By returning to photography as both a craft and a career after an enforced period of absence due to illness, Margaret Mitchell reminds us that personal visions remain across decades. Continue reading
In the last six months I have been shooting a project which examines Scotland’s links with the slave-based sugar economy of Jamaica in the 18th and 19th Century. I visited Jamaica in early Spring and shot photographs of properties which were owned Scottish plantation-owners owned and which grew sugar-cane using the forced labour of African slaves. Many of these men, grew fabulously wealthy and built elaborate plantation houses, some of which remain, while others have become ruins.
Even though I studied some economic history at university the syllabus never got round to enlightening us as to how a significant part of Scotland’s economic growth in that period derived from the proceeds of wealth created by Scottish plantation owners in the West Indies. For instance it is estimated that about a third of Jamaican sugar was grown by Scottish planters who in turn held tens of thousands of black Africans in bondage while producing this crop. I find it odd and very sad that this period in Scottish history is little known about, though in recent years several historians, like Sir Tom Devine, Stephen Mullen and Sir Geoff Palmer, have been writing revelatory books which are beginning to fill-in the gaps in our knowledge.
As we all know sugar is a commodity with almost addictive powers and in the 18th century people were adding it to baking, jams, tea and drinks and the entire population of Britain craved the sweetness that became affordable to almost everyone thanks to slave labour. However the inhumane system by which sugar was produced was largely overlooked, or was even seen as a necessary evil by those who thought Africans were an expendable race. Many of the Scottish sugar barons in Jamaicans returned to their home country determined to become respectable gentlemen of society. Some even brought slaves back home with them to act as butlers.
To complete this project I decided to find the properties that were bought or originally owned by these “respectable gentlemen”. As in Jamaica, some properties were splendid country estates, others in more dilapidated condition. Several like Rozelle House in Ayrshire and Strathleven House in the Vale of Leven have been taken over by local authorities as the cost of upkeep became too large for subsequent generations.
Rozelle House, Ayrshire. For those with a sweet tooth you can get a sumptuous cream tea in a stunning garden which was owned by slaveowner, Douglas Hamilton. Although the estate is now owned by Ayrshire Council there is little to alert day-trippers to the origins of Rozelle’s history in sugar and slavery.
Inveresk Lodge in Musselburgh, was owed by James Wedderburn, who with his brother John owned several plantations in Jamaica. James Wedderburn had many illegitimate children with his black slaves in Jamaica though he did not bring them back to Inveresk Lodge, presumably so he would not be shunned by polite society.
Ballendean House in Perthshire was owned by Sir John Wedderburn who owned Glen Isla plantation in Jamaica. Many Scottish plantation owners named their Jamaican properties after locations in Scotland that they knew well. They also gave their surnames to many of their slaves and there are still many people named Wedderburn in Western Jamaica as a result. Ballendean House has lots of land and a lake and is currently owned by a Christian group who let local sports teams use the playing fields.
Strathleven House is one of the first Palladian designed house in Scotland. It was owned for a period by James Ewing, who owned plantations became Lord Provost of the city. Ewing was instrumental in developing Jamaica Street in Glasgow to mark the trade which benefited the city so well.
Blackness Castles was the seat of the Wedderburn family in the middle ages. As the Wedderburns got caught-up in the Jacobite rebellions the castle and land was taken from them by the Crown. On returning to Scotland from Jamaica, John Wedderburn campaigned and won to have the title that went with Blackness Castle to be restored to him.
Gartmore House near Aberfoyle, was the family seat of the Cunningham-Graham family. Robert Cunningham-Graham made a fortune in Jamaica with his plantation at Roaring Rover and returned to Scotland to become a large land-owner and an MP.
Finlaystone House (c) Stephen McLaren 2015
Finlaystone House was also owned by Robert Cunningham-Graham. It has amazing views over the Clyde and is privately owned by a different family these days.
The Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) (c) Stephen McLaren 2015
The Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Glasgow was originally a huge private house by William Cunningham who made his fortune in tobacco trade with America. It was then bought by the merchants of the city and turned into the Royal Exchange. Lord Provost, James Ewing was instrumental in this.
Saughie Estate (c) Stephen McLaren 2015
The Saughie Estate in Clackmannanshire was once owned by Sir James Stirling, who once owned several plantations in Jamaica. On returning to Scotland he became Lord Provost of Edinburgh.
