by Julia Welstead
I’m not really supposed to be here, but my sister asked me to drop in on Island Darkroom, as she’s interested in coming on a workshop here. So my plan is to blend in with the shop visitors and not announce myself as a journalist interviewing makers, but as I park I can see someone moving around inside, and before I know it she is out and saying hello, and she’s so delightfully enthusiastic and forthcoming that I end up in her kitchen for coffee and a blether.
Photographer Mhairi Law established Island Darkroom in 2018, having fallen in love with the landscapes of Lewis. Is it the environment that inspires her work, I ask? She turns that idea on its head: we are so immersed in landscape here, that it’s almost not a choice. We aren’t merely onlookers, we live ‘in’ the landscape, not superimposed ‘on’ to it. Documenting our current existence here also illuminates elements of the lives of those who were here before us, and raises interesting questions.
Spotting part of an old wall in vegetation, for instance, or the contours of runrigs, reminds one that this place was peopled and cultivated. Juxtaposed peat cuttings and electricity pylons brings the historical into the present. Being able to tell the story through visuals of the landscape brings to life the character of a culture, the resident humans and their way of life, their struggle for survival.
Mhairi uses Island Darkroom to exhibit and sell her own and other people’s work, to run workshops, to provide a darkroom facility, and to facilitate a winter residency (in conjunction with Hebridean Bothy Pods).
Her studio space, originally built by her partner as a workshop, houses an eclectic collection of artisanal wares, from her own and other artist’s photographic work, to Mhairi’s unique cyanotype prints and fabrics. A cyanotype kit explains this fascinating process.
Through a doorway Mhairi’s workdesk and sewing machine share space with displays of garments and bags she has designed and made. A Harris Tweed smock catches my eye – decades ago I was inseparable from my traditional cotton twill fisherman’s smock and it’s heartening to see local cloth used to create a twist on the classic style.
There’s an magical energy here, an infusion of Mhairi’s own joyful creativity and her generosity in sharing her space and ideas with others.