Passing Place – Sandy Carson’s new book

Passing Place by Sandy Carson

Passing Place is an intimate portrait of both Sandy Carson’s mother and the ex-mining village he grew up in the West of Scotland after emigrating to America at a young age. This photographic memoir deals with separation, space, and the invisible family bonds that exist despite physical distance incurred by geographical displacement.

The name is inspired by one-lane rural roads with wide spots that are common in Scotland, allowing vehicles to pass each other and continue on their journey.

These photographs and memories made on annual visits home since 2001, are a testimony to Carson’s upbringing and a gentle reminder that absence creates longing and nostalgia across the miles. Carson was drawn to make a record of everyday domestic rituals and routines during the rare times he and his mother spent together, to distill time with her portending passing in 2016.

By uniting his photographs with the ephemera and family photos left behind by his mum, Carson is striving to fill the void by retracing their lives, embracing the formative years they spent together, and absorbing the ones they lost.

See images from the book, and an interview with Sandy Carson, here, previously on Document Scotland.

Within the book there is an essay by Stephen McLaren, of Document Scotland.

Hame Is Where The Heart Is, by Stephen McLaren.

A few years ago I wrote a book for the publisher, Thames and Hudson, called, Family Photography Now. It was an anthology showcasing recent photography projects from thirty-five photographers around the world who were using their families as a source of inspiration. The impulse for a photographer to use one’s own family as material has always been there, but in the last few years the number of photographers with at least one project delving into those complicated relationships with parents, children, and siblings, has exploded. “Stick close to what you know” is a totem that many educators pass onto students who are looking for a project to launch their career, and it seems that examining one’s own clan, has become the obvious choice for many emerging talents looking for inspiration.

Family Photography Now was reacting to a moment in the medium’s development when the domestic, the intimate, the close-to-home became once again, a keen source of creative camera work. In previous decades trailblazers like Richard Billingham, Larry Sultan, and Sally Mann, created seminal bodies of work in photo-book history, but Family Photography Now, picked-up on a new wave of artist who were using old family albums, casual iPhone snapshots and more formal portrait-based images of their family to good effect.

It’s encouraging that many photographers are re-taking ownership of their families life-stories in photography. Many have been taking a fresh look at their parents’ and grandparents’ family albums – often slightly battered and dusty from years of inattention – and finding pictures which, in their analogue, un-filtered nature, are suggestive of more innocent times and which they can adapt for their own ends. When telling a tale of the most complex and emotionally-laden institutions in all our lives, that approach of using family archives in conjunction with more considered formal portraits gives a richer and more nuanced take on the emotional maelstrom of family life.

In this book, Sandy Carson, has similarly used a mix-and-match approach to tell a story about his family, more specifically, his recently-passed mother, and it is one of the best exemplars of how photography can be used to investigate, record, and re-consider how our loved ones permeate and enrich our lives. One of Sandy’s inspirations involved a family heirloom which most of us will recognize from our own family past.

“ My mother had a collection of family photos, dictaphone tapes and artifacts she keeps in a big biscuit tin that date back to the 40’s onwards, all shot by different family members, passed on from my grandfather, who was an artist. Those snapshots and sound-bites had quite an influence on me growing up and I enjoyed revisiting the nostalgia each time I went home.”

Susan Sontag and Martin Parr have had much to say on how families represent themselves through the collected family archive. Sontag once astutely wrote, “Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself — a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.” Parr also recognized this tendency for families to create their own life-mytholgies through photographs when he said: “Most family photo albums are a form of propaganda, where the family looks perfect and everyone is smiling: we try to create fabrications about who we are.”

Sontag also wrote that “The photographer both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates” and this suggests that the photographer runs the risk of being too embedded to make a dispassionate or objective account of their family story. This is something that Sandy seems to have taken on board.

“When I started making the photos I didn’t have any intention, other than to take back some memories of home, but after numerous visits over the years, the photos began to navigate towards a narrative, based on my family and their immediate surroundings. “

While Sandy’s book makes great use of the family archive, of a working-class family in central Scotland, he also spent much time and effort in the last years of his mum’s life to slow things down and create lasting portraits which are overloaded with loving intent.

“I found that the bigger the format, the more quality time I could spend with my family in set-up time – just slowing life down in general. I’ve shot digital on occasion but didn’t like the process or the end result. There just wasn’t any magic or nostalgic physicality to the digital files versus a piece of film. My family are old school and I feel like it’s only fair to shoot analogue with the aesthetic. “

Families by their very nature tend to be tight-knit units where secrets and certain intimacies are instinctively protected, hidden, and often denied. While some photographers may regard their family-based projects as a form of therapy or psychoanalysis, this camera-assisted examination does not necessarily lead to good outcomes. While each family is intrinsically unique, and therefore at least endlessly fascinating to those embedded in it, it takes an extra level of photographic intelligence to summon-up a body of work which elevates the unique narratives of each situation into something more rewarding by virtue of the universal themes it explores.