The project which led me to take photos of these locations will be shown at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in September. The exhibition contains work from all four members of Document Scotland and is curated by Anne Lyden, the head of international photography at the SNPG. A radically different selection of images to the one shown here will be presented in the gallery. The exhibition opens to the public on the 25th of Sept and will run for six months. More details here…..https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/on-now-coming-soon/document-scotland
Document Scotland is thrilled to announce that Harry Benson CBE, one of the world’s leading photographers of the last sixty years, and a proud son of Clarkston, Glasgow, has agreed to be our honorary patron.
Harry who lives in New York and Florida, has shot so many iconic pictures from the 20th century that it would take us too long to list them, but a quick Google search will bring up legendary pictures of the Beatles, the American Civil Rights era, massive film stars and the assassination of Robert F Kennedy. Life magazine may no longer be with us, but its influence on the history of photojournalism is huge, and Harry was its most published photographer at the time it ceased publication.
Harry arrived in America in 1964 with the Beatles, but began his career by taking wedding photographs and later working for the Hamilton Advertiser in the 1950s before moving to London for the Daily Express. Since then, Harry has continued to shoot portraits, commissions and stories in Scotland much of which is showcased on his website. Most recently, he was back in Edinburgh to unveil his new portrait of the Queen which was taken for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery whilst his portraits of the last four Presiding Officers are on permanent display at the Scottish Parliament.
Stephen McLaren recently paid a visit to Harry and his wife Gigi, who makes all of his prints. They enjoyed a conversation about photography, football and Scotland. Despite being in his 80s, Harry shoots every other day and spoke of a recent assignment to photograph fashion icon Carolina Herrera.
When asked about his philosophy, Harry passed on a few thoughts which should stand any documentary photographer in good stead: “If you work hard you are inclined to get lucky in photography. Try to get out of the studio, in my opinion anything you can re-do is not good photography. Pictures should have an edge about them, a good picture cannot happen again. A moment that is frozen in time – it’s obvious to me this is what great photography is all about.
“‘Each a glimpse and gone forever,’ is my favourite line from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem From A Railway Carriage. It’s about a boy riding in a train, watching scene after scene go by. And to me that is what a photograph is, a glimpse caught and then gone forever.”
As someone who always seemed to be at the right place at the right time it is no surprise to learn that he is an incredibly self-motivated and driven photographer. “I do admire other photographers and their work, but I am more interested in looking at their pictures and asking myself if I could have shot it better.”
Document Scotland’s photographers hope that they can learn from Harry Benson’s dedication to his craft and emulate his longevity in the photography world.
Three cheers for the Commonwealth Games. The metal stick aka “the Queen’s Baton” which she kindly loaned-out for a series of global jogs has traversed the old pink section of the global atlas and has now entered Glaswegian orbit after a dash across Scotia’s hills, glens and shopping centres.
I remember the 1974 Games in Edinburgh vaguely but can’t remember it being such a big deal as today, so what has changed? Well “regeneration” is now deemed to be the prime reason for this sporting colossus. No more, a chance to find out who is the best lawn bowler in the firmament, this Commonwealth Games is being used as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to “regenerate” an old and chronically poor section of the Dear Green Place, the Eastend.
Olympic cities like Barcelona, Beijing, and London have all used global sporting spectacles to revamp/re-imagine/re-brand parts of the city that were deemed blighted and un-loved. Glasgow has done likewise and so on Wednesday the tv cameras will be sweeping along new boulevards and over shiny metallic sports complexes where once was a mixture of council estates and spare ground. The community of Dalmarnock has borne the brunt of this disruption or regeneration, depending on how you see it, and photographer, Chris Leslie has documented the upheaval and the bitterness that has resulted from this massive change in the fabric of this part of Glasgow. We caught up with Chris recently to find out why he was compelled to shoot this project.
Ardenlea St – March 2008. A section of the abandoned flats are set on fire by vandals and are then demolished by the council. Margaret Jaconelli is living next door at the time as the only tenant in the street.
Why did you decide to feature this side of the Games?
I was studying an MA in Documentary Photography at the time and I had to do a final project over 2 years to submit as part of my MA and at that time I was living in the in Bridgeton, next door to Dalmarnock so when the commonwealth games announcement was made it seemed the perfect project to document and it was a chance for me to finally get round to documenting my home city.
What did you know of Dalmarnock before? What surprised you of the area?
Despite living round the corner literally, I knew nothing of Dalmarnock, and to be honest no-one in Glasgow knew anything either. I spent the first few weeks wandering around photographing the empty landscapes – but there was in many ways nothing to photograph! The place was empty but there was a buzz in the air that something, everything was going to change – so I persevered and kept wandering and researching.
