• Sun. Mar 3rd, 2024

Document Scotland: The Ties that Bind

Scottish National Portrait Gallery: until 26th April


‘The Ties that Bind’ is a compelling and unusual exhibition currently being displayed at the National Portrait Gallery. The photography compilation is by Document Scotland, a collective that comprises four different photographers: Colin McPherson, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, Sophie Gerrard and Stephen McLaren. This exhibition is particularly poignant because it is being displayed a year after the Scottish Referendum of September 2014, reflecting on both Scotland’s place in the wider world as well as its more particular traditions unique to Scottish culture, in a time which the photographers have labelled ‘pivotal and dynamic.’  

One of the most moving parts of the exhibition is the depiction of two female farmers by the photographer Sophie Gerrard in her series Drawn to the Land. The portrayal of women here shows their strength against the adversities presented by the often hostile Scottish climate and isolating landscape in which they both work and live.  Furthermore, the affinity that these women feel towards the landscape is represented profoundly in the collection, with the photographs of the female farmer juxtaposed immediately with the domestic interior of their homes and the powerful landscape in which they work. This collection speaks powerfully of something larger; of the infinite aspects of the land that exist outside that which the farmer is trying to cultivate.

The photography related to the lesser known Scottish rituals and traditions – specifically the Common Ridings, which are long-standing traditional Scottish festivals are explored by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert in his series Unsullied and Untarnished. The photos are significant for their warmth and intimacy, drawing an observer in to the inner lives of some of the more unusual and unique Scottish dwellers. These festivals have their origins rooted in the lengthy history of the defence of Scottish borders against the English, and a sense of community is strongly evoked by these photos in both their diversity and physical arrangement.

A noteworthy part of the exhibition is upon immediately entering: the first photographs, by Stephen McLaren, featured in his collection A Sweet Forgetting, explore Scotland’s role in the slave trade and sugar plantations in Jamaica during the height of the British Empire. His work is perhaps the most exceptional and unexpected in the whole exhibition; it displays forgotten remnants from the past in Jamaica. A clean white robe hanging in an opened wardrobe, bright pink flower petals peeking out from under an abandoned bed – this section of the exhibition induces a sense of nostalgia for an illustrious past in Jamaica that is seemingly now lost.

The final section of the exhibition is by Colin McPherson in his series When Saturday Comes, depicting the idiosyncratic aspects of the current, weekly ritual of attending the local football match across communities in Scotland. His work speaks of the diversities that make up communities; the young and the old united by a sporting tradition that, in his photographs, turns the heads of all.

Overall, it is an unusual and powerful exhibition. I wonder if perhaps there could be more cohesiveness to unite the exhibition, yet the success of the exhibition arises from the fact that it is a study of the very corners of Scottish society: the unexpected and idiosyncratic, the young and the old, community and isolation. The richness and variety of Scotland is truly well represented here in some beautiful and well-arranged photography.

Image: Joanna Kitchener (Flickr)

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