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Features / Coutts exhibition captures everyday beauty

Dennis Coutts' latest exhibition runs until 2 March. Photo: Dave Hammond.

MARKING the beginning of Bonhoga Gallery’s 20th year this weekend was an exhibition of photographs by local photographer Dennis Coutts.

Sixties Revisited follows on from 2012’s Sixties Exposure in displaying a selection of photographs from Coutts’ archive from a career spanning six decades.

The black and white prints – displayed in identical, simple black frames – feature a mixture of portraits, notable events and observations of life in Shetland in the 1960s, and offer a fascinating glimpse of an era long gone.

The first of these exhibitions was reportedly the most successful ever held at Bonhoga, attracting record numbers on its opening weekend and a new audience in the process. It will be no surprise if the second matches up in terms of footfall: the pictures offer wide appeal to anyone with either an interest in local history, or photography, or perhaps both.

The variety of the photos is a treat, the main theme being people. Shetland folk, young and old, meeting the Queen, or gathering at a sale of work, going about their day or posing for a family photo.

Some could be stills from a film: Jarl Fejur Tait is seen observing the Lerwick brass band rehearsing in Burgoyne’s hairdressing salon, the group of men packed in, seated in a row among sinks, playing trumpets and other brass instruments. The unlikely setting, concentration on the musicians’ faces and slight tickle of humour on the Jarl’s face make for a fantastic shot.

In another, taken from a low level, Tirval the poodle is looking up from under a cot, in which the photographer’s son lies. The intimacy and slightly unexpected composition and nature of these are special, and separate these images out from a time when photography was often more formal.

There are some that do capture the formality of the time. Sunday Best features two middle aged women, perhaps friends or relations, getting their portrait taken. Their slightly stiff body language suggests people trying to present the best of themselves, but not perhaps their real selves. It is a reminder of a time when getting your photo taken was an event in itself.

Documenting life through images is something we now take for granted. The plethora of techonology available with which to take a picture is in some ways advantageous, but the resulting images rarely have the same sense of occasion that many of these photos possess.

Attie Coutts signwriting in his shop window for the occasion of the Royal Visit in 1960 by Queen Elizabeth. Photo: Dennis Coutts

In one, the arrival of a ship into the harbour is an important event, and one that a family, including six children, arrive at immaculately dressed.
Mrs McRobbie’s Class in Whalsay shows some cheeky looking faces, and is perhaps not all that different to today’s school photos – save perhaps for the quantity of Fair Isle on display.

Simple portraiture can be powerful. A favourite picture of mine from the exhibition, “Pokie”, a Lerwick pierhead worthy, features an aged workman looking straight to camera, his eyes hinting at the stories behind them.

The more observational photos tell of a way of life: women seen working at the knitting machine and a phone exchange; a group of hopeful girls vying for the position of Miss RAFA, on their way to the grand final of Miss Shetland. Men are in work boots, overcoats, generally outside. Yet even these, while interesting socially, are equally impressive as images. The contrasting textures and composition of the aerial shot of the crewmen of the Venture admiring their haul is striking.

Some of the photos feature folk who, being old in the 1960s, offer a snapshot of history. Two old men are seen being served tea for 8 o’clocks in Islesburgh by a young girl, their wizened faces and simple clothes reminiscent of a century before.

These photos are a treasure, not only for the memories they can conjure and information they hold, but also in their ability to capture the beauty of the everyday.

* The exhibition runs until Sunday 2 March.

Louise Thomason

Here is a chance to listen again to Dennis Coutts speaking about his life and some of the iconic photos that were on show during his first Bonhoga exhibition in February 2012: http://www.shetnews.co.uk/news/4660-video-dennis-coutts-sixties-exposure