AMBIT: Photographies from Scotland (Stills Gallery) (4 stars)

AMBIT: Photographies from Scotland (Stills Gallery)

Ambitious works from six local and international artists at this two-part show

With disappointing regularity we're forced to ask questions about what art is worth these days; about the financial value of it as being a function which supersedes the emotional or community good that it does. It might be easy, therefore, to make a case that Stills Gallery's rent must go up and its funding come down from a purely fiscal, hard-nosed point of view – a context which claims no knowledge of the huge role which this centre of excellence plays within the photographic arts community in Scotland, all the way from student training up to exhibitions by some of the country's finest professionals.

Amid the expressions of concern which have broken out over the future of the Stills, they couldn't be presenting an exhibition which better represents what the gallery is there to promote than this one. Showing work by six artists, Ambit is a two-part show, the second of which can be found in Glasgow at Scotland's other major photographic gallery, Street Level Photoworks; and the locations and context of the work shown here is both local and international.

Most ambitious of all, simply in terms of cultural breadth, is Kieran Dodds' series Hierotopia, a window upon another world and way of life in rural northern Ethiopia. Focused upon the dismaying fact that human activity has cost the country 95% of its native forests over the last century, a series of aerial photographs of barren brown lands surrounding a constellation of green space – and of portraits taken within these areas – illustrates the singular role of Orthodox churches in creating unfelled mini-forests around them. The work has the urgency of political art which raises questions about the environment, and the serenity of religious painting.

Again, themes of environmentalism and labour presents themselves in Alex Hall's small-scale multiple sets of close-up still-life work from a scrapyard; of bruised and battered cars, dusty old engines and mounds of tyres. Everything we build, everything we use and care for as an essential instrument of living, stops being new and useful and gets thrown away, but it doesn't disappear. There's a strange beauty to the careful selection of Hall's work, in terms of colours and composition.

Each of the sets here appear to be taken from much wider projects, yet the excerpts give enough of a sense of purpose and technique. In the rear gallery, much of the work is united both by its sourcing on the islands of Scotland, and by a sense of the eerily cinematic. Two of the artists involved participated in the Stills' Creative Exchange: Orkney – Edinburgh programme last year; Brittonie Fletcher, who has used photographic processes like C-Type printing and chemigram ('drawing' on photographic paper) to represent the rock formations of the islands in near-abstract form; and Frances Scott, who has 'drawn' GPS maps of her own Orcadian explorations, alongside some sample, narrow-frame landscapes of what she discovered on these exploratory walks.

Elsewhere, Mhairi Law's five-part The Darkest Dawn series is even more striking in context. Commissioned by An Lanntair on the Isle of Lewis, it commemorates the centenary of the sinking of the HMY Iolaire, killing 200 returning soldiers from the First World War and resulting in grave consequences for the island's population. These photographs show the foreboding rocks where it happened, the Beasts of Holm, from fearful darkness through to hopeful dawn, a sense of place and lingering terror somehow palpable. Finally, Morwenna Kearsley has hung floor-to-ceiling silver gelatin prints from her 'Evasive Action' series, like ghost images of rumpled fabric and very old photos faded beyond recognition.

AMBIT: Photographies from Scotland is at the Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 2 Jun.

Ambit: Photographies from Scotland

A partnership between Glasgow's Street Level and Edinburgh's Stills, this show showcases works by emerging Scottish photographers.

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