Moments before curtain-up, a courteous voice reminds the audience that “flash photography or any other recording of the performance is not permitted”. In an age when so many of us click shutters as a means of holding on to special memories, this sounds mean-spirited.

For dancers, though, the sudden glare of a flash can break their concentration – and potentially something more crucial, like a limb.

Programmes, of course, are the official mementoes, but now Scottish Ballet has decided to mark its 40th anniversary with a book that – alongside an exhibition at their new home in Glasgow’s performing arts venue, Tramway – offers an illustrated history of the company so far. As The Herald’s dance critic, I have witnessed this history for at least half of its lifespan, yet even so, when I agreed to work on the book, writing text and collating images, I had no idea that it would also provide eye-opening reminders of how photography has evolved in recent decades.

As I searched through box after box in the Scottish Ballet archive in the special collections department of Glasgow University’s library, it opened an intriguingly defined window on to the past. Here was tangible proof of the adventure that began in 1969, when a small, independent Bristol-based group known as Western Theatre Ballet relocated to Glasgow to become the foundation of what is now Scotland’s national ballet company. Tucked away in neatly protective folders are the grainy informal black-and-white snaps taken in a flurry of high spirits as the dancers – led by the late Peter Darrell – rehearse choreographies that were seen at the time as radical, dramatic, even controversial in style and content. Young faces with seventies hairstyles (curly perms to the fore) grin anonymously at the camera: not every picture has the annotated story of who’s who on the back, as no-one was thinking “archive! archive!” when they yelled “cheese!” Many of these images were never intended for publication. They are akin to the contents of a family album, a kind of domestic photography that – like our own holiday snaps and birthday parties – don’t necessarily share their secrets or memories with strangers.

Other archive boxes harbour the monochrome elegance of highly professional studio portraits that acknowledge the elevated status of guest artists like the celebrated British ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn or the great Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, both of whom came for “one performance only” with Scottish Ballet on their way to the next gala or prestigious festival, and who proved to be more than just passing stars. Nureyev came to look on this young, go-getting company as something of a backing band, requesting that they support him at various festival seasons staged in the 1970s under his own name. One programme cover shows him resplendent in his costume for La Sylphide. The jacket is a brilliant turquoise velvet, the kilt made in a matching tartan and with a knee-revealing brevity. After one particularly successful collaboration, the company presented Nureyev with a full, and more authentic, Highland Dress. He had, after all, done much to draw the public’s attention to the fledgling Scottish Ballet. However, the turquoise ensemble still travelled in the wardrobe trunk, ready to catch the limelight whenever La Sylphide was on the programme.

Fonteyn’s association with Scottish Ballet began in 1974, when she agreed to join them on a long-haul tour of New Zealand and Australia. In one airport, officials rushed up to offer the comforts of an executive lounge where she could while away the hours before departure: no, they explained, this hospitality wasn’t on offer for the entire company. Fonteyn declined: she’d stay on the concourse with the dancers. The seven-week tour was a demanding one, but Fonteyn seemed to relish being on the road. She danced in every one of the 46 consecutive performances that saw Scottish Ballet win plaudits in Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, as well as Wellington and Dunedin. Afterwards she sent Darrell a signed poster portrait with the words, “Dear Peter – it was you who made me do the tour, all my thanks. It has been wonderful. Love, Margot.”

The archive boxes reveal just how sincere she was, for Fonteyn’s image – usually glimpsed performing in one of the classically Romantic roles that audiences loved her in – is to be found, time and again, carefully posed in the style of the era. Few of these surviving pictures are the kind of rehearsal shots or mid-performance moments that show the effort, or indeed the pain, that attends the pursuit of grace and virtuosity. In a way, that would have been an invasion of the artist’s privacy. Perhaps it was the small-scale family feel at Scottish Ballet, or maybe it was the unstuffy but deeply committed attitude to classical ballet that attracted Fonteyn so. And when Peter Darrell choreographed The Scarlet Pastorale (1975) especially for her, casting her not as the dance world’s favourite pure, otherworldly creature, but as a glinty-eyed, murdering seductress, Fonteyn’s pleasure is evident in the production stills. It is evident, too, in the testimonials she wrote and signed for inclusion in fundraising efforts and programmes.

Elsewhere, these early photographs chart the shifts in repertoire that saw Scottish Theatre Ballet (as it was initially called) take on the expectations and responsibilities that shape a national company. By the end of its first decade, the company had acquired its own, distinctive versions of such important full-length classics as Giselle, Swan Lake and Nutcracker. It had also taken possession of its very own home, the premises at Glasgow’s 261 West Princes Street that – until the move to Tramway this year – functioned as a ramshackle Tardis, squeezing an ever-expanding operation into valiantly adapted spaces.

At the time, however, nothing could crack the proud and happy icing on the 10th anniversary birthday cake. The photographs briskly catalogue the good times. A sewing table piled high with the costuming frou-frou for Darrell’s own celebration dance, Such Sweet Thunder (set to the Duke Ellington suite of the same name); or the Queen Mother, right pinkie daintily quirked, smiling as she signs the visitors’ book at the official opening of 261; or stills from the Darrell ballet, among them some striking poses by his muse, Elaine McDonald.

