by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

The Archibald Campbell And Harley WS Photography Prize

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The Archibald Campbell And Harley WS Pho­to­graphy Prize is the result of a three-way col­l­ab­or­a­tion between the Stills Gallery, the Scottish Arts Council and the titular legal part­n­er­ship. The prize, in its first year, offers a platform for nine Scottish-based artists, one of whom will receive a bursary of £5,000. It also serves as a chance to check the pulse of the pho­to­graph­ic arts in Scotland, and con­tem­por­ary lens-based art in general.

At first glance, the works share little common ground. Ilana Halperin, for example, takes in­spir­a­tion from geo­lo­gic­al science, shifting the focus of seis­mo­lo­gic­al in­vest­ig­a­tion from cold science to personal, emotional responses. Alison Hayes’s Tiny Fly explores the world of the midge; turning insect swarms into threat­en­ing ab­strac­tions doc­u­ment­ing the habits of a creature most of us take pains to avoid. Then there’s Torsten Lausch­mann, homing in on the per­i­pher­al by as­sem­bling images of museum wallpaper or the unknown actors in the drama of a paparazzi snap. Or Tatiana Maria Lund, exploring the effects of en­vir­on­ment on pho­to­graph­ic negatives by burying them, or recording the crys­tal­line deposits left in the de­vel­op­ing trays of her darkroom. Scott Myles, meanwhile, is inspired by grand gestures on an intimate scale.

That the subject matter and sources of in­spir­a­tion selected by these artists is varied comes as no surprise. There is, however, an un­den­i­able link between the artists selected: the art of pho­to­graphy seems pushed to the boun­d­ar­ies. Few of the pho­to­graph­ers gathered here ask the viewer to consider the pho­to­graph­ic image in isolation and, while they may slave away in the darkroom or digital equi­val­ent, it seems pho­to­graphy here is a means to transmit or provoke con­cep­tu­al in­form­a­tion, not a medium in and of itself.

For Kate Bush who, along with Toby Webster of the Modern Institute and Douglas Black of AC&H, selected the shortlist from 150 ap­plic­ants, the artists showing at the Stills Gallery are typical of emerging Scottish talent. “The shortlist that we came up with reflects the fact that there’s a very strong tradition de­vel­op­ing,” says Bush, “These artists are working across various different media, with pho­to­graphy alongside text, video or even painting and drawing. We felt that the work in that area was much more in­ter­est­ing than more tra­di­tion­al pho­to­journ­al­ism or doc­u­ment­ary work.

“What the artists are trying to say is, in a sense, more important than engaging with pho­to­graph­ic tradition and producing a pho­to­graph. Some of the artists are very much concerned with the power of the image, but are still saying things about the world in an in­ter­est­ing or soph­ist­ic­ated way, like Tatiana Lund using pho­to­graphy to capture something that is almost invisible. Then there’s the likes of Graham Fagen, who are engaging in an in­tel­lec­tu­al project that is re­p­res­en­ted through a strong pho­to­graph­ic element in their work. It’s in­vest­ig­at­ive, in­ter­ro­g­at­ive approach to art, rather than creating a straight­for­ward picture of something.”

Fagen, who tackles the supposed authority of canonical texts in his portraits of imagined “owners” of broad­cast­ing and the arts, is more than aware of this conflict. “I’ve never really called myself a pho­to­graph­er­,” he says, “and that’s the fantastic irony of being up for a pho­to­graphy prize. I’m just here to remind people that we’re allowed to have our own opinion rather than getting them from elsewhere. In that context, pho­to­graphy is a medium I use as part of a range of ways to get people thinking about the things I’m thinking about.”

Husband and wife team Alexander and Susan Maris also treat pho­to­graphy as a secondary aspect of their work. Con­ver­sely, it is an essential means of doc­u­ment­ing their all-en­com­pass­ing art practice. The pair look forward to a future where artists cease to make art in any con­ven­tion­al sense, pre­fer­ring instead to engage in aes­thet­ic­ally informed practices, con­cen­trat­ing them­selves on mountain-climbing, fly-fishing and mushroom picking.

“From where we are, we send a live image qu­al­i­fy­ing the artists’ absence from the gallery space,” says Alexander Maris, ex­plain­ing the prac­t­ic­al­it­ies of their ongoing Armchair Moun­tain­eer­ing Club project. “We might come down a mountain, find some mushrooms on the way home, then cook something and hopefully all those act­iv­it­ies would flow together to form an aesthetic whole. In the past we’ve mimicked ex­hib­i­tion pho­to­graphy in terms of the print quality, but for us pho­to­graphs are more a means of doc­u­ment­ing and archiving.”

Even Paul Gray, who, on the surface, has much in common with tra­di­tion­al prac­ti­tion­ers, the pho­to­graph­ic process and his en­gage­ment with the language of pho­to­graphy are a means of con­cep­tu­al in­vest­ig­a­tion. “I’ve always been in­ter­es­ted in catching a moment in time, or the way people hold moments in time in their memories. At the moment, pho­to­graphy seems to fit that best. Pho­to­graphs and the digital tweaking of those pho­to­graphs are just tools, or a means to an end.”

The prize shows that current pho­to­graphy is concerned with much more than the present­a­tion of images. All the artists on show place them­selves outside the con­ven­tion­al history of the medium. They ignore the line drawn from pho­to­graphy’s early po­s­i­tion­ing as poor cousin to painting or sculpture to current present­a­tions of stills as re­p­res­ent­a­tion­al or abstract artworks. As a result, pho­to­graphy may take a back seat, but the pho­to­graph comes into its own.