“Belated praise for Joseph McKenzie.”

Journalist and editor Alan Taylor has kindly given us permission to republish his appreciation of photographer Joseph McKenzie who recently passed away, aged 86. This article first ran in The National, on July 20th 2015. (See also The Herald obituary of Jospeh McKenzie.)

Joseph McKenzie, photo by Adam Elder. ©Adam Elder, all rights reserved.

Joseph McKenzie, photo by Adam Elder. ©Adam Elder, all rights reserved.

 

Belated praise for Joseph McKenzie – a neglected pioneer of Scottish photography, by Alan Taylor.

‘DON’T it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Never were Joni Mitchell’s words more fitting than in the case of Joseph McKenzie, who died a few days ago, aged 86, and whose funeral will take place on Friday at Tayport. His obituarists routinely described him as “internationally acclaimed”, “one of the most ambitious and prolific post-war photographers”, and “the father of modern Scottish photography”. No one would have enjoyed the irony of these posthumous hurrahs more than McKenzie himself, for he had long since stopped exhibiting publicly and had just cause to believe he was suffering from that terrible disease that can afflict even a towering talent, namely neglect.

But if the wider world was unaware of McKenzie’s achievement, he did not want for admirers among those who view life through a lens. Graeme Murdoch, former chief executive of the Scottish National Photography Centre, recalls once asking him if he possessed a digital camera: “His harrumph could have been heard across the Tay.” Albert Watson, who is feted for his portraits of celebrities and whose work has often graced the covers of Vogue and Rolling Stone, was one of McKenzie’s students. “Joe was a wonderful teacher,” he says, “passionate and intense. From the minute I picked up a camera I felt the same.” Another who was taught by him is the artist Calum Colvin. “His technical skill was profound and the quality of his printing was stunning,” he says. “As a student of his I remember him speaking little about the history of photography but his attention to the poetic voice of the print was immense.”

Those who took the trouble to visit McKenzie at his Tayside home were at first greeted gruffly, as if by a man who was not used to company other than that of his immediate circle. His gaze was steely and his tolerance of fools non-existent.

As the hours wore on, however, he defrosted and welcomed inquiries about his work. Lunch was a Scotch pie or two garnished with brown sauce and accompanied by a mug of tea. McKenzie had no social pretensions. “He loved to challenge the status quo,” says Murdoch. He was constantly taking photographs, always in black and white, running off a reel of film a day. His archive, carefully stored and meticulously documented, comprises tens of thousands of prints, very few of which have seen the light of day. “What has been seen,” says Colvin, “is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Joe always claimed his work would remain private until after his death.”

Though he was umbilically attached to Scotland, McKenzie was born and educated in London, in 1929. After conscription and regular service in the RAF in the years immediately after the war, he studied photography at The London College of Printing. Thereafter, in 1954, he was appointed Lecturer in Photography at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, a post from which he prematurely retired in 1986.

The 1960s were perhaps McKenzie’s most productive decade. Then, noted Gerry Badger, a writer on photography, he was “a lone wolf for Scottish photography – a lone wolf howling at the establishment, some might say”. During that period McKenzie had one exhibition after another: of children in the Gorbals, of Dundee as it wrestled with post-industrial deprivation, of Northern Ireland embroiled in sectarianism. His images were haunting, unsentimental, depressing, brutal, empathetic, indelible, a testimony to human indomitability and harsh existence. They were also, acknowledged Badger – in an essay to accompany Pages of Experience, a selection of McKenzie’s photographs from 1947 to 1987 – “grudgingly received north of the Border, and wholly disregarded south of it”.

