Fixing: The Archive of Alan Dimmick
In Alan Dimmick’s photographs people make art, form bands, fall in love, tie their hair into new styles and drink beer from the bottle. They go to the beach, watch the seagulls watching them, and fall over on the sand. Children play their own mysterious, inexplicable games. Generations link hands. The tower blocks of Glasgow loom solid and implacable only to slump, horribly, like wounded bodies. Lichen grows over stone. The machair blooms in springtime. Nothing remains fixed.
The Glasgow photographer Alan Dimmick has been there for more than four decades, recording the world in quiet monochrome.
A kilted wedding, a black-clad funeral, the stretch of cheap white fabric on awkward adolescent bodies on a school sports day. A photograph might claim to tell us something about a moment: a prosaic truth, or a believable fiction. But an archive reveals the bittersweet poetry of time passing. Over the years, in Dimmick’s photographs of Glasgow’s music and art scenes, the city’s physical scars and idiosyncrasies and the intimacy of life with family and friends, familiar places and faces recur. Fringes go up and down.
Teenage fleshiness melts away to expose sharp cheekbones. Babies grow up, walk, and walk away. Parents grow old. Change is unstoppable.
There are birds everywhere: beady-eyed, cocking their heads, scavenging, roosting, coolly observing. All is not as it seems. It
is a plastic bird of prey that protects a seaside ice cream booth from avian scavengers. Hanging in a tree outside a whitewashed house on a windswept Scottish coast is a white buoy, with a word painted on it in thick black letters: boy. A visitor to Glasgow’s Garden Festival clasps a hidden memento behind his back: a perfect, round, and threatening stone.
As a young teenager Alan Dimmick taught himself photography, setting up in his parents’ cupboard. At school they gave him a disused girls’ toilet in which to establish his dark room. At Glasgow College of Building and Printing he learned not art photography but chemistry, from men who had been commercial and industrial photographers. A photograph was something made not just with the eye and the shutter, but with the hand. As a student he worked wrist-deep in chemicals in a chilly Glasgow annexe. Developer. Stop bath. Fixative.
Dimmick’s work finds him frequently in the art world, documenting exhibitions and art works. At Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery,
where he began recording art openings and events in 1995, he captures artists gathering to talk, look, laugh and drink. What his camera finds in Glasgow’s young artists and its galleries, as it found in the city’s music scene in the 1980s, is kinship and affection, the friction and traction of bodies in excitable proximity.
When Alan Dimmick presents his prints he shows them together in their hundreds, mounted directly on the wall, not as a series of images, but as an accretion of information. We see four decades of social history, Glasgow’s art and music scenes, the city’s changing fabric, the human figure in the landscape. We should read them not as line or narrative, but as a kind of accumulation and contingency.
What we might seek in them are the stories that haven’t been told, the histories that haven’t yet crystallised but are still in liquid motion. Fixed. Unfixed.
A Naturally Perspicacious View of the World
Art has many essences. One of the rarest is the joy of being alive, a sumptuous wonder about the way people look, how they dress and pose themselves in public, fantasizing out loud, being bouquets of our strange, strange relation to life, each other, and this passing moment.
I have known Alan Dimmick longer than I have been an artist. We first met in the back room of Back Alley burger restaurant in
Ruthven Lane in Glasgow; burgundy walls, sticky carpet, end of the eighties. He was announced as Eric’s photographer pal who
was moving back from ‘the country’. We waited tables and I very much enjoyed his chat and his music; he had a vast, legendary, eclectic record collection of which the aforementioned Eric used to make some exemplary mix tapes that got us all through a long Saturday night, and a broad range of interests from 1950s Americana to bird watching and ham radio. Through the mix tapes I discovered a world of music new to me; The Roches, Hank Williams, Desmond Deker to name a few, their random ordering something that went on to colour soundworks I made in the early 1990s. Part Edit, my first solo show (at Tramway in 1994), owes a great debt to those very cassettes as I attempted to encapsulate time passing, filmic narrative and the possibilities of art that could entrap you through memory and music.
These thoughts return now, as I think about Dimmick’s photographs. Entrapment through memory. A frisson of darkness. They compel me to think of past times and lost youth. They make me sad, yet also bring strong feelings (feelings right now, not memories) of the edgy thrill of a fleeting look, a kiss, a song that is almost impossible to articulate unless grabbed, sealed, stilled. A camera, used well, does this, just as the lilt of a song or a line of poetry can - stealing the light, as they used to say. Illuminating loss. At his recent exhibition at Stills in Edinburgh, that loss hung in the air. I found myself photographing the photographs of a few faces no longer here. A tweet to make on the road home, on friends and colleagues that died too young.