Sandy’s book accomplishes that goal by bringing a sense of unease and mystery into his story. Everything is not as it seems. Several of his featured relatives appear not to be “on the same page” either emotionally or perhaps genetically. The edited flow, over three distinct chapters in his life, is astute and largely chronological, but there’s plenty of room for us to speculate, as Sandy seems to suggest, whether the members of his family actually get on with each other, or whether a multitude of secrets and lies remain hidden.“All families are creepy in a way,” Diane Arbus wrote to a friend in 1968 and Sandy seems to acknowledge that fact in this complex and multi-faceted photographic memoir. What remains, though, beyond the speculation, is an enduring son’s devotion to his mother and the gifts she gave him in life.

The book is available now for pre-Order from YoffyPress.

Anticipated release Fall 2020

Photographs by Sandy Carson
Introduction by Allan McNaughton
Essays by Daniel Kalder and Stephen McLaren

Hardcover, 9 x 6.5 inches
108 pages
Edition of 350

ISBN: 978-1-949608-23-6
Trade Edition:  $40.00

Pre-sale runs through October 31.

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Returning to Muirhouse: Martello Court by Paul S Smith

There is a lot of discussion at present about what our towns and cities will look and feel like in the post-COVID world.

A death spiral of economic activity and loss of both permanent and transient populations, could lastingly render the centres barren wastelands, redundant in many different senses. With tourist numbers in decline and employees choosing to work from home, the whole service infrastructure required is becoming obsolete. The flip side, is that people are fostering an interest in localism, in how peoples’ immediate environment can serve their daily and weekly needs by starting to re-imagine what life could be like without the imperative for travelling and commuting for entertainment, employment and enjoyment.

In a sense, much of this reconfiguration has already taken place. Many of the communities housed in the areas surrounding our big cities have changed dramatically in the last three decades. They are urecognisable from what they looked like, at least, in the past. Whilst many of these changes have been cosmetic, masking deep, underlying societal problems, there’s no doubt that by altering their physical appearance, many of our peripheral housing estates, for example, have been given an outward appearance of change and improvement.

One such place is Muirhouse, one of a collection of housing schemes in the north of Edinburgh developed in the 1950s as the original process of reconfiguring the city’s centre took place. This involved slum clearing – some would say slum cleansing – scattering the capital’s population to the edges of the city, dispersing communities and displacing many of the chronic problems largely out-of-sight on Edinburgh’s fringes.

To anyone growing up in that era, places such as Muirhouse were often labelled with descriptions such as ‘notorious’, ‘violent’ or ‘deprived’ and were seen, if they were ever looked at, as a blight on the city, best ignored and forgotten about. The architecture was grey and brutal, with the area being dominated by the Soviet-style Martello Court, a 200-foot, 23 story edifice which became the epicentre and synonym for all the area’s problems.

Almost 30 years ago, Network photographer John Sturrock chronicled the community as part of the Positive Lives – Responses to HIV photodocumentary project which graphically laid bare many of the challenges facing the people of Muirhouse at the time: crime, poverty, drugs, disease. Nevertheless, what was also communicated was a strong sense of resistence and community camaraderie. A feeling that people could, and would, survive. In recent years, Document Scotland has featured the work of two other photographers who have both made work on the estate: Yoshi Kametani’s often wry and colourful portrait of the place and Paul Duke’s No Ruined Stone, an insider’s view, which laced reality with positivity.

This year, as the privations of lockdown gripped the nation, photographer Paul S. Smith embarked on his own project to document and interpret life in Muirhouse. Born in England, Paul’s family moved to Edinburgh when he was a boy, and he grew up in one of the more leafy areas of the city which abut Muirhouse. His memories tally with those of so many of the place, negative stereotypes reinforced by hearsay, rumour and suspicion. It is to his credit that, three decades on, he has chosen to revisit his childhood and confront these memories and prejudices.

We caught up with Paul and asked him a bit about his work and the approach he is taking to making it.

DocScot: Can you tell us a bit about the project?