WHY this was so is hard to tell. What is clear, though, is that McKenzie’s disillusionment with the reception of his work was profound and long-lasting. In particular, he was angered by the vituperative reaction in some quarters to his exhibition, Hibernian Images. This was the fruit of many months spent in Ireland in 1967 documenting a society in a state of anarchy: petrol-bombed homes, burnt-out pubs, ragged children building brick forts, graffitied walls, rookie troops looking apprehensive. The Troubles had begun to brew and McKenzie was no objective observer. As a Roman Catholic convert with five children, his sympathies lay with the Catholic minority, which may partly explain the venomous hostility to his work. Whatever the reason, McKenzie was chastened and determined never again to show it. However, from 1974 to 1980 he mounted exhibitions in a large room in his Tayport home, which was open to visitors by appointment.

He took much inspiration from American photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Paul Strand, whose photographs of a rural community in South Uist, taken in 1954, bear obvious similarities with McKenzie’s of Donegal and elsewhere in Ireland in the 1960s. But it was on his own doorstep, in the Hawkhill area of Dundee, that he found what may have been his best subject. Using his lunch hours, he wandered the cobbled streets of a “city in transition”. Here he found three, elderly women – the antithesis of the three graces – chatting in lane about who knows what. Over a steaming brazier a labourer attempted to stay warm. Elsewhere an infant sprawled on the pavement beneath its upturned pram. And then there was Mrs Wallace in her eponymous pie shop, wearing a white apron and offering for sale nothing but a few unappetising pies. It was probably taken in 1964 but it has the air of an image from a time almost beyond memory.

McKenzie took photographs to immortalise such “ordinary” folk. A photograph, he once wrote, was like a living epitaph. As for himself, he was an outsider, a role which he both embraced and wore like a hairshirt. Unappreciated even by those with whom he worked at Duncan of Jordanstone, he persevered regardless, unable or unwilling to compromise or kow-tow to those who might have helped his career, confident that one day his as yet unexplored archive would set his reputation right.

Text ©Alan Taylor/The National, all rights reserved 2015.

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Paul Strand – print acquisition by SNPG

We were very excited to hear of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s latest photography acquisition, great to hear that nine images from South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, by Paul Strand have been acquired for the nations’s photography collection. Great news indeed. Below, you can read about the acquisition and see the images, but we recommend going to see them in the flesh so to speak!

The nine photographs will be on show as part of Collecting Now at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, from 20 June to 20 September 2015.

 

Paul Strand

Nine photographs by Paul Strand (1890-1976), one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, have been acquired by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, where they will go on public display until 20 September. Taken from Strand’s series of Hebridean photographs from South Uist in 1954, the works are the first examples of his Scottish work to enter into a public collection in Scotland.

This major acquisition, supported by the Art Fund, is composed of nine vintage black and white portraits of Scottish lives and landscapes in South Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. The works will be hung in the current exhibition Collecting Now, which focuses on the Gallery’s growing collection.

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976). Croft, Locarnon, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976).
Croft, Locarnon, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

The American photographer Paul Strand is ranked among the most important artists within the history of photography, and his work has influenced generations of photographers. In 1954, upon hearing a radio programme on the Gaelic songs of South Uist, he decided to travel there along with his wife, Hazel Kingsbury Strand. Having been introduced to the islanders by the local doctor, Strand spent three months taking over a hundred photographs of the island and its people for his book, Tìr a’ Mhurain (1962). Taken from a traditional Gaelic song, the title translates as ‘Land of Bent Grass’.

Strand photographed many of the people in and around their homes, often posing them before a weathered wall. Within the group of nine works going on display, there are four striking portraits that show the sitters looking directly at the camera, exuding strength and dignity. Strand was keen to understand his subjects, their environments and the forces that shaped their lives, and spent his first few weeks on the island observing the people he would photograph – fishermen, crofters, their wives and children. Nine years after the end of the WWII, South Uist was still an impoverished community and the vast majority of families depended on the produce from the land and sea. The remaining five photographs within the new acquisition group show the evocative landscapes of South Uist, for instance a loch and lilies, a croft, and ropes and a buoy used by the local fishermen.

