Alex Boyd’s wet plate photographs chronicle a journey across the Atlantic edges of Britain and Ireland

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Armed with an antique camera, liquid silver, glass and cyanide, Boyd embarked on an emotional and historically loaded journey along the coast of Ireland, the Hebrides, and the Scottish Highlands

A crashing wave of liquid silver spills across the opening image of Alex Boyd’s The Point of the Deliverance. Created over the last decade, Boyd’s set of wet-plate collodion photographs were created on journeys along the coastlines of Ireland, the Hebrides, and the Scottish Highlands. It’s a sequence which, as artist Will McLean notes in his preface, holds an extraordinary “mystic quality”, expressing an intense personal vision while compressing the deep histories of each site.

The photograph in question is of last light at Downpatrick Head, Country Mayo, a coastline of barren, striated cliffs with a well-known sea stack, Dun Briste. The shot forms part of the largest gathering of images in the book, recording Boyd’s travels along the West Coast of Ireland between 2012 and 2017. As the artist notes in his afterword: “[W]ith an antique camera, liquid silver, glass and cyanide, I would carry my dark tent to sites of ancient settlement, from the coastal forts of Mayo and the Aran islands, to the mountains of the Ring of Kerry in the south.”

Wreck of Speedwell, North Uist © Alex Boyd.
The Black Cuillin © Alex Boyd.

Exposure on the glass plates had to occur in makeshift darkrooms on site, often in wretched conditions. The glass could crack on the route home, especially when travelling down mountains. The resultant artworks are documents of sheer physical exertion as much as anything else, and of whatever emotional and mental animus compelled each mission. The story of their creation is written into their surfaces, in the slippage and run of chemicals, the scratches and frayed edges.

Thematically speaking, these are images of geology; of millennia-old Celtic cultures, and of centuries-long struggles between local communities and the interests of landholders, state, and big business. Boyd alludes in his afterword to a family heritage rooted in Western Ireland, and early sites of human civilisation are in evidence, from the standing stones of Machrie Moor to the forbidding ring forts of the Aran Islands. 

More modern abandoned structures are cast in the same spectral light, like the wreck of the Speedwell on North Uist, and the MV Plassey, a WW2 warship beached on the Aran Islands. There are clearance sites – from which tenant farmers were forcibly removed to make way for livestock during the 18th and 19th centuries – at Hallaig and Assynt in Scotland.

Shell to Sea protest cottage, County Mayo, Ireland © Alex Boyd.

Of particular interest are shots of the so-called Shell to Sea cottages, sites of a community struggle against the installation of Shell’s Corrib gas processing pipeline in the 2000s-2010s. The tale is a recent one, but the method of documentation, with its connotations of great age, grants it the same patina of myth as photographs reflecting more timeworn stories of struggle. At various points in the book, we seem to be cast forward to some point in the future, by which modernity will have become a distant source of morality tales, archetypes.

Boyd has worked with poets throughout his career, and regularly cites them in his work. In this case he has been inspired by Sorley MacLean and Seamus Heaney amongst others. Poems by Moya Cannon are even included in the book, dotted between the photographs. But perhaps the most notable point of reference for this work is the gothic prose stylings of Edgar Allan Poe, a world away from the earthy lyricism of Heaney and MacLean. There is certainly an illustrative quality of ghostliness, of melancholy, even of a lurking evil to some of these pictures: the trace of something ancient, disruptive of our normal sense of the world. This also seems to reflect the personal impulse behind this book, some of which was created during a period of depression: perhaps some psychological sense of alienation, of a spectrality to life, was being recorded and worked through. Indeed, what the text arguably leaves us with above all is a sense of the weight, and the catharsis, of the individual journey that it evokes.

The Point of the Deliverance by Alex Boyd is available to pre-order via Kozu Books.

Greg Thomas

Greg Thomas is a writer on photography, art, and literature based in Glasgow. His writing has appeared in Aesthetica, Art Monthly, Burlington Contemporary, MAP, Scottish Art News, and elsewhere.