Traces of Nature

26 Sep 2012 in Orkney, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

Northlight Studio, Stromness, Orkney, until 29 September 2012

REBECCA Marr is more than a photographer.

YOU drop by this starry little exhibition on a dreich day, between getting the mince and posting the bills – and come away buzzing. It’s not just the quality of the work – which is very fine – but the ideas behind it, the comments visitors make, and what I can only call – though I hate the word – the ambience created by her enthusiasms. Folk linger and find themselves discussing everything from colonial architecture to seaweed pudding. Brilliant.

Rebecca Marr - Vertebrae photogram

Rebecca Marr - Vertebrae photogram

There are delicate bones on the windowsill. They’re from harbour porpoises. There they are again on the wall, transformed. She’s gone ‘back to basics’ in her photographic technique, inspired by Anna Atkins, a Victorian botanist and photographer considered to be the first woman to illustrate a book with photographic images, using light sensitised paper exposed to the sun. Atkins’ own story, and her images, are amazing; Marr’s grafting of her techniques has borne interesting fruit.

It’s chancy work, ‘hard to get the tone right, you’re working almost in the opposite direction from modern digital , in your dark room – it’s photography without a camera, really, just exposure.’ She shows me stones imprinted with seaweed shapes. ‘It’s the same process, really.’

There’s a lovely texture to the porpoise vertebrae studies; they’re milky and refined, as if she’s got the essence of them distilled. At the same time, though, they become ‘other’ – like galaxies, or candlewax.

‘I like ‘findings’ – mementoes of walks, or random gifts – these are feathers from my hens’ (the twinned quills dance along the paper like tipsy ladies) – ‘and I like to get to the essence of things – or rather, let the things reveal themselves.’

She’s been on the Birsay shore collecting seaweeds – and investigating the whole social history behind them at the same time. Context matters. Place matters. Recipes and remedies matter. As you look at the collographs – pure shape, again, bladderwrack , sugar kelp – you’re aware of a whole back story, of kelp pits and abandoned drying dykes.

There’s an old aerial photo of a small bit of North Ronaldsay (where the sheep graze on the seaweed, and in turn make a fine Orkney product..) – and beside it, close ups of lichen on plants, crusty and organic.

‘It’s telling you of itself – you look from above, you look close, and there are relationships.’

Rebecca Marr - Smoo Cave (digital photograph)

Rebecca Marr - Smoo Cave (digital photograph)

There are straight digital images – studies of Smoo Cave which are complex and deep; there are bright reds, surprising pinks – shocking even – and a beautifully intricate blue and black washed piece. ‘It’s nice not to be confined by a theme,’ she said – and indeed, there’s a lovely Victorian energy here, a whole hearted response to nature as a force of its own. I can almost feel Anna Atkins at Marr’s shoulder, conferring and applauding.

More than an exhibition, this – a sort of delighted forwardmoving force. More soon please; the nights are drawing in.

© Morag MacInnes, 2012