When We Were Young: Photographs of Childhood from the National Galleries of Scotland
- David Pollock
- 18 October 2017
Striking images make for an enjoyable and illuminating show
Amid the more expected monochrome images of mischievous Gorbals schoolkids and sepia-tinted Victorian children posing for starchy, uncomfortable portraits, there are some stunning, unforgettable images amid this new display of more than 100 photographs, presented by Photography Scotland's Season of Photography 2017 and the Luminate Festival in the SNPG's Robert Mapplethorpe Gallery. The collection's stated mission is to explore how attitudes towards childhood have changed in tandem with the evolution of the photographic medium, and these moments come in snapshot, rather than through any kind of rigorous survey.
Where technology and faster exposures have clearly led to more off-the-cuff and naturalistic images being possible, most of these images – the range of odd, otherworldly Victorian portraits aside – give a visceral sense of being there, and those social-realist photographs from the post-war years reveal their iconic nature yet again. Joseph McKenzie's 'Fall From Grace', with a baby tumbled from its pram, and scruffy but gallus 1960s 'Beatle Girl'; David Peat's poignant images of childhood companionship in bombed-out streets; Larry Herman's architecture studies of playing kids dwarfed by the modernist Red Road and Gorbals housing structures; all are iconic and well worth viewing again, even if you know them already.
There are other striking, singular images, like the prints from David Williams ' 1984 'No Man's Land' series (particularly a great shot of a cool, projecting late-teen schoolgirl alongside a cheerful and unselfconscious pigtailed primary schooler), Diane Arbus' simple, round-cheeked 1968 portrait of a newborn, and Edith Tudor-Hart's eerie shot of London children receiving ultraviolet light treatment. On one level it's an enjoyable and illuminating show, and yet it feels too white, and too black and white; the latter, because a sense of the really contemporary feels somehow absent, and the former, because non-white faces – an extended family portrait of the Pakistini-Scots judge, politician and writer Bashir Maan, a striking and recent portrait of a young black woman and a couple of period shots of Bengali girls aside – are in sadly too-short supply.
When We Were Young: Photographs of Childhood from the National Galleries of Scotland is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until 13 May.