Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh. January 2011.
I must have been too busy taking self-consciously offbeat photos with my Lomo to see the memo that said camera-less photography was the new cool thing. Thankfully, it’s pretty hard to miss –Ingleby’s latest exhibition is fairly large-scale by independent Edinburgh galleries’ standards, and it is being run in conjunction with the V&A’s winter blockbuster, Shadow Catchers.
The two exhibitions are related, certainly, but the galleries have taken very different approaches to the subject matter. Walking around the ground floor of the Ingleby, I felt like I was tiptoeing through a Victorian botanist’s office: Garry Fabian Miller’s dye destruction prints of leaves are so vivid, so beautifully translucent, that they look more like preserved specimens than photographs. Susan Derges’ series of tadpole prints – from spawn to a fully fledged frog – reinforce the ideas of the cyclical quality of nature.
Ingleby’s inclusion of the nineteenth century works of William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins supports the botany-art relationship expressed by Derges and Miller, and gives the exhibition a solid historical context. Given that camera-less photography relies on the careful use of light, it should come as no surprise that two of Fox Talbot’s works are in a dimly lit room, covered in a thick cloth, to be peeked at and re-covered quickly. This adds a frisson of excitement and naughtiness for the viewer – admittedly of a very gentle sort, given that the hidden, forbidden image is of a leaf – but it also adds to the scientific element of the exhibition. The act of lifting the cloth reminds the viewer of the intricate processes of control behind these prints. Atkins’ work, on the other hand, looks thoroughly modern – her crisp white and corn-flower blue prints are immediately striking upon entering the gallery, unprotected and yet beautifully preserved.
The exhibition continues upstairs, where Miller and Derges have used the movement of water to very different effects. Miller’s impressions of ripples and waves, rendered in crimson and black or vivid blue and black, look like digital art in their precision. I was more drawn to Susan Derges’ large scale prints. Derges uses the light of the moon and ripples of water to create layered, mystical images. This has a genuinely moving effect: I felt like I was underwater, looking up through the surface and seeing the silhouettes of branches and a distant, glowing moon. These pieces are calm, contemplative and staggeringly beautiful. This, perhaps, is the beauty of camera-less photography: removing the camera from the equation produces a surprisingly intimate print.
With A Little Bit of Magic Realised, the Ingleby Gallery has produced a beautiful and well-curated exhibition. Its strength is in its integration of the different artists’ work: where the V&A take you through a step-by-step showcase of each artist, jumping from one to the next and discussing techniques and biography to an almost exhausting extent, Ingleby walk you gently through the history of camera-less photography. Chronology is acknowledged but not forced upon the viewer, rather each piece of work sits next to its natural partner, regardless of time or artist. Information is provided, if you want it: there is a table of books and prints to rummage through on the ground floor, but equally the viewer is made to feel comfortable appreciating the works for their aesthetic qualities without worrying about understanding scientific processes. This is not a critique of the V&A: they have a responsibility to educate and inform which they fulfil beautifully and consistently. It is more of a plea for you to run to the Ingleby Gallery before the exhibition closes on 29th January and revel in the simple, fundamental joy of the exhibition. Such pleasure from leaves – who would have thought it?
Originally published in The Student.