Pascal Gielen once defined art ‘scenes’ as ‘the new factories in the economy of ideas’. The Glasgow art scene however, does sometimes seem more like an old stable for conjuring up miracles. Alan Dimmick has been largely responsible for revealing the scale and the tone of that ‘miraculous’ scene, and for bringing us, incidentally, to ponder on the relationship between the anecdotal and the documentary. Catherine Owen reviews Dimmick’s latest show for The Drouth.
At GOMA, Glasgow’s museum of modern art, I recently eavesdropped on a conversation between two photographers. One is the subject of GOMA’s newest exhibition, Hal Fischer, whose annotated pictures of gay male culture in 1970s San Francisco offer a playful ethnography of a community enjoying the golden age between the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the 1980s AIDS crisis that swept so much of that life and culture away. The other photographer is Alan Dimmick, chronicler of perhaps another golden age: the arts community of contemporary Glasgow.
Alan Dimmick’s own solo show at GOMA (in 2012) filled the same space with hundreds of small-scale, black and white shots that invited viewers to peer closely to see friends (or even themselves) captured often unawares peering at other art in other galleries, watching performances that are just out of frame, or having a fag and a drink and a chat. Dimmick’s tableaux vivant feel natural and un-sought, as though he has simply wandered into the scene, pointed his camera, pressed the button and wandered away again.
Here is the cast of Sarah Lowndes’ 2003 survey of the intertwined Glasgow art and music scenes, ‘Social Sculpture’, caught in social moments that are sometimes decades apart, like birds returning each year to the same woods or wetlands. It’s a world of talk, laughter, friends, partners, children, and of the natural habitats of a community: tenement flats, workshops, studios, pubs, galleries, doorways, streets. Kids now at university are pictured as toddlers, or inside pregnant bellies. The most artificial thing about these images (at least for any Glasgow-based viewer who regularly attends degree show exhibitions, or poetry readings, or the openings of shows at galleries) is the absence of the figure of Dimmick himself: these days white-bearded, usually in baseball cap, and often wearing shorts. Dimmick is still a regular fixture wherever artists gather, even if he claims that he doesn’t attend quite as many openings as he used to.
The clothes have a whiff of ‘Swallows and Amazons’, or of an ornithologist heading for his hide, and it’s not surprising to discover that Dimmick, who grew up in the West End of Glasgow, has been a keen bird-watcher since childhood. “When I was a child I had so many weird hobbies and my mother would go spare at all the things I’d ask her to buy me, but when I discovered photography it was just… brilliant. I loved that you could do it all yourself, that you could go into this room with red light and print everything.” Dimmick’s sunny flat is a treasury of vintage nature books and stuffed birds, as well as housing his amateur radio equipment (“absolutely not CB radio, that’s a completely different thing”), an art collection, some splendid vintage hats, and evidence of his love of music (there are Orange Juice and Postcard Records posters taped inside his kitchen cupboards). It’s also a working space full of vintage cameras and a fully equipped darkroom with a huge white sink filling a whole white-tiled wall. “Who knows what the neighbours think I’m doing in here when they look in the window?” says Dimmick. “Running an amateur mortuary?” I offer.
In December 2019, a new exhibition of Dimmick’s work opens at SWG3, the capacious arts space in Finnieston, Glasgow. Alan Dimmick: From the Archive (which runs from 4/12/19 – 18/01/20) is a modest selection of 25 pictures from an archive that Dimmick estimates now probably exceeds 85,000 images. The earliest image here is from 1980, when Dimmick was 19, and the most recent is from this year’s degree show at The Glasgow School of Art. This show is a departure from Dimmick’s usual way of approaching exhibitions. “It’s the first time that I’ve shown framed works since my show at the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988 and it’s actually the first time that I’ve made editions of my work to sell.” In his earlier years, Dimmick used to give away prints to the people in his photographs in the most haphazard ways. “I’d go to an event, shoot a roll of film, spend hours printing them all up in the darkroom and then hand them out. It seemed like the right thing to do.”
The 25 pictures on show here include some of Dimmick’s increasingly iconic images, portraits of Julie and Laura; pictures of schoolkids and of a tired shop worker that could be stills from those two great Bill Forsyth movies ‘Gregory’s Girl’ and ‘Comfort and Joy’, and a brilliantly dishevelled mid-eighties Alasdair Gray standing in front of a bricked-up doorway “that I love because it looks like he’s standing in front of a portal to another world” says Dimmick.
