham and York in England. The Newhaven images are rare examples of social documentary photography and a selection of the Newhaven photographs was shown at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851; an early indication of the importance of the partnership to the history of photography.

The untimely death of Adamson on 14 January 1848, at the age of 26, marked the end of this unparalleled partnership, but their legacy continues. The fact that the photographs continue to delight is indicative of the special chemistry shared by these two Scottish pioneers. The last exhibition of this scale of Hill and Adamson’s fragile works was Facing the Light at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2002.

Christopher Baker, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, commented: “Hill and Adamson’s works are the foundation of the photography collection at the National Galleries of Scotland. Their contribution to the history of photography was profound and enduring and is appreciated all over the world. The National Galleries holds the most comprehensive collection in existence and this very carefully selected exhibition will demonstrate the full range of their achievement. We are delighted to be providing visitors with an opportunity to view such important and inspiring works as part of our long-term commitment to promoting the appreciation of photography.”

Sue Dawe, EY Managing Partner for Edinburgh and Head of Financial Services in Scotland, said: “EY has long been a supporter of the arts and I am delighted that we are able to continue our sponsorship in Scotland with the National Galleries of Scotland. The work showcased in this exhibition demonstrates a legacy of industry and ingenuity for which Scotland is renowned worldwide. On behalf of EY, I am proud to help celebrate the efforts of two creative, Edinburgh-based photographers who were dedicated to their craft and documenting Scotland’s social history.”

A Perfect Chemistry: Photographs by Hill & Adamson is part of the Edinburgh Art Festival.

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Sophie on BBC Landward and BBC Radio Scotland

This month Document Scotland’s exhibition ‘The Ties That Bind’  at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh has been featured on BBC TV and Radio. Sophie was filmed talking about her long term project about women, farming and the landscape, ‘Drawn To The Land’ on BBC1’s Landward and was interviewed for Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors program. Watch and listen again here…. !

 

BBC Landward

Sophie spent a very wet and windy couple of days filming with the wonderful Sybil MacPherson, a hillfarmer in Argyll with the crew from BBC Landward. You can see the film here, with Sophie talking about her work with the presenter Sarah Mack from about 22:00 minutes in.

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Watch the episode of BBC Landward on BBC iPlayer now.

“I’m delighted that Landward were interested in my project, after long discussions with the producer, Clare who had visited the exhibition and was curious about the work, we arranged a couple of days in November when we could meet with Sybil and do some filming on her remote and beautiful hillfarm near Dalmally. Sybil’s story and her relationship with the land she works and farms is fascinating. The 5 munros which make up her farm have been farmed by her family for over 175 year. There are ruins on the hill where her grandfather went to school. It’s a place full of history and full of connection which is why I thought it would be great to hear more from Sybil and introduce her to the Landward team. The fact that it turned out to be the wettest day I’ve seen in Argyll for some time wasn’t ideal – that it doesn’t even look that bad on tv is annoying!”

 

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BBC Landward presenter Sarah Mack with hill farmer Sybil MacPherson, Dalmally, Argyll © Sophie Gerrard 2015 all rights reserved.

“Having never done any TV before I was struck by how long everything took – there was quite a lot of back and forth, re-shooting, “say that again”, “drive over that bridge again and again”. So I’m hugely grateful to Sybil for taking time out of her busy week to allow this piece to be filmed. It was interesting seeing how it all worked, piecing together the parts of the interview and also seeing how they would include my photographs in the piece.”

 

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Colin, the BBC Landward camera man, films Sybil as she packs and rolls fleeces on her hill farm near Dalmally. © Sophie Gerrard 2015 all rights reserved.

“I hope what the filming does is introduce the project and my reasons behind shooting it. Women are under represented in farming. Commonly referred to as ‘farmers’ wives’ and seen as having a behind the scenes role. Sybil and the other women in my project are front and centre, they make life and death decisions every day. They are engineers, midwives, business women, decision makers and forward thinkers. The common sense of responsibility for the work they do, and to the landscape and the livestock is something that all the women in my project share. All of them talk as custodians, of having a sense that they are looking after this land for future generations. I have a huge respect for them and the work they do. It’s been a privilege and an honour to work with them and I look forward to continuing the project.”

Sophie Gerrard

 

 

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Clare, Colin and Sarah, the BBC Landward crew with Sybil, Dalmally November 2015 © Sophie Gerrard all rights reserved.

 

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Sophie with Sybil and the crew. Dalmally November 2015

BBC Out Of Doors

Sophie met with journalist Claire White of BBC Radio Scotland at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery to talk some more about her experience of photographing the 6 women included in the project over the last 2 and a half years. You can listen to this interview here, Sophie and Claire discus ‘Drawn To The Land’ from about 7:38 minutes in.

