‘Coming Clean’ by Graham MacIndoe at the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

I saunter down Cockburn Street in Edinburgh, that steep, twisted descent resembling a wide stairway to some lower plane, populated by architecture-ogling tourists with DSLR’s bouncing on their girths. Marching past Waverley Station in the enveloping mist, and an emaciated youth runs past, sweat dripping on his glistening pale forehead. On his heels are two plump police officers in fluorescent jackets, well-wrapped for a Scottish Autumnal climate but showing difficulty in athletic prowess, like watching two foil wrapped kebabs with extras attempt to do the sack race. It is Renton from Trainspotting, that perfect-toothed heroin-addict that everyone likes, the ill-constructed and boyish mainstream representation of an affliction that affects hundreds of thousands in the UK today.

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As I cross Princes street in the direction of the National Portrait Gallery, Renton fades into the mist and I witness the real thing. A hooded character with heavy grey eyes, shivering in a doorway prompts me for spare change. It doesn’t take much effort to see inconsistencies between the real affliction and Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle’s depiction. There is no Iggy Pop growl or Underworld thump-thump soundtracking their lives, or moustached loveable rogues we’d jump to shake hands with. There is a shivering, silent and desperate yellow ghost waiting for his next fix.

A successful Scottish editorial photographer with a career based in the United States in the 1990s, Graham MacIndoe developed a debilitating crack and heroin addiction lasting almost a decade. Unable to continue with his professional life due to a heavy and dependent habit, MacIndoe withdrew from a business that was rapidly changing. Editorial photography was becoming less lucrative, and digital technology in photography was changing the game of commercial photography completely.

While under the throes of addiction, the innate photographer and documentarian in MacIndoe sought a way of dealing with his addiction and created a series of self portraits in his vulnerable and dependent condition, feeling compelled to record his life at a point when he felt “isolation, loneliness and pain” and any injection could be his last.  Using a basic digital camera (he had sold most of his equipment to fund his addiction), he photographed himself injecting, or in otherwise internment-like scenarios in his small and cramped apartment. Although the photographs in this series were made during the years 2004 and 2010 while MacIndoe was a heavy heroin user, he saw the value in the work when he rediscovered them in 2015 and after some deliberation, resolved to publish them. They were subsequently published by New York magazine and The Guardian, and have since been acquired by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

Untitled (1), a typical but striking picture from the series shows MacIndoe in a domestic setting in what appears to be a kitchen, standing in front of a bright daylit window. To his sides, fluorescent-lit yellow-green walls frame him, an ironing board and mop duly stand at each corner, while MacIndoe appears to be in the act of falling or slipping. His hands are held half clasped at his chest, holding an object that resembles a syringe. A trickle of scarlet blood runs down his forearm, and with his head tilted upwards with eyes closed he wears an expression of ecstasy or impending martyrdom. The searing light from outwith the building burns through the image of MacIndoe due to overexposure, lopping his head from his shoulder and torsos, his mind separated from his body, already unaware or unconcerned about the camera capturing his image. Resting idly on a unit in front of the window, his body appears slack, in the process of falling. The burn of the outside light, apart from separating his head from his body forms the shape of blinding, glowing  wings behind his shoulders. What goes on in the outside world beyond his window has been obliterated into a sea of whiteness, a blanket of nothingness brought on by a single injection.

MacIndoe made many of these images using the same technique, resting the camera on a shelf or otherwise sturdy surface and setting the camera to take pictures at regular intervals, allowing him to compose the photographs and go about his daily life while the camera  captured his routines, placing himself within the camera’s view when necessary. Printed at 10 by 12 inches, window-mounted and framed, the prints suggest a documentary approach as opposed to a fine art experience, largely due to the limits of the inexpensive digital camera. We are able to peer through the windows into the private life of an addict, to witness what goes on behind closed doors when heroin users are temporarily no longer required to wander the streets. The act of photographing himself while he was in such a vulnerable state became an act of transcending the image-making process of photography and became a form of redemption in itself. Being ultimately comfortable with his photographic subject (himself) he continuously captured the daily life of an addict, bypassing the ethical struggles of photographing other junkies.

In another untitled photograph (2), MacIndoe stands shirtless in his bathroom, his belted jeans hung slackly on his waist due to weight loss, exposing a scarred belly. One tattooed arm is held behind his back, while the other clasps his trouser belt as he stares blankly beyond the frame. The cold fluorescent light bathes him from above, casting heavy shadows over his eyes  while a haunting and dripping reflection of him peers towards us at the left from a misted mirror. The image is reminiscent of Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas, MacIndoe depicting both one of the bewildered, balding apostles and simultaneously the bare-chested and wounded figure of Christ. The light falls in a similar fashion from an above, unidentified source. As well as gaining a Master’s Degree in Photography at the Royal College of Art London, MacIndoe studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art, and so was well schooled in lighting, composition and in particular making references to other paintings in his work.

The exhibition is a compelling testament to vulnerability and addiction, and offers a valuable insight into the harrowing routines of a dependent drug addict. It is impossible to consider them as merely documents or self portraits, due to the care and consideration that has been placed both at the time of taking the photos and of the sober selective process. MacIndoe has offered a window into a world that many of us never witness, or only see through the rose-tinted glasses of contemporary cinema. MacIndoe has shown us that heroin addiction is indeed, not an increased enjoyment of life “it is a way of life” (Burroughs, 1953). Thankfully he survived in order to tell the story.

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All images © Graham MacIndoe

The exhibition runs until November 5th at National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

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