March 2011 – Margaret Jaconelli and her husband Jack barricade themselves in their home awaiting the sheriff’s officers to evict them. For three days their home is besieged by local press and TV
How were you received by community members?
The first person I actually met and spoke to was Margaret Jaconelli. I didn’t even notice her at first as I was photographing the empty and partially destroyed Ardenlea St. I heard a wee voice shout hello and when I looked again I see this wifie hanging out her window. I chatted with her on the street for over 2 hours and she told me her story and her pending fight against eviction. I went on to document Margaret’s story for over 3 years as she was finally forcibly evicted from her flat in March 2011.
As well as Margaret I also photographed and interviewed some of the Dalmarnock youth and spent some time in the community centre with the pensioners. The youth were happy with the chance of work, lots of apprenticeships were being offered – although no-one at any stage seemed to be offering them the chance to be managers or engineers – it was as if there was a certain level of expectation placed upon them and the area. The elderly population was just glad that after 30 years of decline that something was finally going to change, but they continually reminisced about the good old days when Dalmarnock was once a thriving community.
March 2011 – After a four hour siege and enforced eviction by around 100 police and sheriff officers, Margaret and her husband Jack are finally evicted from their home.
How is Dalmarnock’s future looking? Will you continue to photograph there after the Games?
After 30 years of post industrial decline, poverty, depopulation and general misery Dalmarnock is of course looking reborn with the athletes village and sports arena’s and so on. But you could have plonked a brand new shiny Tesco’s in the middle of Dalmarnock and that would have welcomed with open arms because the area was in such a state for years.
It would be good to go back and revisit some people post Commonwealth Games to see what has changed for them. A before and after set up of the built environment would be good also, but a real headache to work out as old Dalmarnock doesn’t exist anymore, even the roads have changed. For now there is a lot of speculation and complaints about the security fencing around the area, but that for me is not a big story because if you look around, most of Glasgow is in lock down it seems for the games and these fences and restrictions will be gone in a matter of weeks.
But for me what will be more interesting is looking longer term at the proposed legacy of the games, and to see if anything has actually benefitted the local population as surely that would be the whole point of transforming one of the poorest and neglected areas in the country?
April 2008 – Dalmarnock lad – Tony stands amongst the rubble of the demolished high rise flats in Dalmarnock. He offers me a piece of priceless ‘Dalmarnock Rock’ as a souvenir as the land in the area begins to be sold off and cleared to make way for the games.
The community of Dalmarnock prior to the development of the sites for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. Much of these areas have now completely disappeared over the past few years – 2008 to 2011
Margaret Jaconelli fought a long battle against eviction from her home in Ardenlea St, Dalmarnock. Here flat sat on the site for the Athletes Village for the Commonwealth Games is to be built in Glasgow.
August 2012 – The last remnants of ‘Old Dalmarnock’ are demolished
See more of Chris’s work at http://www.chrisleslie.com
Alan McCredie, an Edinburgh-based photographer, had the genesis of a great project-idea in October 2012. Realising that the Independence referendum was exactly 100 weeks in the future, he decided he would start “100 Weeks of Scotland”, a photographic endeavour to record events and scenes from all over Scotland in the lead up to the referendum. As Alan on the website (100weeksofscotland.com) says…
“It is intended to show all sides of the country over the next two years. Whatever the result of the vote Scotland will be a different country afterward. These images will show a snapshot of the country in the run up to the referendum. The photos will be of all aspects of Scottish culture – politics, art, social issues, sport and anything else that catches the eye.”
Many projects which sound like a “great idea” at the time often falter as real-life intrudes on the ability to shoot relentlessly on the same topic. However Alan has stuck with it, shooting across the whole of the country week-in, week-out, and now the end of the project is coming over the horizon.
Astutely he managed to get the Scotsman interested in showcasing his weekly photo digests and has thus given him a good platform to leverage the project and make it a decent proposition for a book and exhibition.
Alan covers many different subjects in the project, occasionally shooting around work for his main clients in the theatre, fashion and design industries. One week it may be wintery landscapes, the next it might be a series of portraits of a soap opera. In addition to a wide range of subjects, Alan also writes thoughtfully on his topics and brings a lot of contextual information which make you want to know more about what he has been shooting.