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Listen to the episode of BBC Scotland ‘Out of Doors’ on BBC Radio iPlayer now.

 

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Claire White from BBC Radio Scotland interviewing Sophie at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

“I really enjoyed talking to Claire from Out of Doors about my work. Claire and I spent a really short time in the gallery talking about the work. I’ve done a little bit of radio before, and I’ve interviewed people many time using voice recorders – this just felt a much more comfortable way of talking to the media about my work.

Claire asked some really interesting questions, and picked up on some important aspects of the work. It’s always interesting meeting people who are interested in my work, and who then spot things in the work, or pick up on visual clues within images. Claire certainly did that, and in the interview you can hear her reading the clusters of images on the wall and getting an impression of the women I’ve photographed.

I was grateful for the time she took, and the interest in the project. I hope this reaches an audience who might want to come and see the work at the Portrait Gallery or look at it on my website, and take a little time to get know these women and their stories.

Thank you Claire and your team for the feature.”

 

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Sophie with Claire White from BBC Scotland Out Of Doors, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

 

Thank you BBC1 and BBC Radio Scotland for featuring Drawn To The Land, both programs are available on iPlayer.

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The Ties That Bind

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We are less than a month away from the launch of our forthcoming exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, which opens on 26th September 2015.

Curated by the gallery’s Curator of International Photography, Anne Lyden, The Ties That Bind brings together Document Scotland’s four photographers who each present projects which have been inspired by the period of intense debate and self-examination among Scots, in the run-up to, and aftermath of the Referendum in September 2014. Each photographer – Stephen McLaren, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, Colin McPherson and, Sophie Gerrard – has created a body of work which considers a different strand of Scotland’s culture and heritage, and in the process explores very timely questions of personal and national identity.

 

For The Ties That Bind, McLaren, Sutton-Hibbert, McPherson and Gerrard have created four groups of work that consider legacy —Scotland’s role in the slave trade and sugar plantations of Jamaica in the 18th century; tradition —the centuries-old celebration of Border towns in the Common Ridings festivals; engagement —the devotion and commitment from football supporters in small towns and communities across the country; and the land itself —focusing on contemporary farming through the experiences of six women.

Rozelle, Jamaica. Photograph © Stephen McLaren, 2015 all rights reserved.

Rozelle, Jamaica. Photograph © Stephen McLaren, 2015 all rights reserved.

 

A Sweet Forgetting, Stephen McLaren’s project, revolves around the involvement of Scots in the sugar economy of Jamaica in the 18th and 19th centuries, which was built on the back of slave labour from Africa. McLaren spent a month in Jamaica looking for the sites of plantations owned by seven Scots men of that era, before coming back to Scotland to trace how these men spent their wealth, and what is left of this legacy today. McLaren’s photographs largely concentrate on the mansions and estates purchased with funds from the slave trade. One of the plantation owners McLaren studied was the politician and poet Robert Cunninghame Graham (1735-1797), who owned several estates in Scotland as well as a Jamaican plantation at Roaring River and made his fortune from slave plantations. A Sweet Forgetting suggests that Scotland has perhaps largely forgotten how much of its economy was dependent on slave labour in Jamaica. McLaren’s subtle, but provocative work considers Scotland’s past and how it shapes the present, as well as how we choose to remember the past.

Common Riding, Selkirk. Photograph © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, 2013 all righted reserved.

Common Riding, Selkirk. Photograph © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, 2013 all righted reserved.

 

For Unsullied and Untarnished, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert focused on the Scottish Borders area and its traditional summer festivals, known as the Common Ridings. During the Common Ridings, riders chosen as representatives of their communities symbolically survey the boundaries of the town’s and burgh’s common lands. Participating in the yearly ritual is considered an honour for the local youths; the Common Ridings are an opportunity to represent their community by carrying the standard around the neighbouring borders of the common land, before bringing it back “unsullied and untarnished”. During the festivals, “exiles” return home to partake in events and greetings are often sent by those unable to make the journey, while bonds are re-established with neighbouring towns. Intrigued by the history of the festivals Sutton-Hibbert visited various towns, including Hawick, Selkirk and Jedburgh among others and made portraits of the riders and other participants in traditional outfits. By looking at how the history and sense of community is kept alive, Sutton-Hibbert explores traditions and their legacy in modern society.

'The Cowshed, Greenock Morton. Photograph © Colin McPherson, 2015 all rights reserved.

The Cowshed, Greenock Morton. Photograph © Colin McPherson, 2015 all rights reserved.