What photographs can’t do, however, is convey the nip-and-tuck erosion of funding support that curtailed the company’s artistic ambitions and forced compromises in the repertoire. Pick up a glowing full-colour image of Darrell’s Cinderella – the ballroom scene, for instance, where decor and costumes have a wonderfully ornate Art Nouveau flourish – and nothing tells you that, off stage, the company was dancing on financial quicksand. Forced to cut back on the international touring that had been a hallmark of its first decade, a determination remained that the credo “a ballet for Scotland” shouldn’t falter in terms of taking work out to small communities or bringing young talent into the company for workshops and classes.

What emerges instead is the texture and range of the photography itself. Is it fanciful to link a certain glossy shift in the way the company’s image is presented to a more general push in the 1980s towards high-powered marketing tactics? For sure, the times were changing. A strand of very serviceable work increasingly creeps into the archive: dutiful groups of men in suits or theatrically posed set-ups or, in one shot, a ballerina balancing on pointe beside a train. These are the documentations of sponsorship deals, the pictorial equivalent of thank-you letters for donations. Darrell’s death in December 1987 came at a time when Scottish Ballet could scarce afford to lose his rallying spirit. Grief was compounded by the realisation there was no resident choreographer to take his place. Management would have to cope with drafting the company’s artistic policy until such times as a new broom could be found. The archive boxes have head and shoulder “biog” portraits of the well-intentioned, often visionary people who came and went during the rollercoaster times that continued until Ashley Page took over as artistic director in 2002. Of course, you’d have to look up the press cuttings to get chapter and verse on the crises that battered the company through the 1990s. On more than one occasion its very future was in such doubt that dancers took to the streets with petitions, letters were fired off to politicians and a barrage of condemnations rained down on the heads of those (the Scottish Arts Council, local authorities, boards of directors) who were reckoned to be subjecting Scottish Ballet to death by a thousand cuts (plus some catastrophic attempts at restructuring).

Paradoxically, those troubled times produced some truly stunning photographs. From this point on, partly because of new and improved equipment, but also because of a shift in attitudes among the dance world as a whole, the art of movement became a source of visual art as well. For one thing, photographers found that they were being given greater access to rehearsals. Would it be an exaggeration to say this, for the dancers involved, was akin to doing a naked photoshoot? I don’t think so. Rehearsals are where you get it wrong. Wrestle with it. Get it right. Then repeat it and repeat it and repeat it until you don’t have to think. Rehearsals are where bodies and egos get bruised; where frustration increases as weariness dulls reactions; where the reflection in the studio mirror is not what you want an audience to see. So why let a photographer document that vulnerability? Because those behind-the-scenes milestones are increasingly seen as a way of connecting with the public.

We’re coming close, in fact, to an appreciation of why people watch dance and an understanding of why they want to freeze-frame their memories in photographs.

Audiences have always been captivated by dancers. It’s about prowess and beauty. To see extreme control, rigour and discipline channelled into artistic expression whispers to us of heroic endeavour. And we want to hold on to that image, zoom in on it if possible, know in intense detail every pore and sinew of that fabulous, stirring icon.

And if the close-up reveals the truth within the effort? Limbs slicked with sweat, a face contorted with a wrench of pain? Our harrowed sympathies simply heighten the artist’s mystique, the alluring sense of someone suffering for their art. That the bodies in question are honed, toned and good to look at is another piece of the rewarding jigsaw. And thanks to the photographer’s knowing, winking lens, there’s now an archive of moments that we might otherwise have missed in a blink.

We don’t have an inbuilt facility to run sequences in slow motion, and while our eyes probably do follow each tiny phase of lift-off, flight and landing, we only really register a fraction of what we see. Just as Page’s vision for Scottish Ballet has brought the company back from the brink, fuelling the repertoire with vivid choreographies, dramatic stagings and starkly challenging modern masterpieces, so modern photography has worked some of its own magic.

There is a thrilling, sensual depth to the darkness that drapes around shadowy figures in modern pictures where before, despite the photographer’s craft and cunning, the definition would have been as good as non-existent. The sumptuous, sometimes acid spectrum of designer Antony McDonald’s visions for Page’s full-length story-ballets now sizzles and thrums with mouthwatering colour that puts old tints in the shade. At the same time, smaller and lighter cameras with more sophisticated zoom lenses have allowed photographers to lurk in the wings, or crouch down in rehearsal studios, without seeming overly intrusive.

Those are, perhaps, the insights that sneak us under the radar, allow us to engage with the hard graft that transforms into memorable performances on stage. The inclusion of a rehearsal section in Scottish Ballet’s 40th anniversary book reflects how keen the company is to engage the public in the flesh-and-blood reality of dance making.

The same is true of Mercury, a newly commissioned film that is a key element in the exhibition that opens at Tramway next week. It has been created by Scottish artist Daniel Warren, who worked with the company on the short film Public: Private in 2004. Warren’s new film offers a previously unseen, slowed-down world featuring dancers from Scottish Ballet. Glimpses of conversations reveal some of the processes that generate the creation of movement, drawing onlookers into the very fabric of what sustains a dance company. The exhibition will also include a selection of photographs from the archives.

Those archives now span 40 years of a history, encompassing not just the past and present of Scottish Ballet, but also the ways in which photography has acted as an observer and a go-between, recording and revealing personalities and productions and so helping to shape the public image of the company. The book which Scottish Ballet has produced to celebrate not just the ruby anniversary but also the long-awaited move to a spacious, light-filled purpose-built domain at Glasgow’s Tramway, should do the same.

Scottish Ballet: Forty Years by Mary Brennan is published by Saraband, priced £25.