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An Obituary for David Paterson

David Paterson, 1945-2023

In a commercial and advertising career lasting more than three decades, the Scottish photographer David Paterson was among the most eminent in his field. Admired by his peers, emulated by younger practitioners, he gained further wide respect for the landscape work that he later went on to publish and exhibit. As a walker and mountaineer, his subjects notably included the Scottish Highlands – in which he pioneered new routes – and Nepal, which he visited often, publishing in 1990 Nepal: The Mountains of Heaven, introduced by Sir Edmund Hillary. Alongside that career, and those wider interests, from the early 1970s until the late 1990s, Paterson maintained a close collaborative relationship with Ian Hamilton Finlay, his work encapsulating, and powerfully communicating, key aspects of the poet’s vision. Arising from a pattern of professional trust and personal friendship that Paterson described in 2018 as having been of ‘huge importance’ to him, he wrote that it was ‘by far the greatest (perhaps the only significant) collaboration of my entire working life as a photographer.’

Its success in the early years was especially evident as regards the garden at Stonypath (renamed Little Sparta in 1979). The first decade of the garden’s development was represented through Paterson’s photography at Finlay’s first major London exhibition in 1977 at the Serpentine Gallery, and in the previous year’s substantial, large-format monochrome survey, Selected Ponds. Praising both productions in his 1977 essay Ian Hamilton Finlay: An Imaginary Portrait – published in a substantial catalogue in which most of the photographic illustrations were also by Paterson – Stephen Bann made clear the importance of that medium in communicating, in their natural setting,the original purity of the conception’ of these works. Like Bernard Lassus, Bann also provided a short introduction to Selected Ponds:

the photograph becomes more than a mere aid to documentation. It is able to realise, through the parenthesis that it places around the individual work, a degree of poetic resolution only rarely realised in everyday conditions of viewing.

As well as Finlay’s evident pleasure and satisfaction in his work, Paterson cherished the support and inspiration he found in such remarks.

Finlay would not in general accompany Paterson at work in the garden, although they might visit recent installations together and meet afterwards over a cup of tea. Paterson recalled that for all the single-mindedness with which Finlay pursued his art, these occasions were characterised by ‘fun’, laughter ‘never being far from the corners of his eyes’. Indeed, this was the case from the beginning, when Paterson had not been deterred by reports, on the Edinburgh grapevine, that working with the poet might prove ‘difficult’. Not until much later did he encounter that himself, his strong impression from the outset being ‘a total lack of pretension [and] a friendly direct manner, a riotous sense of humour and an inescapable intelligence’. Trusting Finlay instinctively, and feeling towards him a protective loyalty, he found him ‘a great morale-booster, […] even at the height of his own troubles (real, perceived or occasionally stage-managed)’ during the Little Spartan War.

While Paterson had a free rein in photographing in the garden, for specific projects Finlay would typically request a number of prints, and Paterson would supply precisely what was asked, from material developed and printed in his own darkroom. Decisions about viewpoints and other compositional, expressive, and technical matters were thus entirely the photographer’s, governed by what he understood Finlay to require. However one particular garden series comprised views which Finlay himself selected, and prepared – or in Paterson’s advertising parlance ‘dressed’ – with the addition of stone monograms (carved by Nicholas Sloan). The eleven resulting photographs, mounted in perspex ‘corners’, and displayed on plinths, with music by Wilma Paterson (no relation), formed the major exhibition Nature over again after Poussin: Some Discovered Landscapes, first shown in 1980 and now part of the collection of National Galleries Scotland.1

Elsewhere too, for example in his photography of Finlay’s later work and in commissions such as The Boy’s Alphabet Book (1976), Paterson brought his expertise to the task of framing photographically the poet’s ideas and constructions. In some instances, including in their very first projects together, the works in question were created by Finlay, and indeed the resulting collaborations convey something of the personal mood that Paterson recalled: the charming, Stevensonian poems and photographs in A Mast of Hankies (1975), for example, and the toys in Alphabet Book, a journey through the arcadian inventory from Amphibian seaplane to Zulu lugger. (‘U’ was for U-boat, which Finlay himself brought out to Lochan Eck. Paterson remembered that it ‘dived’ successfully but did not, as anticipated, re-surface: a loss that acquired a mythic status.)

More often than not, of course, the subjects to be photographed had been created with other collaborators, as, for example, in later years when Paterson was commissioned to photograph two exhibitions by Finlay in Europe. His black and white interpretations of Finlay’s works at the Steinhalle, Landsmuseum Mainz, published in a catalogue for Modern Antiquities at the Nolan/ Eckman Gallery in New York (2000) are especially striking. But an indication of the extensive range of Paterson’s collaborative engagement is that he contributed around 40% of the photography in Yves Abrioux’s Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer (1985 and 1992), undoubtedly the key resource through which admirers become familiar with the poet’s work up to the early 1990s. Not a characteristic mode for this most thoughtful and meticulous practitioner, his photo-reportage shot, reproduced there and elsewhere, of Finlay in flying jacket, hands upraised with Saint-Just Vigilantes in a gesture of surrender to the Sherriff Officer, is one of the iconic images of the First Battle of Little Sparta, 4 February 1983.