 

Colin McPherson’s contribution to The Ties That Bind is entitled When Saturday Comes, after the eponymous football magazine which has commissioned McPherson over the last 10 years to photograph football culture both in Scotland and further afield. An ardent football fan himself, McPherson has used the opportunity to explore the game at all levels, although for this exhibition he has focused on lower-league football and the rituals associated with the sport; his photographs explore the sense of belonging and commitment shown by supporters, players and those charged with running clubs – from Berwick Rangers to Fraserburgh. For a lot of people football is an experience first encountered at the community level of village youth clubs and small town teams. As a weekend ritual it draws people together on the stands or grassy verges in all weather and seasons to celebrate or commiserate over the game at hand. This sense of engagement and loyalty is one that is echoed around the land every Saturday.

Sarah, Isle of Eigg. Photograph © Sophie Gerrard, 2015 all rights reserved.

Sarah, Isle of Eigg. Photograph © Sophie Gerrard, 2015 all rights reserved.

 

The fourth project in The Ties That Bind, Drawn to the Land, is Sophie Gerrard’s ongoing exploration of women in the contemporary Scottish landscape. Gerrard’s photographs offer a glimpse into the lives of six women farmers in a variety of Scottish settings (Argyll, Perthshire, the Scottish Borders, the Isle of Eigg and the Isle of Mull), and how they shape, and are shaped by, their surroundings. Working as hill farmers with responsibility for remote and diverse parts of the land, these women identify as custodians rather than as landowners, and often talk of being drawn to the hill. For Drawn to the Land, Gerrard set out to understand her own connection with the Scottish landscape, which is often seen as a symbol of national identity and nostalgia. To explore the topic she chose to focus on female farmers, often under-represented in the UK despite the number of women in farming increasing significantly in recent years. Through each of these women’s compelling stories, Drawn to the Land presents an emotional response to this country’s rugged mountains and remote lochs and islands and a wider story of Scotland’s national identity.

 

While the work touches on the political landscape around the Referendum, the images do not affirm any one position, but seek to portray a multiplicity of views that portray the complex challenges and subtle nuances surrounding the larger debate. Together these images create a compelling dialogue about Scotland, its people, diversity and culture, and reveal the subtle nuances that shape a nation’s identity.

 

Christopher Baker, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, said: “Document Scotland has impressively addressed through The Ties That Bind some key themes about belonging and history, the resonance of Scottish heritage and diversity of community life across the country today. Their work demonstrates the outstanding quality of contemporary documentary photography and its ability to provoke us to think about issues of individual and collective identity.”

 

Document Scotland: The Ties That Bind is part of the IPS (Institute for Photography in Scotland) 2015 Season of Photography, a series of exhibitions and events taking place across Scotland from April to September 2015. The exhibition will run until 24th April, 2016. Admission is free.

 

Document Scotland would like to acknowledge and thank Creative Scotland and the University of St. Andrews Library’s Special Collection for supporting the making of the work for The Ties That Bind.

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Sean O’Hagan Lecture at SNPG

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Sean O’Hagan will be giving a lecture at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery to open The Season of Photography in Scotland.

Thursday, 23rd April 2015, 6-7.30pm £5 (£4)
Hawthornden Lecture Theatre – Gardens Entrance (Scottish National Gallery)

Sean O’Hagan writes about photography for The Guardian and The Observer and is the winner of the 2011 J Dudley Johnston award from the Royal Photographic Society “for major achievement in the field of photographic criticism’.

In this insightful talk he will share his views on contemporary photography and poses the question ‘What is Photography?’ presented as part of the nationwide Season of Photography 2015, a program of photography all over Scotland including Document Scotland’s exhibition at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in September 2015.

Buy tickets in advance from the Information Desk at the National Gallery, or call 0131 624 6560 between 9.30am-4.30pm, with credit /debit card.

See the website for more details and booking

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Lesson from the Master

It’s evening, autumn 2012, and I’m at the desk, digging back through the hard-drive of my memory, looking for an evening some thirteen years that is filed away in some dark corner. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edinburgh, 1999. Eve Arnold too. I do have memories… I also have photographs. Can I trust either? Much as I love it, I don’t trust memory. It fades, warps with time. Alas, let’s be honest, so too do photographs. And as for their relationship with ‘the truth’… well, come on, that’s even more complicated, isn’t it…

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, of Document Scotland, has asked me to write something about my pictures of Henri, and naturally, I want to get it right. If in doubt, contact sheets, that’s where to start. They never lie… do they? Isn’t that why we never show them to anyone? Certainly it’s harder to hide the truth on a contact sheet; actions and thought processes are laid bare. And, of course, this fascinating window to the photographer’s soul has become another casualty in the rush to digitise… the dreaded preview/delete process replacing the contact sheet, concealing all manner of crimes. Actually, that’s a different article, isn’t it, for another day, best not go there right now.

