Scotland’s Photograph Album: The MacKinnon Collection is on now at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition showcases highlights from over 14,000 photographs jointly-acquired last year by the National Galleries of Scotland and National Library of Scotland, with the assistance of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, The Scottish Government and Art Fund.
The collection was collated over decades by photography enthusiast Murray MacKinnon and concurrent exhibitions at Scotland’s National Galleries and Libraries now unveil what the BBC described as, “one of the most significant photography collections in decades”.
One notable inclusion is the images of Thomas Annan, whose inadvertently-unsettling photography of Glasgow streets and closes were some of the earliest in what’s become a fully-fledged genre of pictures conveying eeriness and/or isolation. In this feature, we explore the genre from its origins through to the present day, through images from the MacKinnon Collection, the collections of both the Galleries and Library, and others.
Annan never set out to create such ghostly images. In the late 1860s, Glasgow’s dark, damp and overcrowded dwellings had been earmarked for demolishment down to the widespread disease running through them; Annan was chosen to photograph the slums before they disappeared forever.
The resulting images, later published in The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow, captured Glasgow’s cramped closes, hung linen on washing lines stretching across them, and the numerous spectral figures weaving into and out. However, these figures were not ghosts; rather, the result of the camera’s long exposure, a technical restriction of the period.
Discover more in our Thomas Annan Feature and at the National Library of Scotland’s Thomas Annan learning resource.
Annan’s images were, however, not eerie photography’s beginnings. That came with the first ever camera photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s abstract but nevertheless unnerving View from the Window at Gras (1826).
The first image to capture humans came in Louis Daguerre’s View of the Boulevard du Temple, taken from his studio in Paris at 8am. A panorama of a deserted Parisian street, the image features two ghost-like figures left-of-centre, although they’re less supernatural and more shoeshiner and customer, being the only people remaining still enough throughout the camera’s ten minute exposure time. In the National Libraries’ collection is this hazy Paul-Gustave Froment image dated by James Nasmyth as being from 1935, which predates Daguerre’s public announcement of the daguerreotype, though does not feature people. Investigations are underway by the Library to identify if this image is indeed from 1835, and is outlined in their blog-post on the photograph.
Later, Scottish photographers Archibald Burns and William Donaldson Clark would, like Annan, snap Scottish streets with some inadvertently spooky results. Burns’ images of Edinburgh’s Cowgate, such as College Wynd, High School Wynd and of Cardinal Beaton's House, and of Advocate’s Close and the city’s High Street, all possess an otherworldliness, as do some of Clark’s, such as his photograph of the Grassmarket.
There are many such images in the collection of Scotland's National Library, such as Alfred Rushbrook’s bounty of eerie examinations of 1920s Edinburgh, such as his photographs of Buccleuch Street, both pictured below.
Other photographers began capturing Edinburgh in the same vein, such as this misty snap and this spectral landscape, both taken in the city’s Castle Hill by photographers unknown. In another, Robert Dykes caught Prince Street Gardens doused in low-lying mist. Dan Dunlop later took images of Edinburgh Castle from the cheery vantage point of a graveyard. The prolific James Valentine produced, in Dundee, these three images of The Trades Hall from the High Street, the Victoria Bridge and Victoria Street and perhaps the most disquieting of them all, Stewart's Court.
Scotland’s Photograph Album displays the below Linton M Gibb photograph, A Misty Evening, depicting Aberdeen circa 1935. Streetlights illuminate the cobbled-stone of a deserted street, in an image which is part-murky, part-noir.
Of the century’s approaching years, from Scotland’s national arts collection there is Joseph McKenzie’s 1967 monochrome combination of decrepit house and dramatic sky, or Raymond Moore’s commitment to emptied roads, lone electricity poles and sparse landscapes.
Since then, street photography has exploded, particularly in America, with rafts of photographers scouring dim-lit roads, abandoned factories, quiet suburbs and ‘gas’ stations. Notable examples include Ed Freeman’s moody motels and desolate highway stores, Luc Kordas’ series ‘Loneliness’ and Gregory Crewdson’s often staged yet evocative melancholy.
Alongside Crewdson, the most prominent master of suburban seclusion is Todd Hido, who made his name hunting houses and landscapes to produce images skilfully juxtaposing light and shadow, the benign and magnificent, statement and ambiguity.
Hido’s suburban images evoke Hopper paintings, Hitchcock and Kubrick freeze-frames, and the hypothetical homes of Raymond Carver characters. Like Carver’s writing, the power Hido draws upon in his images is often what is not being said, but left for the viewer to infer, with wonderfully-perturbing results.
But all of the above are, whether aware of it or not, historically indebted to Annan – arguably the first photographer to also be considered an artist – and his unnerving images of Glasgow’s closes. For he not only captured eerie paths, but also laid one down, of which all succeeding photographers have had to travel through.
The MacKinnon Collection acquired jointly with the National Library of Scotland with assistance from National Lottery Heritage Fund, Scottish Government and the Art Fund.