Paul S Smith: The work Martello Court is a five-year project which began in early-March 2020 during my studies at the RCA, London. With the project I hope to give an objective eye to the people that live and work in Muirhouse, giving myself an opportunity to understand a place that dominated the imaginations of my childhood. As stated by Document Scotland’s Stephen McLaren in 2018: “Places in which we grow up rarely leave us, they exert a pull across the decades and often force us in later life to re-examine how we have become the person we are today“.

DS: The inspiration to do the work goes much further back, to your family’s time in Edinburgh…

PSS: In the summer 1987 my father gained the position as the headmaster of the prestigious public school – Edinburgh Academy. As a family we all moved to city from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire and lived within the school grounds. My sister and I (aged eight) were fortunate enough to attend the school for free. With a Dutch mother, English father and little understanding of Scotland, we had to adjust to life in Edinburgh. I subsequently spent my adolescence there, although not always fitting in with the etiquette of public school life. It was not until the early-1990s that I first heard of Muirhouse.


It was the first class of the day at the senior school I overheard a class mate of mine describing how his brother had just been attacked whilst visiting Murihouse; a housing scheme toward the periphery of north Edinburgh (a scheme that would later be the setting for the book and film Trainspotting). He was angry, talking about his disgust of the place and the people who lived there. What I remember most is his portrayal of the poor state of the housing, describing the residents as “animals”. Rather than being appalled by his story I became instead fascinated in what I had heard. As already having the feeling of an outsider at the school, I wondered where this place was and what the residents really looked like. Way before the invention of Google Maps and, despite being just over a mile from where I lived, I never visited the scheme – instead cycling along, what I saw as the safety of, Ferry Road and occasionally looking over to where the scheme was, hopefully passing residents who were leaving and taking a bus to the city centre.

DS: The urban landscape there is dominated by Martello Court. This then became the inspiration for the project…

PSS: Within Muirhouse is the tower block Martello Court which during the 1970s became known because as Terror Tower. Standing twenty-three stories high, the block can be seen from a distance. I remember using excuses to visit Edinburgh Castle, Carlton Hill and Arthur’s Seat just to see the tower block from that distance – never telling anybody of my intention. What I liked was that despite the towers marginal location it still had a narrative within the city’s consciousness.

DS: It’s quite a leap from you as a boy to working on a photography project in the area all these years later. How did it come about?

PSS: The project Martello Court began whilst I was studying on the Masters of Research (MRes) at the Royal College of Art, RCA (finishing October 2020). As a class we were asked to respond to a page from any book that had particular significance to us. Wondering what to do I opted for Trainspotting. I decided to select a page where the name ‘Muirhouse’ was first used; then marked all the other words out. This activity helped to highlight the housing scheme away from the framework of the text. I presented the work to my class the next week. Unbeknown to me this was to be the starting point for the project; as during my first tutorial – and lengthy conversations about Scotland, outsider identity and the various housing schemes of North Edinburgh – my tutor finished by saying: “Well, I guess you’re going back to Edinburgh then!”.

DS: How did you start the photography in Muirhouse?

PSS: My first point of contact was the concierge at Martello Court, Gabriella, who put me through to the head of Martello Court Residence Association – Etta McInnes. Etta is an 88-year-old third floor resident and she gave me access to the garden, offices and stairwell in the building. She is my future point of contact for the next few years. Etta has lived on the estate for 30 years and ‘runs the show’; in fact after spending time with her I did once refer to the block as Mar-Etta Court. I had the pleasure of meeting Etta’s son Ian, on my last visit in August, who about of mother: “You didn’t have to even watch the news, you just need to go and talk to my mother and she’ll tell you everything, you know what I mean. She is better than Sky News. Ironically, Ian went to school with both Irvine Welsh and Gordon Strachan, both former residents of the scheme.

DS: Did you have any doubts or anxieties about making the work?

PSS: I found the experience of the architecture of Martello Court at first daunting, but after meeting the various characters and nationalities that inhabit the space, I discovered a warm and welcoming environment – not at all as its reputation or nickname, Terror Tower, would suggest. For my photographic work I mapped out several areas that would best suit portraits around the tower block and, on the day of my shoot, I found the residents to be particularly involved with my project and understood my interest in the area and its present population. Despite of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic I found the residents still happy to be photographed and interviewed on their views of isolation and their hopes for the future.

DS: Thank you Paul for sharing this work with us. We look forward to finding out how the project develops over the coming years. Good luck!

Paul S Smith is a lecturer in photography at Buckinghamshire College Group with a focus on alternative landscapes and communities within the United Kingdom, Europe and America. More information about his work can be found on his website.

Etta McInnes, Martello Court. © Paul S Smith, 2020 all rights reserved.
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
Martello Court © Paul S Smith, 2020, all rights reserved
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