Paul Strand (1890-1976). Norman Douglas, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 14.6 x 11.4 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976).
Norman Douglas, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 14.6 x 11.4 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976). John Angus MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 14.6 x 11.4 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976).
John Angus MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 14.6 x 11.4 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

In the 1950s, during the Cold War, Uist was announced as the future site for a rocket launch facility, and many of the photos Strand took during his time on the island reflect a concern amongst many artists and folklorists to ‘salvage’ oral Gaelic culture amid the thread of a militarised modernity. He believed these islanders represented the universal struggle of humanity and sequenced the images within Tìr a Mhurain in such a way as to evoke the heroic, yet remote lives of the dwindling population: when he visited South Uist in the mid-1950s the population was 3764; at the last census in 2011 it was 1754.

The completed publication came out in 1962 and featured an introductory essay by British historian Basil Davidson, who explained the precarious existence of the islanders against a backdrop of history, geography and social anthropology.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Peggy MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Peggy MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Loch and Lilies, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Loch and Lilies, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Ropes and Buoy, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 24.1 x 19.3 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Ropes and Buoy, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 24.1 x 19.3 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

One of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century, with a career that spanned sixty years, Paul Strand was born in New York in 1890 and received his first camera at the age of 12. Whilst a student of renowned documentary photographer Lewis W. Hine in New York, from 1904-08, Strand visited the 291 Gallery which promoted pioneering photographers and introduced some of the most avant-garde European artists to American audiences. By 1916, Strand had a solo show at 291 Gallery, whose owner Stieglitz declared the images “pure” and “direct”. In 1945 Strand was given a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, but having become more political he now came under scrutiny as McCarthyism swept America, and he went into exile in France. During this time period he began working on a series of photo essays in search of an ideal community or village that espoused certain moral values he wanted to record with the camera, which eventually led to his visit to South Uist in 1954. His breakthrough, abstract experiments in the 1910s heralded photography’s importance as a modern art form, but it was his portraits of ordinary people that increased his popular appeal. Strand died in 1976 at Orgeval, France.

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Rock by the Sea, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 24.1 x 19.3 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Rock by the Sea, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 24.1 x 19.3 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Speaking of the acquisition, Christopher Baker, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery said: “These works are an important contribution to broadening our international holdings of photography, while the distinct Scottish subject matter relates to the larger mission for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in representing the people and topography of Scotland.”

Paul Strand (1890-1976) Mrs. Archie MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Mrs. Archie MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 11.4 x 14.6 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Paul Strand (1890-1976) House, Kilpheder, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954 Photograph (gelatine silver print): 19.3 x 24.1 cm Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

Paul Strand (1890-1976)
House, Kilpheder, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
Photograph (gelatine silver print): 19.3 x 24.1 cm
Scottish National Portrait Gallery © Aperture Foundation Inc., Paul Strand Archive

 

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “Paul Strand was a photographic pioneer but he is under-represented in UK collections and not at all in Scotland, so we are very pleased to support this acquisition for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. This series of remarkable images from the Hebrides has an especially important resonance for the Gallery’s collections, and furthermore will sit well alongside works in the permanent collection by photographers influenced by Strand.”

 

The Art Fund

The Art Fund is the national fundraising charity for art. In the past five years the Art Fund has given £34 million to help museums and galleries acquire works of art for their collections. The Art Fund also helps museums share their collections with wider audiences by supporting a range of tours and exhibitions, including ARTIST ROOMS and the 2013-18 Aspire tour of Tate’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable, and makes additional grants to support the training and professional development of curators.

The Art Fund is independently funded, with the core its income provided by 117,000 members who receive the National Art Pass and enjoy free entry to over 230 museums, galleries and historic places across the UK, as well as 50% off entry to major exhibition. In addition to grant-giving, the Art Fund’s support for museums includes the annual Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year, a publications programme and a range of digital platforms.

Find out more about the Art Fund and the National Art Pass at www.artfund.org

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