There is crossover both in timeline and subject with the later work of that other great chronicler of modern Glasgow, Oscar Marzaroli. Marzaroli’s black and white portraits of the painter Joan Eardley in her studio or of a show at Project Ability (a Glasgow-based visual arts organisation bringing together artists and people with disabilities or experience of mental ill-health celebrating its 35th year in 2019) have some of the intimacy and immediacy of Dimmick’s work. An earlier (1959) shot of Donald Bain and J.D. Fergusson, giants of the New Scottish Group of mid-twentieth century painters, deep in conversation at the McLellan Galleries could be a precursor to the hundreds of conversations captured in Dimmick’s oddly noisy pictures. The same Marzaroli photograph also captures, seemingly by accident, an unidentified lady of a certain age in a wool coat and with an amused smile for the photographer. It is her that we want to know, rather than the earnest artists. She has the lively, fun, joyful quality of the ensemble players in Dimmick’s work and it’s tempting to imagine her transplanted to the era of her grandchildren or great grandchildren shooting the breeze with the generation of artists working in the studios now housed in the same space.
“I met Marzaroli in about 1982” recalls Dimmick. “My mum was a big fan of his work, had all his books that are quite valuable now. I knew what he looked like, he had this weird beard and he was very Italian-looking. I was surprised and impressed that he showed up to our little degree show at The College of Building and Printing. I was wearing my Dad’s old wool underwear, a sort of union shirt like John Mills might have had on in a 1950s movie. Quite embarrassing, actually.” Marzaroli was encouraging, despite the outfit. “He just said ‘keep on doing what you are doing’ which I thought was very nice”.
We look together at some of Marzaroli’s work, trying to identify connections and differences. The famous photographs of children living in the desperate poverty of the last days of the Gorbals tenements don’t do much for either of us. They feel, at this remove, a bit sentimental and stagey. Dimmick is drawn more to the shots of union workers marching in George Square, although he tells me that he was never particularly interested in photographing similar contemporary demos. Marzaroli’s pictures of Joan Eardley and of art shows suggest much more obvious comparisons. “I could have taken these myself, yes. These are interesting.”
Dimmick explains that Marzaroli’s images sometimes appear cropped, whereas his are always presented as full-frame images with a black border in the style of Cartier-Bresson. He enjoys the ”discipline” of composing through the viewfinder. “I thought the black border looked good when I started out and I still do. I just like it.” Dimmick explains that his own approach to composition has always been instinctive. “I was always quite confident about my photographs, from being quite young. I suppose you’d call it youthful hubris. I’ve never been very good at explaining why they’re good. I remember other students at college asking me ‘why are you photographing that like that?’ or ‘why is that in the frame?’. I just knew that it was right.”
One influence that Dimmick will own up to is the work of Roger Mayne, whose pictures of Southam Street in London showed the urban working class after the second world war and new intersections of generations, race, class and gender. For Dimmick their appeal is in “their weirdness. There’s something a bit off about them that I really like.”
As well as the formal construction of Dimmick’s work, it may be this love of the ‘bit off’ that most separates his photography from Marzaroli’s. The 25 pictures now on show at SWG3 share an eerie quality: even an image that at first might appear straightforward (like a beautiful portrait of the young Laura Michael) is made odd by a printing experiment that leaves a shadowy vertical line across her face. Figures appear out of shot as elbows or feet. “I like the mystery of that, not being quite sure what is going on outside the frame” says Dimmick. The artist Steven McQueen is pictured almost lost in the branches of a huge tree. What on earth is he doing up there? “Oh, he’s a bit bonkers is Steve” says Dimmick.
Every picture in the show elicits an anecdote from Dimmick about the occasion on which it was made. An image of the long-lost Schipka Pass, a gloriously eccentric landmark now swept away in the gentrification of Glasgow’s east end, is also “the place where I first heard (the Glenn Campbell song) ‘Galveston’”. What seems to be an image of a meadow of wild daisies is actually a few square metres of disturbed ground in the middle of the road next to Dimmick’s 1990s flat on Queen Margaret Drive. “These flowers just appeared. They were a bit magical. And then two weeks later the builders came back and bricked over the whole lot to make a roundabout.”
Dimmick’s mother is pictured from behind with a clump of “sticky willy” attached to her cardigan like a foxtail (“she was in hysterics”), a friend emerges from fog at the top of Goat Fell brandishing a hiking pole (“did you know that after the Chernobyl disaster, the top of Goat Fell was the most radioactive place in the UK?”) A 1950s snap of Marilyn Monroe in a silk headscarf is really a 1980s picture of Dimmick’s then partner Julie. A delicate grey-toned study of the Forth of Clyde could be an Edwardian photogravure “if it wasn’t for the chimney at Inverkip power station. Thatcher opened that, did you know?”.