Although the two worlds did overlap in minor but still interesting ways, these activities and outcomes were really quite separate from Paterson’s career in advertising, photojournalism and landscape photography. This he pursued with passion and commitment, in Edinburgh, in London, from 1983, and internationally, as a location photographer. His old friend, Iain Roy, speaking at his funeral, referred to ‘the heady milieu of advertising and editorial photography in London.’ These developments limited his opportunities to visit Little Sparta, as it was by then, to perhaps only twice a year, often accompanied by Mayumi, his wife, who is herself a gardener, and who remembers Sue Finlay visiting them in London. She and Paterson married in 1975, having met the previous year in Japan.

In youth a scratch golfer, among other sporting and creative accomplishments, and later a gifted writer and publisher, in 2001 Paterson and his family returned to Scotland. They chose first to live in Glencoe, where he became a friend of the celebrated mountaineer and rescuer Hamish MacInnes, and then in Killin, in his native Perthshire, forming close connections locally. There Mayumi secured his assistance, in areas of expertise other than photography, with a substantial garden that runs from their house to the river.

Those commitments aside, and continuing foreign travel, Paterson was free to concentrate on his own projects and publications, producing numerous titles for private circulation. A photographic memoir, of 2019, was entitled A Lucky Life. While the title came justifiably from a place of strong conviction, his Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2011 surely lent it real poignancy. Most of his commercial publications, very different as they were, including from his work with Finlay, took the Scottish Highlands as their subject. As well as appreciations of specific locations, he researched and pioneered new walking routes, including in his A Long Walk on the Isle of Skye (1999). Especially influential was the route he first set out in The Cape Wrath Trail (1996), which continues from Fort William the long-established West Highland Way. He and Michael McQueen had photographed and written about the latter in 1992.

Born in Perth, in 1945, Paterson grew up in Golspie, Sutherland, and he recalled appreciatively in his memoir both its countryside and community. His final fully published photographic work, The Glens of Silence (with David Craig, 2004), provides a moving account of the emptiness resulting from the Clearances. (His lifelong animosity towards the monument to ‘the Mannie’, the first Duke of Sutherland, informed that project. Unmissable above Golspie on the summit of Ben Bhraggie, it might, in the present context, and with an oblique irony, recall the Et In Arcadia Ego motif, long of interest to Finlay.) Paterson held a number of exhibitions in the later part of his life, the last of these taking place at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery in 2019. ‘All those quintessentially ‘Patersonian’ hallmarks were on show,’ said Roy, who praised not least his friend’s generosity of spirit, ‘his passion for mountain landscapes, his deeply saturated colours, his atmospheric light and shade, his empathy for the people he photographed along the way.’

Paterson’s original connection with Finlay grew out of his early links with the Edinburgh photographic and advertising world, his career since leaving school having taken a radical shift. His degree at Edinburgh University was in chemistry, on a BP scholarship, and he was initially employed by that company (1965-69), afterwards working for two years for Edinburgh Corporation as a computer specialist. While with BP in Germany he bought his first camera, and in 1971, as described below, he began to work professionally. In late 1973, he learned through a mutual friend that Finlay required the services of a sympathetic photographer. He phoned up, drove out in gathering darkness one wet Saturday, and immediately felt welcome and involved.

Yet his relationships within Edinburgh advertising also led to connections important for the Wild Hawthorn Press. Paterson’s decision to give up his day job came about through an exhibition he held in 1970, his hobby by that stage having become a passion. Through that exhibition, in the New 57 Gallery in Rose Street, he made life-changing connections with Jim Downie and Colin Marr, already on their way to national prominence in the advertising industry. Downie was then an Art Director at the leading Edinburgh agency McCallum Advertising, working on a tender for a major account with the Highlands and Islands Tourist Board. Impressed with Paterson’s black and white Scottish landscapes, he made contact with the photographer, who swiftly arranged a week’s holiday and was soon touring the Highlands with Downie and a copywriter, Larry Will. (Unrelatedly, but interestingly, Finlay was a predecessor of Will’s at the agency, in 1958.) The contract was secured, Paterson was hired for the campaign itself, and after that, with support and advice from his new colleagues, he did not look back.

When the idea for Selected Ponds arose, Paterson asked Downie to design the book. Thereafter, Finlay often called upon the latter’s professional advice, this role then passing to the noted Edinburgh printer and typographer Tom Bee2 (also a friend of Paterson’s, and another former McCallum’s man), who worked for many years with Finlay in a similar spirit, both generously and appreciatively.

A later follow-up to that first photographic survey of the garden was mooted, but it remained on the drawing board. However, one of Paterson’s last collaborations with Finlay was on the Wild Hawthorn Press booklet Alpine, of 1998. This exquisite miniature makes a satisfying contrast in scale to that earlier book, while it also invokes, as the title indicates, a subject dear to Paterson’s heart. (A number of his similarly atmospheric if rather starker monochrome landscapes featured memorably in one of Alec Finlay’s Pocketbooks, The Way to Cold Mountain, 2001.) Years later, Paterson’s memory of a falling-out in the mid-1990s still rankled, but the experience did nothing to diminish his admiration for Finlay’s art, or his gratitude for the opportunity to be involved so closely in it, feelings that the surviving correspondence makes it clear that Finlay sincerely reciprocated.

David Gray Paterson was born in Perth on 10 February 1945, and died in Forth Valley Royal Hospital on 21 December 2023, aged 78. He is survived by his wife, Mayumi, and by their son Sean, his partner Cara and their two sons.

Alistair Peebles, April 2024