Yet loss is a word with multiple connotations; the death, demise, passing away of great loves, of youth, of innocence, of friends, of looks. All of this is recorded in these photographs, but there is another element to loss that emerges when surveying a body of work that spans thirty plus years; the loss of inhibition, loss of fear, loss of anxiety that an artist builds over a career. Confidence in tools, and in materials and subjects; confidence in oneself and one’s eccentricity. That is the joy of a number of studies here – in fact the power of this book itself; portraits over three decades of the face of Laura Michael, events and performances from two decades at Transmission Gallery, two sons growing to manhood on holiday beaches and hillsides, two parents ageing at home.
All capture some form of confidence in the subject, and in turn, show a confident photographer recording what he sees in an eclectic world. It is this eclectic eccentricity that makes Dimmick the photographer he is. On one hand the Johnnie Shand Kydd of a now famous Glasgow art scene, on the other a Walker Evans character2 – inadvertently accessing something that he hadn’t set out to record, but compelled to do so, producing a body of work that becomes emblematic of a very specific time and place.
It is said - probably by a photography tutor - that to take good photographs of people you have to get close to them, and in the case of the art and music scene in Glasgow, here was a natural fit. Sociable, extrovert, attention seeking artists hook a photographer schooled in black and white portraiture, innately and unstintingly fascinated by people, their foibles and habits, their oddness and their beauty. That they wanted to be photographed was all the more seductive, and the fact that he was interested in the art and the music being produced a clear factor in the work’s success. It brings an intellectual engagement that sets his work apart from a slavish recording of the art scene of the 1990s and early 2000s. For his own practice, Dimmick rarely photographs static artwork (unless commissioned to do so), instead focussing on the events that surround it – hence so many pictures of bands playing, poets reading, couples kissing. Art babies from bump to birthdays to leaving home and forming their own bands. Through these at times intimate, at times spectacular, occasionally dark moments, time is charted, life is navigated and narrative skirted through a series of individual faces and expressions; to paraphrase from a description of the work of Diane Arbus3, the inhabitants of an era are ‘analysed with a lens’. Static photographs that define activity through a single look or gesture.
In ways akin to Alasdair Gray (another immoveable Glasgow West-ender), you could say that Dimmick is drawn to interesting faces and a good Fair Isle knit. I often think of his working process like that of the late Bill Cunningham, renowned cataloguer of the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th St in Manhattan, recording street fashion for his column in the New Yorker magazine that ran for over thirty years. Cunningham very particularly photographed ‘ordinary’ people, appreciating the style and dedication (not the finance) of the wearer. I think Dimmick does this with his photographs. He captures people at their most committed – singing, performing, drinking, reading. Significantly, neither Dimmick or Cunningham fully immersed themselves in the scenes they record(ed), always keeping a slight distance from their subject whilst maintaining a constant, discreet presence and an undimmed appreciation of the efforts made. It is cultural anthropology, a language refined through the very particular, exquisite relationship of camera and eye, photographer and subject. Cunningham encapsulates it perfectly:
I write with pictures. When I go on the street, do you think I know what I’m going to write when I go out there? Of course I don’t. I let
the street talk to me, and that’s how you get it. When you’re out, you stay out and the street speaks to you. That’s how you find out what people are wearing, what’s new, what’s happening. If you’re not on the street, you don’t know anything. It’s simple: go on the street and do it.
The Gift of Time, (10 x 8, b/w)
Secret histories documenting the ancient and modern tropes of contemporary Scottish culture including but not exclusively limited to the prehistoric, Neolithic,
contemporary and futuristic tribes.
Imagine you are living in the late 1970s. Let’s settle on 1978 for argument’s sake. Computers don’t exist. Digital culture is simply science fiction. The world wide web is just a nightmare in the fevered imagination of the arachnophobe. Jim Callaghan leads a popular Labour Government. This is about to change. Soon there
will be a new kind of politician in 10 Downing Street; Scotland shudders. The first fixed and failed devolution referendum is still a year away.
‘We’re on the march wi’ Ally’s Army –we’re going to the Argentine – and we’ll really shake them up when we win the world cup – ‘cause Scotland are the greatest football team...’ blasts out of every tinny radio of this small damp northern European nation as it wends its way to the inevitable failure in the 1978 World Cup. Glorious failure blossoms all summer, lasting longer than the pansies in Kelvingrove Park. Punk rock has just arrived in the suburbs, a year or so too late. And of course everything is still
in black and white. You get the picture.