For me, two mysterious images in this collection most challenge and transfix the viewer. One is set in a familiar landscape to Glaswegians: a grassy bank in Kelvingrove Park looking over to the University. It’s early spring, there is a swathe of crocus in the grass, but the trees are still bare. Two men and two women wearing matching tartan jackets, seemingly a uniform, stand chatting at the top of the hill. A third man is shown only from behind and much closer to the lens. He has a neatly styled haircut like a 1960s movie star and the same tartan jacket as the others. It’s unclear where he is going. His head and shoulders are perfectly delineated between the crocus and the shadow of a tree.
The second image is the only one taken outside Scotland. A couple relax on the pebble beach at Whitstable in Kent, watching a small sailing boat on the calm water. She is sitting up, cardigan wrapped around her waist. He’s lying down, topless in the sun, resting an elbow on his shirt. Across his bare back, prone in an inadvertent pas de deux, is a tiny naked child, maybe three years old, caught in a moment of play with the line of her spine and her outstretched leg in perfect juxtaposition with the sail of the boat and its reflection on the water. It’s the most overtly Bresson-like image in the show, because it captures such a perfect, singular moment and it’s also the image that most feels like it was made by a naturalist as well as a photographer of people. (Like many nature photographers before him, Dimmick laments that he wasn’t able to get closer to the subjects.)
“I love posturing in birds, and I love posturing in humans” says Dimmick. “The way people hold themselves.” One of the most clearly posed shots in this collection is of the musician Stephen McRobbie, otherwise known as Stephen Pastel of seminal Glasgow band The Pastels. “This was for their first single” says Dimmick. “We shot it in Stephen’s childhood bedroom at his parents’ house in Bearsden.” McRobbie recalls “it was a bit of a weird choice but probably mine. I was quite raw in so many ways but somehow I was instinctively OK in front of a camera and Alan was obviously great behind one.” We laugh looking through the contact sheet for the whole bedroom shoot (“I really like the way that Stephen has artfully rolled up one sleeve of his jumper to reveal his striped t shirt underneath”) and Dimmick tells me how much he loves looking at his vast archive of contact sheets and negatives. “That’s the bit that’s like bird-watching to me: not taking the image, but patiently searching and finding something nice that you don’t even remember from the time”.
Dimmick’s great fear (“it scares the shit out of me”) is that his huge archive of negatives will be damaged or even destroyed before they have been properly documented and digitised. Work is underway with help from some project funding, but there is a huge amount still to do. It’s tempting to see the value in Dimmick’s archive as primarily documentary, and certainly his large shows at the Stills Gallery in Edinburgh and at GOMA (and the beautifully designed book that went with them) are a photographic record of a ‘scene’, even though Dimmick baulks at that term. Perhaps Stephen McRobbie puts it best when he says “I never thought much of it but it maybe connected us in a way that I only came to realise years later looking in thrall through his amazing archive at a world that overlapped with mine, and then realising we were part of each others’ lives”.
Dimmick himself has only recently begun to describe himself as an artist (“I saw myself as a photographer and I think I still do”) and to acknowledge the potential of his archive as a repository of artistic images as well as a document of a time and place. Despite his chatty conviviality and the torrent of stories that accompany each picture, Dimmick can be (like another of his influences, the American photographer Lee Friedlander) maddeningly understated about his work. Friedlander has said “I tend to photograph the things that get in front of my camera” and it is tempting to read Dimmick’s processes in the same way, if it wasn’t for his modest, but insistent aestheticism. Dimmick knows when one of his images looks “right” or “interesting” or “nice” and it is these judgements, of course, that invite the descriptor ‘art’. Perhaps the distinction between ‘photographer’ and ‘artist’ doesn’t really matter but the 25 images on show at SWG3 suggest a re-positioning of Dimmick from documentarian to something more nuanced and more satisfying. As Stephen McRobbie says, “I think Alan’s work is incredibly important, but he wears it all so lightly and that’s why he’s able to keep making great work.”
Alan Dimmick: From the Archive opens on Wednesday 4th December 2019 and runs until the 18th of January 2020 at SWG3, 100 Eastvale Place, Glasgow, G3 8QG
More of Dimmick’s work can be seen on his website https://alandimmick.com
 Lowndes, S. (2003). Social Sculpture: Art, Performance and Music in Glasgow. A Social History of Independent Practice, Exhibitions and Events since 1971. Stopstop Publications. Glasgow.
 Marzaroli, O., & McIlvanney, W. (1986). Glasgow 1956-86: Shades of Grey… and Some Light Too. Mainstream.
 Mayne, R., & Haworth-Booth, M. (1986). The Street Photographs of Roger Mayne. Art Books International Limited.
 Brooke, S. (2014). Revisiting Southam Street: Class, Generation, Gender, and Race in the Photography of Roger Mayne. Journal of British Studies, 53(2), 453-496.
 Costello, D. (2017). On photography: a philosophical inquiry. Routledge.