Whispers sometimes reach our ears from long-silenced voices, reverberations reflected by a documentary record that has diversified over the last century-and-a-half to include photography, recorded audio, video and a still expanding palette of newer media. Tradition and transmitted recollection have been augmented by technologies with an appearance of truthfulness, which sometimes fail to preserve precisely those kinds of truth which are specific to oral traditions—the feeling of a place or time, the personal and social meaning of an experience. Nevertheless, we are privileged to live in a time which has unprecedented access to accurate records of its own immediate past. We are fast approaching the bicentenary of the first surviving photograph, and this has an inevitable consequence on the way that we understand ourselves in relation to the past; not long ago, anything that was in a photograph was definitively modern, even if it was sometimes dated or old-fashioned. But by the early twenty-first century this quintessentially modern technology offers a compelling argument for regarding our era as post-modern, notwithstanding the knots into which theorists twisted themselves around that term in the second half of the twentieth. It was once the case that the only significant distance visible in a photo was cultural or geographic, but now its surface can inscribe the historically remote. A picture of the place you presently occupy might show the impression of someone who died before your grandparents’ grandparents were born.
What these objects convey is not ‘truth’. That is something that we must construct around them for ourselves, but the quality they do possess is accuracy, and that accuracy invites us almost irresistibly to enter into an imaginative exchange with the photograph, and to inscribe with our gaze the kinds of truth which we associate with with its optical surface. The more detailed and complex the impression recorded in a given medium, the more powerful this imaginative imperative. For this reason, the object that most captured my attention in At the Water’s Edge was a short documentary film, which contained not just items from the visual record of Scotland’s fishing heritage, but the reflective and articulate voice of a man who knew it intimately, and who was old enough to have figured as the subject of many of the photographs deployed.
At the Water’s Edge is a small show, displayed in what is effectively the lobby of the National Library of Scotland’s exhibition gallery. It is a selection of photographs relevant to coastal and maritime life, taken from the MacKinnon Collection, a major archive of social history photography recently acquired by the NLS from a private collector, which includes material from the earliest days of photography in Scotland. Through such images, whispers reach our ears from long-silenced voices, but as with whispers it is only the sibilants and plosives that carry — we can hear the shape of the words, but we must imagine their meaning. It is the function of curation to assist us in doing so.
The relatively small number of photographs on display do not produce a chronology of coastal life in Scotland, but zig-zag in both date and appearance – a 1920s shot of the Firth of Forth railway bridge has that blurry, patinated look of the earliest nineteenth-century prints, while some much older photos have great clarity and depth of field. I would guess that this small show is intended largely as a taster, an indication of the many facets of Scottish life that this remarkable collection can illuminate, but the images included are powerfully evocative of life in a country which is uniquely dominated by its coasts and islands. In this they are abetted by the above-mentioned film, which combines images from glass slides in the collection with an interview with a retired fisherman. The interview is subtitled, in case anyone has difficulty in hearing it, but it is (delightfully) subtitled in Scots, and I found myself mesmerised by the language and its spellings as much as by the images. It’s in this written and oral exposition that the curation comes together, binding image and oral recollection to invest with meaning photographs that might otherwise present a somewhat mysterious surface to an English landlubber like me.