Glaswegian Trompe l’Oeil
So, around about this time, across the road from the University Café on Byres Road, in the West End of Glasgow, a yellowing, typewritten postcard is seen in the window of Bensons paper shop. It nestles amongst the many other cards advertising bedsits for rent in Hillhead (Athole Gardens, top floor, £12 p/w), mundane jobs washing dishes in Back Alley (£1.10 p/h) and hipster garage bands seeking new drummers (influences: The Velvet Underground, The Byrds, Subway Sect, no heavy metal, no prog rock). The postcard reads something like this:
Photographer required for important job, Glasgow Area. Must be located in this place, live here, stay around, be present, keep eyes and ears open, be part of the scene, respond to the melodies of the city, witness the crazy dreamers and show their schemes. Will navigate the exploding art world, pop up at the seminal moments in the cultural development of the city, take pictures to explain these things; build relationships with people, help artists make their work, operate under the radar. Will not become the story, just be a part of the jigsaw, the civic tapestry, build a vivid archive that pictures a series of particular and dynamic moments and the people that make them. Won’t make pictures just for money, for newspapers, should keep it real, look after the negatives, be ready for the future that will come faster than you think. Duration: Minimum 40 years. Enquire within.
Alan Dimmick steps inside. And so it begins.
A Lifetime of Love
The tail end of The Seventies - The Eighties – The Nineties –The Noughties –The Twenty-First Century rolls around... people and their places; bands and their audiences; artists and their different scenes come and go, ebb and flow. Slowly this place changes, someone from Switzerland says it’s a miracle that No Mean City has changed to Top Art Town. Well, maybe, but then Nathan Coley said, There Will Be No Miracles Here. Who can we trust? Where does the truth reside? Where can we see the evidence? It’s a standoff. People from history will say – how did all this sophisticated art and this sublime music come out of this terrible place, these unlikely people, on the outside of everything? If you look carefully at the photographs of Alan Dimmick, you can catch a glimpse of the answer, simple and complicated at the same time. It’s an image showing an intense and knowing look between two people, unselfconscious, infused with laughter and love. In a place where there is nothing to lose, there is everything to gain. Let’s make it happen. Lets meet tomorrow when we are sober and begin the task. And suddenly it’s decades later. How did that happen? Well, easy, you just put your eye to the viewfinder, survey the scene, put your finger on the shutter release, pull back and time has passed. And that’s how it grows, shot by shot, night by night, conversation by conversation, organically, informally.
This is how we find the accumulated evidence of those selected memories collected together, reflected through the archive of Dimmick, and we can begin to understand the history and geography of the place in more depth and detail. These are the moments caught in between the architecture of history. This story is made possible because the photographer never leaves.
The Eye of Dimmick: Being There
Martin Boyce once said, This Place is Dreaming and it’s true. Those people, this place - the textures of everyday life, a tapestry
of folk - art - folk - music, just folk. Why does it look like they are all doing something interesting? That something is about to happen? These pictures are one way to capture the music of life, the subtle tones, the complicated chords, the very particular timbre of a place and its inhabitants. These are the moments of greatest triumph, but we also bear witness to the everyday hopes and fears, capture that look before it goes mainstream. This is what Dimmick does. People are living and they are captured in analogue amber through his lens, like a cosmic magic trick that
will take decades to unfold.
Some Kind of History in the Making
Alan Dimmick has been taking photographs of people since the late 1970’s. So when we look at them now we see two pictures contained in a single image – the then picture - brand new, innocent, a 10 x 8, b/w, just out of the fix tray - hanging on a line in the darkroom. Julie Wardlaw in front of the gas fire one minute, down the coast in a headscarf the next. Daniel and Alasdair Dimmick as babies. But of course we also see the now picture.
On the face of it the now version of the picture looks the same, it’s the same image. But you understand it’s completely different because it also includes all the years in-between the time it was made and now - it could be ten years, twenty years, thirty years, forty years and so on. You scan those years quickly - but for some folk that’s a lifetime. The pictures change because this time changes the people. They live, they hope, they try, they succeed, they fail, they live, they die, they disappear. I guess that’s how photographs always work but it can still be shocking to witness it all at once. The personal photographer of your own backyard. It’s not a family scrapbook, but it shows a variety of extended families, woven together in space and time. This is anthropology in action: unseen images of northern tribes, a people, their place, the relationships between people and time; and this place is dreaming. It always was, and it always will be. That’s why artists and musicians and writers and designers keep on coming and keep on staying. And keep on making it richer and more diverse and more attractive - a virtuous cycle.