So, at Document Scotland’s request, here I am checking up on myself, digging back into my archive, virtual and analogue, looking to see if that night with Henri was indeed memory or dream. And lo, in a short strip of five 35mm frames, there is my encounter with Monsieur HCB, captured in glorious monochrome. Turns out my memories of the night weren’t far wrong, and, boy, do those small, grainy rectangles open the memory banks right up. That’s what pictures do, isn’t it? Triggers. Put them in sequence and Bang! the evening is alive again.

What I do remember now is that my good friend Sara Stevenson, at that time the head curator of the Photography Collection at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, had taken the unusual step of following up on a Portrait Gallery invitation for drinks, and had got in touch to check that I was actually going to turn up. Invitations to receptions at the SNPG don’t often fall on my mat, so perhaps I should have sensed from the start that something was afoot. Unusually, there was to be not only drinks, but dinner too, in one of the galleries upstairs from the Magna Brava exhibition that was showing, a brilliant celebration of Magnum’s women photographers.

Sara dropped in to the conversation that I might want to bring my camera along. There were to be special guests. Eve Arnold was in Scotland – and there was mention that Henri Cartier-Bresson was somewhere around too. Sara’s casual remark – neither request, nor instruction, but cleverly poised not to be either – was the biggest invitation of all. I wasn’t going to miss this one.

– –

The evening soon came around, and though I have no recollection of spending any time choosing what to wear, it must have had a pocket big enough to slip a 35mm camera into; slimmed down, no motordrive, and a prime 35mm lens (of course).
The contact sheet picks up the story here, and in fact it’s barely a sheet; there are just five and a half frames of Henri, and two simple portraits of Eve at the table, after dinner. I can recall now being so excited that I hadn’t even wound the film on properly at the start – past frame ‘00A’ – so the first half-shot is wasted. Despite my racing pulse, I steadily caught four very similar shots of my subject, looking to tidy the composition, just to get them in the bag – before daring to make a decisive pounce in the final fifth, quite different frame.

The room – one of the upper galleries at the SNPG – was narrow, and busy, groups standing drinking and chatting. One figure is detached from the groups, and watches half-hidden from the edge, clearly choosing to carefully position himself well away from the centre of the room. Copying his tactics, I slid to the side of a group, snapping furtively round the edge of the group. I didn’t want to be seen by anyone, least of all Henri (for, of course, you have guessed, he is the watcher). Sara may have given me her blessing but who knows what would happen if I was spotted.

The picture you see below is my pick of the four frames. I aimed to echo three profiles, Henri, the statue, and the watcher beyond, who, it seemed to me, sought to emulate Henri’s body-language and echo his role as observer. Somebody has stepped back momentarily into the right of my shot, a blur of black, but I still liked this picture the best of the four, the only split-second when all three watchers looked off into the same unseen distance.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1999. ©Iain Stewart 1999, all rights reserved.

 

Looking through the five shots, it becomes clear that the room is clearing – we must have been called to the table for dinner. Perhaps my nerves had kept me hanging on right until the last minute, I don’t recall exactly. This would explain why I only grab four frames from the side before venturing to the centre of the gallery to try and meet my prey face on.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1999. ©Iain Stewart 1999, all rights reserved.

 

What strikes in this final frame is to see how nonchalantly Henri is leaning against the bust of Sir William Stirling-Maxwell – who else would be allowed to get away with touching an exhibit like this! And although I have caught my candid moment perfectly, camera coming up and shutter clicking just as he looked away to the side – I had not remembered there was two of the worlds’ greatest photographers to contend with in the same frame – and sure enough Henri’s companion has clocked me; Eve Arnold lags behind the departing group to shoot me a look. Busted. A split-second after I took this, Henri was alerted to me, and what followed, I believe, is a conversation he had countless times.

“Why do you take this picture? Are you the police?”

His voice was loud. I didn’t know whether to laugh or apologise (I think I did both) – imagine being told off for taking a candid shot of the Master of Candid Photography – by the Master himself! Even there and then, I loved the irony. But no matter how many times I have replayed this in my head, I’m still not sure to this day if his indignance was genuine or part of a well practiced act. At the time I suspected the latter, and, thinking I was being toyed with, I tried to play along. But the enigma of the Master remained intact, the conversation broke off, and the moment was over. Henri moved off. I may have fleetingly caught him by copying his own tricks, but even now, combing through the pictures, he gives nothing away. See for yourself. I thought I was the photographer that night, but in all the pictures it is Henri who is looking, ruling the room from the edge, the Master of all he coolly surveys.

 

Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Eve Arnold, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. ©Iain Stewart 2012, all rights reserved. (Click contact sheet to view in larger size.)

 

– Iain Stewart

Iain Stewart photography website.

Text and photographs ©Iain Stewart 2012, all rights reserved.

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