Scotland's Photograph Album: The MacKinnon Collection (4 stars)

Scotland's Photograph Album: The MacKinnon Collection

André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri (French, 1819-1889), A Scottish Highlander, 1860

Murray MacKinnon's collection tells many implicit stories about what being Scottish involved during this period

Recently jointly acquired by the National Galleries and Library of Scotland, the Scottish photography collection of collector Murray MacKinnon spans from the 1840s until the 1940s, and catches a sense of both the advance of photographic technology and the experience of living during this time. With a total number of items in advance of 15,000, this show represents a tiny portion of what was obtained, but nevertheless tells many implicit stories about what being Scottish involved during this period.

As might be expected from the camera capacity of the era, what we see here is not a procession of the pin-sharp and painstaking digital images found elsewhere in this gallery, but rather a series of small and sometimes murky monochrome and sepia prints drenched in vivid social history and a sense of time capsule wonder. At a time when understanding history is more essential than ever, the windows upon it offered here have a powerful effect.

Taken around the midpoint of the 19th century, for example, James Ross and John Thomson's view of Edinburgh from the Castle catches this familiar view less than a decade before the Scottish National Gallery became a part of it, while a group of carpet-manufacturing factory girls at Roslin are seen thirty years later in an album of photographs presented to future Prime Minister William Gladstone's wife on a tour of Midlothian.

Figures including Thomas Carlyle, the sculptor John Steell, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret can also be seen alongside images of less illustrious contemporaries, and in each portrait we don't just see something of how they lived, but can imagine a time when this era was as young as its inhabitants. The sense of historical context, and of being there, is tangible.

We see Scottish soldiers of the 71st Highlanders engaged amid the Crimean War; a stunning, haunting landscape shot of Glasgow University by James Craig Annan; and the Forth Rail Bridge and Queen Mary ship in mid-construction. There are poetic landscape images from around the country, examples of rural and urban photography (including documentation of the long-gone closes of the Gorbals), and great shots of women – very oppositely – stalking deer in their finery and playing a brutal football match in the 1930s.

Some striking images of Aberdeen by night, taken by Linton M. Gibb and John D. Stephen respectively, are perhaps the most visually pleasing photographs here. Yet throughout the show, the aesthetics are secondary to the weight of history brought to life once more.

Scotland's Photograph Album: The MacKinnon Collection is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 16 Feb.

Scotland’s Photograph Album: The MacKinnon Collection

Photographs collected by Murray MacKinnon, representing Scottish life and identity from the 1840s through the 1940s, a century marked by transformation and innovation.

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