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Edinburgh: A Lost World by Ron O’Donnell

Previously unseen images of forgotten interiors by Ron O’Donnell are on display in new exhibition Edinburgh: A Lost World.

The skeleton of a horse on display in lecture theatre
Royal (Dick) Veterinary College, Summerhall, 1980, © Ron O’Donnell, part of the Edinburgh: A Lost World exhibition

Hidden interiors are explored in Edinburgh: A Lost World, a new exhibition by contemporary artist Ron O’Donnell.

On display at the City Art Centre until March 5, 2023, the exhibition features previously unseen black-and-white and colour photographs of forgotten Edinburgh interiors.

Prison cells, toilet blocks, laundrettes and local shops are explored in images taken in the 1970s, 1980s and 2010.

Many of the images date back to O’Donnell’s time as a student.

A black-and-white picture of a laundrette. Part of the Edinburgh: A Lost World exhibition
Laundrette South Clerk Street, 1978 © Ron O’Donnell

‘What am I going to do next?’

O’Donnell says it was ‘boredom’ that originally drew him to take pictures of Edinburgh’s interiors.

“I got completely bored with street photography, which is what, when I was doing these, was very prevalent,” he says.

“Everybody wants to be Cartier-Bresson when you’re a photographic student.

“Documentary, particularly in Britain, was very much about non-manipulation of what you saw in front of you.

“It was a document and it didn’t lie. Of course, that’s a lie. Because all photography lies.

“And I just said: ‘right, what am I going to do next?’.

“So I moved onto a larger format camera and a tripod and a flash gun and started to explore interiors.”

A prison cell in Edinburgh, part of the Edinburgh: A Lost World exhibition
Prison Cell, Police Chambers, High Street © Ron O’Donnell

‘Intrinsically theatrical’ settings

In the 1970s and 1980s, O’Donnell’s camera became a key to ‘unlocking fantastic and bizarre interiors’.

He rarely found one he did not want to photograph or was disappointed in.

“In hindsight, it was because when you went into these places and looked at them they looked like a set for a play.

“You know, when you’re sitting in a theatre and the curtain opens, and you have that tingling feel about what it’s going to be like and then you see this fantastic set and you think ‘wow, this is amazing’.

“For me, that’s what they were like.

“They weren’t ‘I have to document this for posterity’ that never even entered my head.

“I wasn’t interested in posterity at all. In fact, the the archivists and the exhibition curators will be like, ‘so what street was this? What year was this?’.

“I don’t really know because that never interested me.”

The interior of an ironmonger shop
Ironmonger Shop Niddrie Mains Road, 2010 © Ron O’Donnell

Revisiting interiors in 2010

Eventually, O’Donnell’s self-confessed ‘short attention span’ led him to move onto other projects.

Then, in 2010, he borrowed a 5×4 camera and started visiting shops he remembered from his time as a student.

“I just wandered around and I’d see a record shop in St Stephen Street and think: ‘that’s amazing, that should be documented’.

“People don’t do that. They might take a picture with their phone these days, but there’s not a record, particularly on a high-quality camera.

“Because why would you apart from idiots like me?

“So I noticed there was a lot of these shops which were still around Edinburgh.

“I thought that would be great. I’m just gonna go around and take some more of these pictures of Cunningham Haberdashery and places like that which are still around and, I mean, they look like film sets.”

A large boiler in the Caledonian Brewery
Boiler Caledonian Brewery Slateford Road, 1983 © Ron O’Donnell

Competing with painters

One of things which is striking about O’Donnell’s images is the size.

“Somebody asked me once in a talk ‘why do you make your images so big?’,” he says.

“Well, one reason was because I used a 10 by eight plate camera and they were very large transparencies.

“But also to compete with painters, because I knew lots of painters.

“You know, the Glasgow boys, Stephen Campbell and people like that, all of these people and they were making big images.

“And I was like, if I want to compete here, with this sculpture, painting and installation photography, these things have got to be big.

“Partly because what I shot them on was a very high-quality camera.

“So you could you could look at this thing from across a gallery room and see this brightly coloured thing.

“And when you get really close, you can read the text on newspapers and all that sort of thing.

“So there’s lots of stuff you could do with it which I loved.”

Edinburgh: A Lost World

Edinburgh: A Lost World is on at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, until March 5, 2023.

Entry is free of charge.

On Saturday, December 10, O’Donnell will be joined by Daryl Green and Malcolm Dickson for a gallery talk.