Michael Alexander discovers that the launch of a fund-raising campaign to save more than 3000 cameras in a unique East Neuk collection has generated interest in Fife’s links to the birth of photography.
From its picturesque harbour with its famous zig zag pier known locally as the Blocks, to the Windmill and the ruins of Newark Castle on its craggy outcrop overlooking the Forth, it’s little wonder that the East Neuk village of St Monans is a magnet for local and visiting photographers alike.
Photography has deep roots in the area with work by St Monans photographer William Easton, who recorded the life of the village in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, included in the St Monans Heritage Collection, housed in West Shore.
In recent decades, the role of photography has also been recognised as having a special place in the artistic life of the village through its community arts festival.
Now, however, St Monans’ claim to be the Photography Village of Scotland has taken another giant leap forward with the official launch of The Jim Matthew Camera Collection Trust, which aims to buy and promote as a visitor attraction a local collection of more than 3000 historic cameras.
The late Jim Matthew was an avid collector who amassed an amazing array of thousands of cameras and related memorabilia.
At the heart of his collection were his most prized possessions – Kodak Brownies, which were the first (from 1900), and for a long time, the most popular mass market cameras in the world.
He had almost every model ever made – hundreds of them.
He also had other thematic collections, such as stereoscopic and 3D cameras and viewers, and East European models, including many that were rare in the West.
He travelled the world with his work, and bought cameras wherever he went. It was a private collection, but was opened occasionally for public viewing, for example, during the St Monans Community Arts Festival.
After his death, the collection was in danger of being broken up, but now the Jim Matthew Camera Collection Trust aims to keep it as a community and national asset.
Fundraising is now underway in earnest, with the aim of ensuring that the collection is maintained in St Monans, and open to the public on a regular basis.
Trustee Dave Smith explained the board is made up of individuals from the local community in St Monans, Glasgow and England all with a shared interest and passion in the medium and a desire to turn the collection and the building into a visitor attraction and a real community asset.
With the support of the Matthew family, the charity is overseeing the fundraising and purchasing of the collection, and subsequent maintenance and development of the collection ensuring its safe keeping and home in St Monans and realising the ambition that Jim Matthew had to make it an open attraction to the public.
“Jim was always a collector – he had a huge collection of books as well,” explains Dave, 65.
“He was a marine engineer – that job took him all over the world which actually gave him the opportunity to hunt down some of the more obscure cameras.
“I think to start off with he was quite specific about what he was collecting which was Kodak Brownies – the wee box cameras and so on. But then his collection started growing and growing.
“He didn’t do anything by halves. Folk started giving him cameras. He started collecting all Kodak cameras – not just the Brownies.
“He was going to Eastern Europe. He started buying stereoscopic cameras.
“When the chance of the hall came up in St Monans he took it. It had originally been the Salvation Army hall, and had been used as a scout hall.
“He lined up all his cameras two or three deep in places. The walls were just covered in cameras basically.
“When we started doing the St Monans Art Festival in 2009, Jim opened up a couple of days as part of that. It became an annual thing.
“But he always had it in mind it could be a public collection.”
Dave said the collection was very much a labour of love for Jim, and said it would be tragic to allow it to be broken up.
While it took a while to establish the trust – delayed slightly due to the Covid-19 lockdown, and following discussions with Jim’s widow Dorothy who has since emigrated to Canada – the decision had been taken to officially launch it on World Photography Day – August 19.
This date commemorates the announcement by the French government on August 19, 1839, that the early photographic process known as the daguerreotype would be ‘free to the world’.
This seemed appropriate, he said, since the aim of the trust was to turn a world-leading private collection into a public one, open to the public on a regular basis, available as an educational resource, and to work with other public bodies to promote awareness of photography and its history.
Indeed, photography has deep roots in North East Fife.
St Andrews is the first place that photography came to in Scotland and it flourished quite quickly, while it stagnated in the rest of the UK due to patent laws.
It was scientists working with the university who started experimenting with photography in 1839.
St Andrews’ links to photography date back to the mid-19th century thanks to a close friendship between William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the photographic negative, and Sir David Brewster, Principal of the United Colleges in St Andrews.
The pioneering calotype print work of the physician and curator Dr John Adamson used paper coated with silver iodide.
Adamson, who is honoured with a blue plaque on the wall of his former home at 127 South Street, St Andrews – now the home of The Adamson restaurant – went on to teach the process to his brother, Robert, who despite his premature death aged 26 created around 2,500 calotype portraits.
William Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype process had been patented in 1841 – but as the patent did not apply in Scotland, Dr Adamson was able to develop his own technique and pave the way for other Scottish names such as David Octavius Hill, who formed a partnership with Robert Adamson in 1843; Thomas Rodger, who set up the first photographic studio in St Andrews whilst still only 16 or 17 in 1849; and Sir David Brewster, a close friend of Fox Talbot’s.
Several other people around town like Hugh Lyon Playfair, the then provost, was also practicing photography as was Admiral Maitland Dougall from the Tayport area.
“Robert Adamson began his photographic career in St Andrews,” adds Dave, 65, who used to work in politics and is now a self-employed artist and photographer.
“His brother John had strong links via David Brewster with the inventor of photography on paper, William Henry Fox Talbot.
“Adamson set up his studio in Edinburgh, but his photographic forays took him to Fife and the fishing villages on the shores of the Firth of Forth.
“This was the heritage that the next generation of photographers built on.
“Among them was St Monans photographer William Easton (1860-1929) who recorded the life of the village in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
“His photographs can be found in the St Monans Heritage Collection, housed in West Shore, looking onto the village harbour, as well as in published collections of photographs of St Monans and neighbouring areas.
“But beyond these historic links with early photography, St Monans is also so amazingly popular with modern photographers which is why we’ve taken on the title of the Photography Village, with a village website dedicated to photography.
“St Monans has become something of a photographic destination over the years.
“It’s quite picturesque – the windmill, church near sea, harbour, the amazing pier known as the Blocks – photographs of which have won national competitions.
“Everybody sees that photograph with the long exposure and everyone wants to take one themselves. It’s not unknown to get a dozen people lined up trying to take the shot!
“We are encouraging people in the village to get out and take photos – not just visitors.
“We have a photographic competition which we are running again this year. It has to be pictures in the village or round about.
“We’ve got all these things coming together.
“We’ve got the heritage centre as well which has lots of old photos.
“We’ve got heritage with photos, cameras, present day competition, people visiting so it’s a big scene!”
Dave said an initial fundraising target of £30,000 had been set to buy the collection and the hall.
Taking over the collection itself would be the first “milestone”.
It’s early days, but it was “quite encouraging” how many people were already chipping in with “£20 here and £50 there”.
· Donations can be made online at http://www.gofundme.com/f/jimmatthewcameracollection