153rd International Photographic Exhibition

Photography, Photographic Exhibition Centre, Venue 130, 10:00-17:00 until 30th August. 

There’s no formal introduction to the grandiosely named 153rd Annual Photographic Exhibition. Rather, you’re left to your own devices to decipher any curatorial stratagem. Two hundred and two prints hang in invariable blocks of six, mounted on grey felt exhibition panels. Imaginatively, photographs seem to be arranged by tone, with occasional nods to a mutual theme. A flock of bird of prey-exhibits are digitally dramatised, X-Pro II style. On the next-door panel, there’s a white polar bear splayed lethargically on his front, a prowling white arctic fox, a (you’ve guessed it, white) snowy-silenced landscape, and a still life of fluorescent garden furniture, half-heartedly whitened in editing. Fitting.

A more complex, even comic, pairing is evidenced by ‘Tilly Turning her Head’, and ‘Mrs Cetin’. The subject of the former is a head and shoulders shot of a nude, made-up model, photoshopped to commercial standards, and the latter, a heavy-breasted babushka, taking a rest in her humble wooden house, her walking crutch leaning beside her. But nothing about the exhibition is convincing that this juxtaposition of two femininities, young-and-decorative versus uninterrupted-aged, was planned.

Thankfully, the exhibits themselves redeem the unexceptional curatorship. For instance, Ivy May McIntosh uses the dark icy waters of ‘Reine Lofoten’ to reflect the chocolate box red fishing houses and colossal mountains to fantastical effect. Steve Dormer’s ‘Bygone Years’, featuring a steam train and night guards, and an inanimate passenger with top hat and briefcase, shares the exaggerated nostalgia of Anderson’s Grand Hotel Budapest. And Joe Grabham achieves an intense sense of character in ‘His Medals and Mine’ with his formal and super high-resolution portrait. It seems this conceit was not intentional.

Unsurprisingly, portraits of women (particularly older ones, more surprisingly) were a popular choice in the show. On the podium of charismatic faces, bronze goes to Shirley Wilson’s afore mentioned babuskha, after Sue Moore’s ‘Aged Face’ of a grinning, lipless grandma, and Rod Wheelans’ ‘Love a Duck’, in which the near-toothless subject’s complexion and orange headdress match the colorings of the eponymous goose she hugs. On the other end of the spectrum are a couple of spectacular photographic nudes: Ross McKelvey’s ‘Dark Symmetry’, and Stuart Gilland’s ‘Faith in Bronze’ share a statuesque polish akin to Brancusi’s work realized in the 1920s. McKelvey’s second entry, ‘A fine Pear’, a bodiless pair of legs in fishnet tights, is an illusionistic photograph of which even Man Ray would have been envious.

Exhibits that received awards from the photographic society itself, trended static subjects, intensively manipulated in post-production. More deserving is a thread of observational images from the photographers’ encounters with marginal or marginalised societies and individuals. Take for example, Elek Papp’s ironically named ‘Traffic Jam’ of a slow moving cart trap and stray dog in rural Hungary. In another, Yong Yang captured a provincial farmer’s affectionate gaze into the eyes of his horse, ‘Old Buddy’. The most insightful of these, Furong Zhang’s ‘Dancing’ is a powerful celebration of the freedom of expression. From backstage in an unpopulated auditorium, two young chinese girls cautiously watch their friend practicing a Latin dance, swinging her arms with such passion that they blur in the exposure. Behind the prepubescent dancer is, symbolically, a cracked and fading mural of Chairman Mao.

So in this seemingly unprogressive New Town photographer’s guild, hides some meaningful photographic gems by an array of international talent. Yet hung along side, smatterings of synthetic dollish creations, questionable surrealist compositions, and mediocre wildlife shots in prolific number would better have suited the ‘décor’ department of a minor home furnishing chain. But whilst it’s easy to disagree, on occasion, with the selection panel’s taste, and be put off, continually, by their uninspiring assembly of the show, the exceptional quality of photography, and the international demographic, ought not be overlooked.

The Edinburgh Photographic Society’s 153rd International Exhibition of Photography at 68 Great King Street runs until 20th August, open 10am – 5pm.

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