Tenements and Testaments
So lets continue to imagine a city had the inspirational idea to set this commission. Perhaps forty years ago. And if they had it might have looked something like this book you’re holding in your hand. This is only my take on it. There are thousands of different journeys reflected here. Your reaction will have a different shape depending on where you passed those decades, here, or there, and if you know any of the folk in the pictures or if you just see it anew - fresh, objective. So let’s celebrate this place, these folk, the hopes, fears and lives led to the full. If you had seen that postcard in that window 40 years ago and taken on the challenge I wonder how it would have looked? Different. Of course. But this is Alan Dimmick’s version of events. And let’s celebrate the fact that this body of work is still going strong, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Here Comes Everybody
Looking at these photos it becomes clear what an extraordinary enterprise underpins this body of work. Spanning nearly forty years, Alan Dimmick’s images document his personal life, the Scottish landscape, the changing urban terrain of Glasgow and the contemporary art scene in that city. To be more precise, the documentation of that art scene permeates all those other categories. And, again for the sake of precision, it’s not simply documentation of an art scene: rather it is documentation of a community.
Over much of the period Dimmick has been working, Glasgow School of Art has offered a course called Environmental Art. It is seen as one of the catalysts for contemporary art in the city and its unofficial motto, echoing the Artist’s Placement Group in London, has been ‘context is 50% of the work’. This provides a useful starting point for a consideration of this collection of photographs. On the one hand, the pictures can be considered on their own individual merits in terms of composition, technical achievement, or aesthetic quality. And from a different perspective, the naming of the subjects in each photograph adds a new dimension of interpretation as we recognize so many artists and, by association, think of their work. In both cases, context plays a vital role. Not everyone in the photographs is an artist and not every location is a gallery or studio but the landscapes and the background of the city carry an implicit critique of the particular art world portrayed. The period covered by the photographs coincides with the fading of industrial Glasgow, the traumatic decline of one of the world’s first great industrial centres. It also charts the gradual regeneration of the city, sometimes sporadic and often intertwined with the growth of the arts both in Glasgow and across Scotland. More widely too, it is a time in which Scotland’s political landscape evolves: the Scottish Parliament is established and independence becomes a serious and credible issue. The starkness of Glasgow is often highlighted in Dimmick’s photographs, underlined through his use of black and white, as we glimpse the raw ruins of a past world (the ‘Dead Slow’ sign on the Clyde in 1987 and the Bridge to Nowhere in Anderston most obviously). Even then, the bridge to nowhere reminds us of Glasgow’s post-war modernist architecture and its influence on the work of so many artists in the city such as Martin Boyce and Toby Paterson. Architecture in this collection of images does not dwell on art institutions: instead, it revolves around more temporary spaces, rough and ready artists’ studios, artist-run galleries and tenement flats. This is true to the time, documenting the spaces where art takes root and grows or the spaces where the social life of the artists generates new ideas and projects.
It is interesting how the Scottish landscape also informs the art community represented here. Glasgow may be an urban centre but the highlands are within easy reach and forays across Scotland pepper this collection of images. It’s typical of how the landscape projects its presence into the urban centres of Scotland and how it offers an easy temporary refuge from the cities when that’s needed.
At the heart of the collection are the people. Not all artists, not all famous art world luminaries: Jeff Koons turns up in one photograph as if to demonstrate how alien his world is to that of Glasgow. Again context is everything – what is presented is a much wider community that supports and surrounds the artists – children, pets, partners, parties, openings, cafes, tenement closes, bedrooms, livings rooms, cars (that Lada...). The everyday infrastructure of life. The glue that binds this all together is friendship in its widest forms. Dimmick documents a multitude of overlapping circles of friends, sometimes deep friendships, sometimes sporadic and transient.
Celine Condorelli has written recently on the importance of friendship in The Company She Keeps (2014), focusing in particular on how friendship permeates the art world. Looking beyond the dangers of the clique, she identifies a profound strength in this situation:
There are, however, also enabling powers to friendship. What is the potential of doing something in friendship? There is an emancipatory dimension to choosing one’s allies, committing to issues and deciding to take them on, which can be a force that propels us forward. I think there is a collective aspect to this empowerment, which is the congruence between friendship and solidarity: the knowledge of engaging in a common project, of contributing to building the world, which is also how friendship leads to politics. This of course is also a drive to self-organisation.
