Billed as ‘groundbreaking’, the Edinburgh City Art Centre exhibition, Glean – curated by Jenny Brownrigg – gathers the work of 14 pioneering early 20th century women photographers and filmmakers. Sara Stevenson reviews it for The Drouth, and considers it an ‘impressive achievement’.
GLEAN -An exhbition at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh
Curator – Jenny Brownrigg
This splendid show is staged by the Edinburgh City Art Centre, with two other good exhibitions, of the photographs of Ron O’Donnell and Paul Duke. It is cheering to see the City continuing to engage with fine photography and filmmaking. But Glean is not specifically an art exhibition. It is concerned with photography in different aspects and with different motivations. It shows the work of 14 photographers and filmmakers, working with still images and moving film; operating from the west and northern islands down to the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and London; and from the beginning to mid 20th century. It offers an impressive piece of visual research, drawing on no less than seventeen archives, principally in Scotland, and ranging from Galloway in the south to Shetland in the north.
The roll call of women presents Violet Banks (1886-1985), Helen Biggar (1909-1953), Christina Broom (1862-1939), M.E.M. Donaldson (1876-1958), Dr Beatrice Garvie (1872-1959), Jenny Gilbertson (1902-1990), Isobel F Grant (1887–1983), Ruby Grierson (1904-1940), Marion Grierson (1907-1998), Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889-1982), Johanna Kissling (1875-1961), Isabell Burton MacKenzie (1872-1958), Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004) and Margaret Watkins (1884-1969).
The exhibition starts with photographs by Margaret Watkins, who was unquestionably a practising artist. She was a sophisticated Canadian photographer who trained in New York with Alice Boughton and Clarence White, and was responsive to the international art movements of her time – interested in the overlap and challenge between advertising and Fine Art and the abstraction of shapes in geometry and the reality of domestic life. In the late 1920s, she moved to Europe, settling in Glasgow to look after aged aunts who were living in desolate circumstances. Her photography seemed to have slowed down at this time, but the exhibition reveals some of her Scottish work. Her dense images of Glasgow’s dockside, taken about 1930, have a seductive miniature force; her aerial view of the Rotunda with the road occupied by horse-drawn delivery lorries, including one apparently drawing a boat offers another idea of the miniature with the animate detail reduced to toy size from her height on the Finnieston Crane. Watkins was much influenced by music, and used it as a photographic metaphor, in an essay about the emergence of advertising photography out of painting: ‘Weird and surprising things were put upon canvas; stark mechanical objects revealed an unguessed dignity; commonplace articles showed curves and angles which could be repeated with the varying pattern of a fugue.’
The exhibition as a whole is closer to an exercise in documentary photography. The word, ‘documentary’, in terms of filmmaking, was coined by John Grierson. The film made by Jenny Brown, (A Crofter’s Life, 1931) was shown to Grierson, who paid it tribute in a letter. It was made, he wrote: ‘on the unique assumption that the dramatic unity of a crofter’s life could not conceivably be the period of a six weeks’ summer holiday. That is the way to make a film. You have to belong.’ This critical issue of informed empathy and belonging (which chimes with the modern anxiety about the outsider’s gaze) is necessary to successful documentary work. The photographer and her camera are not seen in the work but they are there in the full view and knowledge of the subject. Ruby Grierson, herself, passionately political, criticised her brother’s work in stringent terms: ‘you look at human beings as if they lived in a goldfish bowl. And I propose to smash the goldfish bowl right in front of your eyes’. Part of her technique for this was to ask the people she was filming to speak to the camera, without an intermediary interviewer, offering a direct and independent voice.
The camera is one of the many inventions of the industrial age seized on and promoted by commercial interest, as ‘easy’ ‘certain’ ‘cheap’. No sooner had the acute difficulties of photography been resolved – around the mid-1850s – than an enthusiastic hoard of practitioners rushed in with their own prescriptive instructions. Portrait photography was staged in studios – stand cameras and single focus, the customers fixed in place with metal clamps, with painted and papier-mache backdrops giving glamour to the paying citizen. Following this first rush, Henry Peach Robinson, pictorial photographer and author of successful manuals of advice, rejected most of the human subjects he saw: ‘as regards models, I seldom find the “real thing” to quite answer my purpose. The aboriginal is seldom sufficiently intelligent to be of any use, especially if you have “intention” in your work.’ He gave an example of a beautiful Welsh lass who was picking potatoes. ‘Knowing how shy the Welsh peasant is, I got the gamekeeper who carried my camera to speak to her first, and I approached the subject warily by beginning an agricultural talk with her mother.’ It is scarcely surprising that the girl was thoroughly unnerved. Robinson’s solution to this problem was not to try for social grace, but to buy the clothes of the country girl and put them on a model.
Reality – the power of photography – was cloaked by his social incompetence.
Unfortunately, Robinson, as a voice of Art, has blocked the view of the original art of social documentary. Implausibly, in the 1840s and working with a nearly intractable process, D O Hill and Robert Adamson succeeded in inventing that art in their series, The Fishermen and Women of the Firth of Forth. It is difficult to analyse skill of this kind, but it is clear that the critical elements, in this group of more than 120 photographs involving many of the people of Newhaven, lay in the social and responsive nature of the people and in the admiration, attention and amiability of Hill and Adamson in their photographic practice.
It seems reasonable to suppose that one of the advantages shared between this early work and that of The Glean photographers and filmmakers lies in the lack of class structure among the Scots, which so handicapped the English Robinson.
