Through a Northern Lens


Co-organised by Dr Frances Robertson, Dr Nicky Bird and Jenny Brownrigg, this on-going Public Seminar Series started in October 2016 with the topic ‘Women, Picture, Place’, in which guest speakers from Scotland and Finland presented research findings on women photographers and film makers addressing ‘the North’ in the 1930s. The following October 2017 event addressed the theme of ‘Place Image, Heritage and Archaeology,’ and the October 2018 seminar was on the theme ‘An Auto-ethnographic Turn’.

The series was originally devised by Nicky Bird and Frances Robertson to share ideas, histories, aesthetics and questions that are attached to the ‘North’. For example,’Through a Northern Lens: Place Image, Archaeology and Heritage did this through close discussion of particular places that – from an urban view – would appear to lie in Scotland’s ‘peripheral places.’

In 2019, the ‘Through a Northern Lens’ Co-organisers contributed to Practicing Landscape: Land , Histories and Transformation exhibition and the accompanying Symposium.

26 Oct 2018

Through A Northern Lens: An Auto-ethnographic Turn

GSA Reading Landscape Research Group, University of West of Scotland

“It’s our parents who didn’t see us,” August 1957 
Olive Wallace, Inherited family snapshot, From the Wallace family archive

Auto-ethnography is an approach to observation and field work that has been adopted in various ways in art and design research and practice. Auto-ethnography developed in order to disrupt the unequal power relations that had obtained between apparently objective external specialist observers of people, places and activities and the observed ‘others’ of observation. In practice, expressions range from a species of situated autobiographical artworks, writings and reflections, through to the considered evaluation of the ‘observer’s part’ in the research process and their negotiations with participants. In relation to the concerns of the Northern Lens series, our contributors to this seminar will discuss how their work engages with the auto-ethnographic shaped in very specific ways by notions of ‘North’.

Speakers were: Teiji Wallace-Lewis (Ph.D. Research Student, School of Fine Art, Glasgow School of Art): ‘The Politics of Home/Land: Geographies of Trauma Within the Canadian Family Farm and Archive’; Dr. Rachael Flynn (Lecturer In Creative Practice, School of Media, Culture & Society, University of West of Scotland) ‘Letters from home: Releasing emotional narratives of migration and diaspora through creative research practice’; Dr. George S. Jaramillo (Lecturer and Research Associate at The Innovation School, GSA) ‘Lines of Enquiry: Drawing as auto-ethnographic practice’; Dave Loder (Lecturer in Interior Design, GSA) ‘Decolonising Landscape and the Entangled Visuality of the Anthropocene’; and respondants were Dr Jo Clements (freelance archivist) and Dr Ranjana Thapalyal (Senior Lecturer, GSA).

23 October 2017

Through a Northern Lens: Place Image, Archaeology and Heritage

GSA Exhibitions, School of Fine Art, School of Design

North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. Moriston Project. Contract No. 50. 
No. 150. Ceannacroc Tunnel, Ceannacroc Generating Station. Tailrace Tunnel.
View of portal from bridge deck, 2/7/1956.

This public event and study afternoon developed conversations and research links around themes including layered sites of history; individual and community memory; communication of memory; tangible and intangible forms of heritage; archaeology and destruction; folklore and knowledge; transportation; utilitarian bridges and their impact; fragility; cultural memory; material culture; art researcher practices and pedagogies.

The opening speakers were: Nicky Bird (Reader in Contemporary Photographic Practice, School of Fine Art), who discussed the methodologies and outcomes of her Timespan commission ‘Ghosting the Castle’; Dr Frances Robertson (Lecturer & Researcher, Design History & Theory) examined the cultural, political and material elements contributing to hydro-electric power schemes inserted into the Scottish Highlands after World War Two, in ‘Power in the landscape: Regenerating the Scottish Highlands after WWII’; and Stuart Jeffrey (Reader in Heritage Visualisation, School of Simulation and Visualisation, GSA) demonstrated through recent fieldwork his work in heritage visualisation, the analyse, interpretation and representation of heritage from built to intangible forms, in ‘Turning vampires to basalt: the transition of the Isle of Staffa from cultural to natural wonder’. The Respondent to these three presentations was Dr. George S. Jaramillo (Lecturer and Research Associate, The Innovation School, GSA). Dr Jaramillo is an architect and heritage specialist, with interests in rural landscape, industrial material culture and ruins.

The closing speakers were: Dr Gina Wall (Deputy Head, School of Fine Art, GSA), who focused on practice and research, in particular on the intangible elements of landscape and how she traced the ‘spectre’ within her photographic practice, in the landscapes of Iceland and Scotland. Sheena Graham-George (PhD Research Student, School of Fine Art, GSA), followed with how her practice involves working with a combination of sound and ceramics to explore the cyclical nature of time and memory as they intertwine; to uncover and reveal the spectral in the landscape, to locate and make manifest the unseen, the forgotten, the absent which are at the heart of the physical and cultural landscape of the cilliní. The Respondent to these two presentations was Dr Rachael Flynn (Consultant, Creative & Academic Development Team, School of Media, Culture & Society, University West of Scotland). Thematically, Dr Flynn’s practice-led work explores familial stories of migration and diaspora of Scotland and Ireland – with particular focus on the interconnectivity and ‘inherited’ inferences of these – alongside the wider collective themes related to these discourses.

28 October 2016

Through a Northern Lens: Women, Picture, Place

GSA Exhibitions, School of Fine Art, School of Design

Image credit: Margaret Tait, Primula Scotica, ‘Grows nowhere else but here’, courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive

This Photography Seminar study day was developed in collaboration between Frances Robertson, Jenny Brownrigg, Nicky Bird and visiting researcher Mervi Lofgren (University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland), with invited guest speakers Shona Main and Sarah Neely.

Four speakers (Lofgren, Brownrigg, Main and Neely) spoke for around 35 minutes each on their research, in order to develop a discussion and promote research links around the topic of the role of early women photographers / filmmakers and representations of ‘the North’. All the photographers /filmmakers discussed started work in the politically charged atmosphere of the inter-war period, with class- and international conflicts and allegiances very present in the minds of artists and their publics. Writer and filmmaker Shona Main, who is writing a biography on Jenny Gilbertson, is looking at the ethics of early filmmaking regarding the subject of northern communities, whilst Dr Sarah Neely’s work on film makers such as Jenny Gilbertson, Margaret Tait or Isobel Wylie Hutchison has looked at their relationship with perceptions of ‘the North’ and portraits of people and place, Jenny Brownrigg’s research examines the distinctive (and deliberately non-exotic) approach taken by women provincial documentary photographers in their presentation of such peripheral outlying regions of Scotland such as the Western Isles, while Mervi Lofgren presents the work of resolutely avant-garde ‘metropolitan’ and liberated female photographers running a commercial photographic studio in the regional centre of Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle, in Finnish Lapland in the 1920s and 1930s.

Throughout all these strands, we see various connections and echoes, such as the presentation of the domestic and the everyday, the relationship of peripheries to the centres of culture, the question of earning a living and how the photographers perceived their own work (i.e were they commercial photographers, documentary journalists, artists, etc?), how work was funded and distributed, and perhaps most importantly, why, or whether, women were seen as amateurs in relation to their male contemporaries.

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