AN exhibition in Edinburgh is allowing Scots to step back in time to discover the country’s rich social and cultural history through photography. 

Stills – a centre for photography in the capital’s city centre – is currently hosting an exhibition celebrating Café Royal Books. 

Chances are many Scots have come across the publishing house’s work. Based in Southport and run by Craig Atkinson, it produces small zines filled with photographs charting the history of the United Kingdom and Ireland. 

The director of Stills, Ben Harman, told The National the exhibition (below) had resonated so strongly that it was attracting the kind of numbers seen during the Fringe. 

The National:

“Craig has been working on Café Royal Books for about 18 years, working with different artists and photographers to publish photos associated with Britain and Ireland,” he said. 

“Roughly speaking he’s interested in work from about 1960 to the year 2000 but it doesn’t really come more up to date than that because he’s spoken about needing 20 years distance. 

“Within this exhibition, a lot of stuff was made round about 2000 although some of the music stuff is from the late 1990s.”

He adds that Café Royal Books has always been of interest to Stills and that the gallery has tended to stock the zines it produces. 

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However, Harman notes that you would see a “Scottish title” every now and then and so the gallery wanted to create something specifically for Scottish audiences. 

He speaks about providing a “visual treat” for people which is clear from the way the walls of the exhibition’s first room is covered in various posters.

There’s plenty for people to recognise – including the Tunnocks Factory (below), Glasgow’s west end in the 1980s as well as Edinburgh through the years. 

The National: Image: Sophie Gerrard

It’s as varied as you might expect although there’s still some clear themes that Harman points to including youth culture, music, sport and protest.

Crucially, it’s an exhibition which feels accessible with the photographs telling the stories of everyday people. 

As beautiful as many classical artworks can be, it’s easy to feel a certain distance when taking them in but there’s something recognisable for people at Stills. 

Harman explained: “The people tend to be working-class or those who wouldn’t normally get their picture taken. 

“This is real history. These images are holding a mirror up to the world. You might get one on the upper classes of New York or something like that sometimes but it’s really just this amazing story of the last few decades.”

Some of the Scottish photographers on display include Douglas Corrance (images below) and Sophie Gerrard, although Atkinson’s company has worked with hundreds of different creatives.

The National:

The National:

There’s around 600 small zines on display in Stills and with every 100 that Atkinson produces, he also creates an archive boxset. 

In terms of the exhibition’s reception, it’s clear the gallery director has never seen much quite like this. 

“It’s been a really popular exhibition, we’re getting the kind of numbers we’re used to seeing during the Fringe. 

“A few people have told us they recognise the books. People latch onto a location or a subject. We’ve got some of London in the 70s and people have told us they used to live there or they might recognise the music or something like that. 

The National:

The National:

“I think it’s very relatable. It’s so different to what you might see in a hardback coffee table book. This is like Craig handing it all back to us and discussing the people who were around during a specific time and place. 

“It’s quite democratic I think. They have very little text in them because I don’t think these images are designed to spoon food information to people.

“We’re meant to appreciate the images and people can go away and find out more if they want to.”

The beauty of it all is that there’s no limit on the work. With Atkinson’s 20-year rule, there’s no reason these couldn’t still be produced for quite some time. 

There’s hardly been a shortage of things to photograph across Scotland in the last year alone, let alone the previous two decades. 

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Harman added: “He’s currently making around one zine a week. He seems to more or less have the next two years mapped out and just finds a way to do all of these really interesting things. 

“Quite a lot of the people he works with have more than one zine to their name. Hopefully, he’s still working in 20-years’ time.”

If this exhibition is anything to go by, it doesn’t seem like Café Royal is going to be short of contributors any time soon.