That quietly political moment Condorelli identifies as leading to self-organisation is embodied in the community documented
by Dimmick. It’s almost a cliché now to talk of the DIY spirit in Glasgow but when you look at the locations in these photographs and the sheer amount of activity that is implied, they testify to the autonomy of that world.
Another aspect of a wider political sensibility guides the selection of these photographs and that is the absence of many of the art
world’s hierarchies. At its worst the art world spawns micro- measured levels of status - reinforced annually by ‘power 100’ lists, VIP invitations, unspoken access and exclusion...
Dimmick’s subjects are filtered through the prism of his ecumenical vision. Curators and artists jostle for exposure with dogs, cliffs, favourite jackets, fruit, cows, seagulls, architectural details and electrical cables. There are some more formal shots of famous artists but, equally, formal portraits of the unassuming figures in the art community pointedly challenge them. The portrait of Alasdair Gray in Dowanside Lane in 1985, for example, sits easily within the category of ‘celebrity author’ but it follows Ian, Lift Man taken by Dimmick in 73 Robertson St in 2005. For anyone in that period who visited The Modern Institute or the artists’ studios in the same building, Ian was the better-known face. His inclusion invites us to recognise that his modest but regular presence in the art community made a contribution. The selection, editing and sequencing of these images offers its own challenge to the narrow, blinkered approaches of art history.
The medium of photography itself widens this challenge. Dimmick’s work embraces the documentary and the intimate. His practice straddles the two often very separate worlds: photography and contemporary art. While the borders of those worlds are not entirely closed it’s clear they have different rites and customs. Dimmick then is oddly situated both within and outwith the world he is documenting, a position that has afforded him some distance and insight as the city’s arts community has evolved.
There are some parallels between Dimmick’s work and that of the older Dutch photographer Benjamin Katz. In portraits of artists such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Albert Oehlen, Isa Genzken, George Baselitz and Rosemarie Trockel, Katz succeeds in creating the sense of an artistic community that spanned the Netherlands and Germany. There is a similar sense of shared intimacy among those artists and Katz captures glimpses of their informal life beyond the studios and galleries. That quality of belonging and standing outside the scene is also evident. In contrast, though, the continental scene portrayed is more sedate and never strays too far from the serious. Dimmick’s pictures record a younger, wilder scene: further from the centres of art, power and money. Seriousness in Scotland is fused with elements of risk and abandon.
Markus Lüpertz describes Katz’s images as:
Often photos which show his friends while working – or while posing – while celebrating – while thinking – while meditating. Usually animated – in motion – together – with it – and sometimes surprised – and always in black and white. Black and white – the colour of reality, for we are all better-looking in black and white...
Dimmick too has a preference for black and white that may be the colour of reality but also highlights the basic power of light in art and photography. It reminds us of the world of colour and form inhabited by artists. Black and white has a levelling effect too, rendering everyone equal and linked across time. By default, given that this collection spans forty years, it documents a vital period in the history of cameras and photography. Arguably film cameras reached their peak in the eighties and by the nineties primitive, but viable, digital cameras started to emerge. The slow decline of film, its recent partial revival, the rise and fall of polaroid are all reflected in Dimmick’s work. There is an underlying theme of the materiality of the image, expressed most obviously in the Ham Radio photograph but also in an image such as My Lada where the negative’s sprocket holes are included.
That emphasis on the materiality of the medium carries through to the various images of GM8BJF Shack, the 2009 portrait of Luke Fowler with film reels or the performance image of Uncle John and Whitelock in Transmission Gallery. Several of these images and the frequent band shots also evoke an absent medium: sound. Glasgow’s art scene is well known for the artists’ relationship to music and, more recently, sound art. The photos here mutely testify to that affinity and simultaneously acknowledge the limits of the still photograph in this realm.
Dimmick’s handling of this theme recalls the work of two American photographers who worked in the midst of broad art and music scenes. John Cohen’s work in the 1950s and 1960s covered Abstract Expressionism, early New York performance in tandem with his documentation of the beat generation, traditional music, and Greenwich Village folk. Elliott Landy, in the late 1960s, documented the music and art scene in the Vermont town of Woodstock. Both photographers worked from within the community itself and both recorded events over a long period of time, affording us a glimpse into the lives of artists beyond their public activities. Neither can capture the sound of the era any more than Dimmick can in Glasgow. But all three photographers pinpoint the moments of ecstasy and intimacy that underpin the work of the artists around, finding those moments in modest, everyday situations.