Warning: session_start() expects parameter 1 to be array, string given in /home/customer/www/scottishreviewofbooks.org/public_html/wp-includes/class-wp-hook.php on line 303
Robbie Coltrane’s Back – Scottish Review of Books
by Tim Cornwell

Robbie Coltrane’s Back

March 6, 2015 | by Tim Cornwell

A headline once described David Eustace as a ‘screw turned snapper’. Before he became a celebrity portrait photographer, he was a prison officer at HMP Barlinnie for five years. Now in his early 50s, and with a number of major commercial assignments in his portfolio, Eustace has settled back into Edinburgh with the first photography show at the country’s oldest art gallery.

In the course of two encounters there, he educated me on the use of light and shade, and the art of creating a pose. He said I was all angles, that my elbows needed to come in a bit. He put me off guard and made me laugh, and then said: ‘that’s the shot’. In prison, he said, he learned not to judge people. ‘I grew up with half of them, I wasn’t there to punish people. I was there to make sure they never escaped and never caused any other trouble. Do you know what a murderer looks like? Looks like me, looks like you.’

Eustace has never been a news photographer. Accepted as a mature student at Edinburgh Napier University, and graduating at the age of 29, he hawked his prints round London editors in a backpack. He got his first magazine assignment for GQ. But in his world of portraiture and art photography, the timing of the shot, spotting the pose, is still critical. When Eustace photographed Robbie Coltrane for his first GQ cover, Coltrane warned, jokingly, of getting bored. Eustace asked him to turn around. ‘I said, “I’m doing the back cover”. The only reason I said that was to give me a moment to think.’ Then he saw the shot.

Eustace’s portrait of Coltrane is memorable. In full-cut trousers and braces, white spats, hands stuffed in pockets, Coltrane has the power of a mobster ruminating on the next rub-out. There is a stillness to him. Your eye goes to the thick, perfectly trimmed hair on the nape of the neck, the black and white shoes against a white floor, their subtle shadow, the changing shades of the wall surround. You will pay £4,750 for one from an edition of seven.

It was a similar story with John Byrne, whom Eustace first photographed in 1991 after Tutti Frutti took off. It was the first of several such meetings. The exhibition included ‘John Byrne in Yellow Tweed Suit’, which is now in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Byrne’s head is lowered, shaping his narrow body inwards, introspectively. Eustace took along clothes by the Scottish fashion designer Deryck Walker. ‘Style is part of John, part of his character, part of his work,’ he said, as it was for artists like Picasso or Modigliani. But he wanted to introduce a ‘third person’ to the shoot, a change of costume. Within this stylised context, he played with the pose. ‘I said let your head drift, and I knew I had the shot.’

David Eustace was born in Edinburgh and raised by his adoptive family in Glasgow. He started life doing odd jobs that included the Royal Naval Reserve and ended with Barlinnie, where he was working during the infamous riots in 1987. He first picked up a camera in his 20s, winning best novice photographer in a local camera club. After three years at university, major commercial assignments followed, ranging from work for Anthopologie, the American women’s clothing retailer, to magazine and book portraits, whose subjects ranged from Stephen Fry to Sir Paul McCartney.

The show at the Scottish Gallery was Eustace’s first public selling exhibition. It was tied to the publication of a book, I write to tell you of a baby boy born only yesterday…, whose title is taken from first line of the letter, heavily redacted, that he found in his parents’ home at the age of 14. It was then that he learned he was adopted. It is a beautiful piece of publishing, and Eustace put his soul into it as well as about £13,000 of his own money, largely to pay for an extended trip to China to oversee its printing.

Talking about the trouble taken over its layout, he brightened up. There was a portrait of a Churchillian Sir Norman Foster, for example, the architect of Edinburgh’s Quartermile, placed opposite a young, softly muscular, cheekily tattooed Mark Vidler from Glasgow. There were many such clever contrasts, and they brought Eustace’s work alive in ways that the exhibition often did not. The book is stronger than the show. Eustace has a gift for simple, uncluttered photography, but his excellent magazine work does not always convey staying power, or artistic profundity, in a gallery setting.

For Scotland, however, his exhibition was a milestone We lack a selling gallery for fine art photography of the kind that flourish in London and Europe. Neither is Scottish photography much evident in books. The Scottish Gallery’s first photography show after decades of promoting notable Edinburgh painters was a significant move; a major exhibition surveying Scottish photography is planned next year. ‘We see photography as a mature art form that has been one of the defining threads of modernism,’ said the Gallery’s director, Guy Peploe, ‘but which is still rooted in the tradition of fine art and has not been subsumed into the arid territory of the conceptual.’

Eustace’s show drew from various portfolios. One such was ‘Four Steel Workers’ which was commissioned by The Weir Group. The yellow of the heavy gloves reflects off thick silvered protective overcoats. The Brazilian workers are faceless behind visored helmets, like medieval knights, holding long stirring ladles coated with metal. Some of Eustace’s strongest pieces focus on single details, picking up the artistry in small things, such as a semi-circular steel cutting knife, a Chinese fan in metal.

By contrast, his ‘Highland Heart’ series, his vision of Scottish landscape, left me cold. This originated in a corporate commission and feels tailored for a foreign vision of Scotland. More impressive is the smaller Yosemite series, with the California landmark’s famous half dome looking ugly and smeared, or a ledge of trees picked out of the fog as it might be in a panoramic American landscape painting.

There are other strong portraits; Sir John Hurt as an old style 70s movie star in the Charles Bronson mode, a grainy sideways look with the cigarette hanging out from his lip, (edition of 15, framed £2,500) or golfer Lee Trevino with his wonderfully wide-mouthed laugh (2004, edition of 10 mouth, £1,900). The mysterious Michael, from Glasgow, the oddball of the show, not just its giant size: the subject is hairless with a rare coloured background a blue paler than his eyes or sensuous pale lips.

Eustace’s photographs are single subject, focussed on one sitter. He doesn’t clutter the backgrounds with props. Robin Muir, Vogue’s former picture editor, once told him he took people and presented them ‘bang in the middle’. He was commissioned to photograph the designer Sir Terence Conran, with Tower Bridge – for a series on personal favourites of design. The bridge got in the way of Conran, and Conran got in the way of the bridge. Eustace says he has been most inspired not by Scots such as Albert Watson or Harry Benson but by Germany’s August Sander and the Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi. Sander’s life work was to capture an extraordinary cross-section of post-WWI German society from his studio in Cologne, typically grouped by professions, from local Nazi officers to stationmasters, to cross-dressing artists or architects to the liberated Weimar world of Christopher Isherwood. Eustace clearly sought to do something similar with his early series about buskers, pulling them off the streets to pose.

His portrait of Eve Arnold is magnetic. Arnold is no celebrity, but a photographer who joined the Magnum agency in 1951, four years after its founding by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. There is a yearning reach to her look here – from a woman usually on the other side of the camera, whose own career spanned 50 years, from Harlem to Beijing, Malcolm X to Marilyn Monroe. Looking the photographer in the eye, knowing and yet nervous, Arnold’s over-large veined fingers are laced together, with the grey lines of the knuckles. Apparently she considered this, and Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of her, to be her favourites. One can well believe it; it seems the most honest piece in the place.

I want to tell you about a baby boy born only yesterday…

David Eustace

Clearview, £60 and £150 (limited edition),
ISBN: 978 1908337214, PP256

Selected Works: David Eustace

Scottish Gallery

Edinburgh, exhibition ended. www.scottish-gallery.co.uk

From this Issue

Pints and Pigeons

by Alasdair McKillop

The Slab Boys

by Joseph Farrell

Blog / Discussion

Posts Remaining