Ron O’Donnell is one of Scotland’s finest contemporary art-photographers. A highly individual talent, he has exhibited nationally and internationally and is collected by eminent institutions and discerning individuals throughout the world. Renowned for his dazzling constructed and narrative photographs, he has created a body of work alive to the thrill of our hypermodern times and replete with the pathos of our restlessness.
Ron’s photographs, vibrant and effervescent, daring and humorous, have touched upon allegory and myth, identity and mortality. In each case he has turned a spotlight upon the foibles of human life. His images speak of love and loss, folly and foolishness, the decadent and the demoralised; in fact, the whole chimera of contemporary caprice. In this, he is a modern moralist. It might be said his work chimes with the allegories of those medieval Northern European fantasists, Bosch and Brueghel, in exploding the carnival excess of modern life. Likewise, his photographs provoke laughter and sorrow in equal measure; a revelation hidden inside a comic moment. And so if Ron is a jester-king of contemporary Scottish photography his work is also filled with a sense of consequence.
Evidence of these manifold qualities is everywhere in Ron’s sparkling catalogue of photographs. The jaded faded heroism of The Scotsman, the absurd idealism of ‘To Boldy Go…’, the dissident humour of Expulsion from the Garden, and the macabre comedy of his epic series ‘The Day of the Dead’, all are proof of his outlandish imagination. Add to this the sinister monster fixations of his earliest constructed scenes, and, the potent homage to Scotland’s finest living poet in his photographic tribute to Edwin Morgan, and Ron’s work reveals an extraordinary range to complement its remarkable depth.
This is an introduction to the world of Ron O’Donnell, but the wonder lies in the pages beyond…
Ron O’Donnell’s pictures are popular among a wide audience. No knowledge of art or photography is required to enjoy his work and this has, ironically, tested critics and historians invited to write or comment upon it. O’Donnell himself compounds the problem. He is an easy going man who wants to please his interviewer by providing some simple but plausible explanation as to why people find his work accessible. In short he tries to answer the unanswerable.
O’Donnell has said of himself that if he could remember jokes he would have been a stand up comedian. An unfulfilled ambition maybe, but the insight only serves to further colour his reputation as a “humorous Scottish artist”. In a wider context, O’Donnell’s photographs are more significant than this. His work is regularly exhibited and written about in catalogues, art journals colour supplements and newspapers. It has been used by the broadcasting and advertising media. In 1987 he won the Fox Talbot Award and is represented in the collections of the National Museum of Photography Film and Television, Victoria and Albert Museum; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
It is often presumed the photographic world favours O’Donnell’s work because it has broken away from the solemn confines of the documentary tradition, but has retained social and political comment. On the other hand painters sometimes disapprove of his use of the photographic process deeming it a substitute for art skills. Critics have used his work to illustrate that much abused term Post- Modernism and sadly sculptors may not even recognize a kindred spirit. O’Donnell’s work therefore throws into sharp relief many of the changes that have taken place in our understanding of photography, painting, sculpture and society today.
Rod Varley and Liz Smith
There is always something shocking, even macabre, in Ron O’Donnell’s large colour photographs. They rejoice in the clash of two contrasting realities and in the irony, humour and ambiguity that results from that clash. Frescos from the antechamber of Rameses V in the Valley of the Kings surface mysteriously from behind the peeling wallpaper of a room in a ruinous Edinburgh tenement ; a stuffed trout looks longingly from its artificial stream as a real running brook runs beneath it. Two columns of Ajax containers hold up a ceiling. The impulse is to shock and provoke, rather like the surrealists [especially Magritte] who O’Donnell so much admires.
O’Donnell first began to set up these tableaux of incongruous imagery about 1984 before that he had photographed very particular types of Edinburgh interiors, at first in black and white, later in colour. He liked the old fashioned and cluttered interiors of a Tobacconist, a herbalist, a pawnbroker; or else the peeling decay of a bomb shelter or old prison cell.
O’Donnell was drawn to detail [inventories of it] and to the overwhelming smell of the past. At the same time he liked the bizarre and incongruous, like a partly cut up Muldoon,
[ a cross between a dolphin and a porpoise] on a fishmongers slab. His decision to intervene, to alter and add to the props of a scene that interested him was a very natural progression. Many photographers, particularly in America such as Duane Michals and Les Krims, had been going down that road since the 1970s and sculptors in Britain, like Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow were metamorphosing found junk objects to produce startling new images.
O’Donnell was able to indulge his passion for detail and complex arrangements when he began to construct tableaux or whole environments in unused “slum” tenements in Edinburgh. But it was as much the accumulated atmosphere of the past as the freedom to do what he liked that inspired him to make some of his most imaginative works to date;
Tactical Nuclear Explosion with its “controlled” destruction of a living room.
The Antechamber of Rameses V in the Valley of the Kings with its seductive and [eerie] blend of the distant and recent past.
The Four Minute Warning with its carnival devil-may-care festivity.
O’Donnell does make social and political comments in his work but they are never solemn nor are they the guiding impulse. His work is essentially humorous in tone, his inspiration celebratory and optimistic.