Self-consciousness and need for dignity were of course part of the encounter between the photographers and their subjects. Isabell Burton Mackenzie records the response of Mrs Macdonald of North Uist dying wool, trampling it with her bare feet. She annotates the two photographs in her scrapbook: ‘she looked up and “posed” with her most Sunday expression, and every muscle stiff and tense. This second photograph is after she relaxed slightly and was just hearing, “it is all over now”. She was very anxious to hide her bare feet’. Burton McKenzie went north with a professional role, as the travelling organiser for the Highland Home Industries, which aimed to raise standards in the islands’ knitting and weaving tweed. Another of her photographs – a long group on Bernaray in 1912, shows a similar distancing, influenced by her role as an organiser and critic. Here the islanders have taken the dignified status of Sunday dress, with fine hats to restore the social imbalance.
Dr Beatrice Garvie worked as a medical doctor in North Ronaldsay in the 1930s and 40s. Her authority was mellowed by the intensity of attention and interest required of a doctor examining a patient, and of her direct interest in the children she saw born. One of her most pleasing images, which is eccentric in its vigour and in its only partial control, is ‘Sidney Scott at the pier’ hurling the mooring rope to the departing boat, with the drops of water still falling into the sea.
Dr I F Grant was attempting the cultural record of life in the Highlands and Islands, with the idea of setting up a museum. She would collect the photographs by others and followed a systematic pattern of photographing, for example, building methods. Grant was highly conscious that her work was dogged by the shift in culture in the 1920s and 30s – quite literally, she would be travelling out by boat to the islands to make her record, in company with the Scottish Board of Agriculture’s supplies to improve standards of housing: ‘piles of window frames, sanitary equipment, etc. one began to wonder if any cottage of the traditional style would be left.’
Margaret Fay Shaw’s approach to Uist was radically different. She was a musician, and there to learn the Gaelic songs at source. Her experience was informed by the music: ‘their lives were so saturated with songs that they would be singing unconsciously while engaged in any kind of task, there was no end to the number of songs thy seemed to know. ‘ She was aware of the sounds of life: ‘noise of children, primus stoves and tilly lamps; clocks ticking, rats scuffling in the walls, cats growling under the dresser’. Shaw lodged with two sisters, Màiri and Peigi MacRae, for six years, and she said they: ‘taught me more than university, they were the most interesting and knowledgeable women’. So close did the relationship become, that she chose to be buried alongside them in South Uist.
Her photographs show that intimacy – the picnic of the two sisters with their young boy, in a comfortable group, cat and dog curled in the centre; Màiri MacRae standing in her doorway, holding a large cod by its gills, with three enthusiastic cats bustling up, the leader clasping the fish’s tail with outstretched paws. ‘Peigi Macrae Milking Dora the Cow’, in a blustering wind thrusting the animal’s air, and Peigi’s own hair and overall. The same wind would be battering the photographer, who found it necessary to build piles of stones or even ask someone to go down on all fours to give her a stable surface for the camera.
The sense of real experience and even belonging is evident in the attention that such photographs may show. Grierson’s point about the whole year is crucially important in the crofting life. The film and photographs both reveal the essential relationship between people, animals, sea and landscape, the way the crofters lived in the conditions of weather, light, cold and warmth, the way the seasons dictated the line and rhythm of life. It is a world of nature, a reality which we have overlaid with machinery and lockdown, in factories, offices, in concrete housing – offended by ice and rain, fearful of wet leaves. And while it is clearly a hard and laborious life, it offers a variety of action from planting potatoes with a foot plough in rock-strewn land, to the unloading and gutting of large quantities of wet fish, in Jenny Brown’s, A Crofter’s Life in Shetland (1931). Brown gives us the detail of the fishwives washing off the quantities of fish scales they would have covered themselves with during the day, and offers a pleasing secondary vision of them glittering in the light. She shows us the crofters plucking the wool from the sheep in large tufts, which they would then proceed to wash in the cold burns, dye, spin and knit. In the film, there is the small episode of a lass staggering up steps in Lerwick, carrying a bucket of water, slopping over as she mounts– a simple expression of the modern advantage in owning a household tap.
The exhibition is largely organised in themes rather than with groups of individual work, and this can be a bit confusing. It does, however, justify a few side issues – such as birds, where the picture of the crow’s nest on the cliff edge, tangled undergrowth, thrift and the rolling sea below is particularly effective; as is the oystercatcher perched comfortably on Shaw’s outstretched hand.
The show ends with photographs by Christina Broom, which are strikingly unlike most of the work. She was a successful London photojournalist. There are here a group of her pictures of the marching suffragettes in 1909 – strong images that respond to their organisation and determination, and the way that they constructed a pageant of Women’s Trades and Professions from real groups – such as pottery workers, nurses and midwives. But we are given an unexpected counterpoint to these in a photograph from work she took as the official photographer to the elite Household Division of the army, based in London – an eminently masculine stronghold. This picture shows three men, not in uniform or on parade, but simply as cheerful and responsive individuals.
Comprehensive and exploratory exhibitions of this kind have a resemblance to large parties – you enter, maybe knowing one or two people, but needing to navigate in a personal way. You will not come away knowing everyone. The exhibition is an impressive achievement and should prompt us to further investigation in greater detail. We may visit it several times (entry is free) and be led into the complex and different alleyways these women have explored and shown us.
Jenny Brownrigg’s examination of these seventeen archives is important. Very few of us spend time examining photographs within archives – it is apt to be a specialist business. Exhibitions breaking new ground in this way address thousands of people, opening eyes and doors, causing people to connect with the other pictures, and photographers and filmmakers they may know, and bring them too into the light.
Main (Title) photo: Jenny Gilbertson, (with Cuthbert Cayley), Digital Print from photograph of the original, 1938/39. Courtesy of Shetland Museum and Archives.