Edwin Morgan by Roddy Simpson

Introducing the photographer: Roddy Simpson

In the past few weeks we’ve added scores of portraits of poets to our archive thanks to our new signing, Roddy Simpson. Over many years he has taken these photos at the Scottish Poetry Library.

So, let’s get to know him better, shall we?

Roddy Simpson Self Portrait
Roddy Simpson Self Portrait
Picture by Roddy Simpson

Where are you based?
I am based at Linlithgow but nowadays I rarely, if ever, accept commissions.

How did you come to a career in photography?
I began to take photography seriously from about 1971, when I became photographer for the student newspaper at university. My later photography was as a freelance and mainly for newspapers and magazines, covering everything from landscapes to portraits. Quite often for magazines I would do the writing to accompany the photographs.

Volleyball, 21.01.1995
Volleyball, 21st October 1995
Picture by Roddy Simpson

What other fields of photography do you work in?
I also did a lot of sports photographs, which tended to be more minority sports, and as well as for newspapers I provided photographs for sports organisations like Scottish Athletics and Scottish Volleyball. In my sports photography, as well as the dramatic shots that would appeal to the picture or sports editor, I looked for compositions that were of more interest to me. I wanted a photograph that was not just an illustration to accompany text, but was an entity in itself. One of my favourite photographs was from a women’s basketball match, and I find it an image where everything is in balance, although it was never published.

Basketball, 10.12.94
Basketball 10th December, 1994
Picture by Roddy Simpson

I had been interested in the history of photography and this increased especially as I did not embrace the digital age. I also concentrate on my personal work of fine monochrome prints, which I began to exhibit. I have had two solo and many joint exhibitions and my prints are in many private collections and a few public collections including the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. For some years I have been working on a series of images under the title ‘Thresholds’, which I plan to exhibit. One of the photographs has already appeared on the cover of a literary publication.

Thresholds Series 1
Thresholds Series 1
Picture by Roddy Simpson

It is the history of Scottish photography that has preoccupied me most in recent years. I have worked with the major collections in Scotland and lectured at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities. I completed a project with the Dougan Collection at Glasgow University Library digitising historic photographs and providing supporting data to make them accessible on the internet. I continue to do research at Glasgow University and I am an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Culture and Creative Arts. My book, The Photography of Victorian Scotland, was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2012.

How far back do your connections with the Scottish Poetry Library go?
I have been interested in poetry since my student days and particularly Scottish poetry. I went to Newbattle Abbey College as a mature student and got to know the work of Edwin Muir, who had previously been the principal, and George Mackay Brown, a former student. Both poets had a particular resonance as they were from Orkney and I have Orkney ancestors. Later at university I worked as a part-time barman in the Abbottsford on Rose Street which was frequented in the early 1970s by leading Scottish literary figures. I was too busy to get to know any of them apart from Sydney Goodsir Smith who came into the bar at quite times and his untimely death was a great shock.

Tessa Ransford by Roddy Simpson
Tessa Ransford, Scottish poet, photographed at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh in August 1990.
Picture by Roddy Simpson/Writer Pictures

I joined the Scottish Poetry Library in 1986, about two years after it had been founded and it was the first director, Tessa Ransford, who persuaded me to take photographs on a voluntary basis. I liked going to poetry readings and started to take my camera, but I could get my roles confused and become absorbed by the speaker and forget the photographs. The enjoyment I got from poetry readings, when poets were presenting their own work, was the commentaries between poems, which were illuminating but could also be very funny. Many of the poets had a wonderful sense of humour and I especially remember Iain Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig.

Alexander Hutchison, Sorley MacLean & Norman MacCaig by Roddy Simpson
Alexander Hutchison, Sorley MacLean and Norman MacCaig in 1991
Picture by Roddy Simpson/Writer Pictures

Were there any poets who visited the library who made a particular impression on you?

Overall I have found the poets I have photographed friendly and co-operative and often delightful. I was particularly charmed by Ursula Fanthorpe and her partner Rosie Bailey. Although the photography on that occasion was almost a disaster. For events at the new library building I use available light and photographed from the back with a telephoto lens, to be as unobtrusive as possible. For evening events it was only just on the margins of what was possible with 3200 ISO film and the widest aperture and exposures of about 1/60 sec.

Just at the start of Ursula Fanthorpe’s reading, someone leaned against the light switches and plunged the place into darkness. The lights were immediately put back on but the uplighters, which reflected off the ceiling and were the main source of light, took ages to warm up. Someone brought a standard lamp from another part of the library, which didn’t help the light level much but added an endearing feature. Fortunately, I was able to get some images and I was particularly pleased with those of both Ursula and Rosie which I feel shows their close relationship.

UA Fanthorpe and RV Bailey by Roddy Simpson
U. A. Fanthorpe (1929-2009), English poet , with her long-time partner, the poet R.V. (Rosie) Bailey, at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh on March 17, 2004
Picture by Roddy Simson/Writer Pictures

Are you a poet yourself?
I am not a poet, although I have had two published poems and the less said about them the better. Occasionally a couple of lines come to mind but I never work them up and I sometimes play around with haiku, but 17 syllables and three lines is much more difficult than it appears. I like to think there can be lyricism in some of my fine monochrome prints.

Iain Crichton Smith by Roddy Simpson
Iain Crichton Smith (1928-1998) photographed at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh on 1 August 1997.
Picture by Roddy Simpson/Writer Pictures

How do you use agencies? Do you use a variety or just Writer Pictures?
Writer Pictures is the only agency I use, and this was because of a conversation with Sheila Masson, whom I know from our shared interest in the history of photography. It was following a request to use one of my photos of a poet.

When I went through my contact sheets I realised how many photographs I had as I had photographed around 70 events associated with the Scottish Poetry Library over 20 years.

Writer Pictures give these photographs a platform they have never had before. Previously, anyone who wanted to use my photographs had to try very hard because I don’t have a website and don’t use any of the social media.

Neil Baldwin by Roddy Simpson
Neil Baldwin (the subject of the British drama television film ‘Marvellous’, set at Keele University and written by British playwright and screenwriter Peter Bowker) – photographed with student Bob Jones aka “Lord Turd” at Keele University in November 1971.

What I find most gratifying is that I continue to be involved in photography all these years after I started and still find it exciting, satisfying as well as frustrating at times. This is despite being diagnosed with glaucoma about ten years ago, and I have had regular medication and an operation, and I have permanently lost part of my field of vision. But it is the craft of photography that is most fulfilling; the processing and the printing and the time spent in the darkroom. I recently printed a negative I made 43 years ago and you have no idea the satisfaction and pleasure it gave me because of how well it printed.

Anne Simpson (b.1956), Canadian poet, novelist, and essayist, at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh on October 26th, 2004. (Roddy Simpson/Writer Pictures)
Anne Simpson (b.1956), Canadian poet, novelist, and essayist, at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh on October 26th, 2004. (Roddy Simpson/Writer Pictures)

Thanks again, Roddy.  Although, as he says, he doesn’t have an online presence (slightly confusingly, there is another Edinburgh photographer of the same name who does have a site), but if you want to meet him, you could book yourself on to one of the two Edinburgh University short courses he’ll be holding next year. The first is on The Photography of Victorian Scotland, the second on pioneering photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.