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.