In addition this project, Alan is a member of the Independence-leaning arts group, National Collective. He enjoys working collaboratively with about six other photographers from the group and there is a current joint-project for coming up with a series of National Collective posters which might run in bus shelters or online campaigns. On his featured page on the website, Alan explains his vision for a post-referendum Scotland: “The essence of the Scotland I would like to live in – entirely inclusive, welcoming, and most of all outward looking in its beliefs and ideas. Only through a rich exchange of different viewpoints and attitudes can a country truly be said to be wealthy”
Certainly the Independence referendum seems to have galvanized many artists and writers in Scotland to contribute in some way to the “national conversation” that is supposed to be accompanying the referendum in its passage through Scottish civic society. The conversation may occasionally get a bit shouty but it is giving many people with a creative voice, including photographers, an opportunity to explore more personal stories close to home. Ironically as newspapers cut back on the number of photojournalists they employ so the number of photographers developing strong documentary projects, like 100 Weeks of Scotland, seems to be on the rise.
“Documentary photography in Scotland is very strong at the moment, there seem to be lots more people doing it, more of a sense of not working alone. Working with the National Collective has been great in that I enjoy working collaboratively and knocking ideas about. And sometime you just want to be able to ask a daft question about how a bit of your camera works! It’s good that the National Collective now have a dedicated space down in Leith called the Art Cave, and I’m looking forward to putting on a mini-exhibition of 100 Weeks of Scotland down there in the spring.”
Document Scotland enjoyed picking some favourite images from Alan’s project to accompany this blog but we also wanted to hear some anecdotes about specific images from the photographer.
“I had been photographing the many places that claim to be the ‘centre of Scotland’ and this was one of those places. I had done a lot of research beforehand and had consulted maps and other photos to work out exactly where to photograph. I had checked this location on Google Street View before setting off and it was a little uninspiring. I didn’t really hold out too much hope for a decent shot. As I got to the exact location according to my GPS, I genuinely could not quite believe it when I saw the road sign at the edge of the road. It points almost directly to one of the supposed centre points of Scotland (follow the arrow about two-thirds up the hill). There were roadworks nearby and I suppose the sign was placed there accidentally. I think it shows that it can sometimes just take a small stroke of luck to give a shot that little extra.”
“This image was a very quick portrait and one that I like a lot. I had been working for the Carnegie UK Trust and was photographing one of their events. As soon as I saw the priest I really wanted to get a shot of him. I kept circling, but didn’t want to intrude as he was deep in conversation. Moments before he left I finally got my chance and I asked if I could take his portrait. I don’t think he was too sure about it and I took one shot, before he turned to go. I don’t think I could have got a better one if I had shot fifty more and I don’t think I would have asked him to stand the way he did if I had had more time. It is his positioning, and body shape that makes the image work for me.”
“I was lost in an industrial estate of endless roundabouts in Stirling when I spotted this barber van. I drove up to it and took a few shots and then drove on. I stopped for petrol a few minutes later and quickly checked the images. They were OK but it was fairly obvious it really needed somebody in the shot to make it work. I headed back and realised that, actually, I really did need a haircut. 15 minutes later, freshly shorn, I took a few images of the owner of the van and drove on. £6.50 for a pretty good haircut, and a nice image was well worth it.”
“This is one of my favourite images. I was doing some images of a high school prom as a favour for a friend and had been snapping away as the kids arrived. The moment I saw this couple enter I knew I had to get a shot of them. At first it was difficult to get them not to smile so I photographed away knowing I would get my chance eventually. After not too long they were very quickly getting bored and this was the last, and best, and best frame that I shot. Essentially I bored them into getting the image I wanted.”
See more of Alan’s Scottish photo-odyssey at www.100weeksofscotland.com.
Sandy Carson is a Scottish photographer now living in Austin, Texas. He is an established photojournalist in America and has rarely been back to Scotland. Recently however, he returned to catch-up with his family in Newmains, Lanarkshire and started a series of photographs about his folks called, Steadfast Love, a series of intimate portraits including archive material that his mum has collected over the years. Document Scotland caught-up with Sandy in San Francisco where he was working on his excellent project, “Black Friday”, which you can see on his website…..www.sandycarson.com
DS What was it like going back to your family home to take pictures with a degree of intent?
SC 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. I do have specific photographs I intend to make each time I go back since the project has some structure now but it’s really casual and mostly candid. It’s interesting making observational pictures of your parents and their routines when you don’t see them from one year to another but despite how bland and ritualistic it can be, I find it always entertaining.
DS What were you looking for?
SC To make a respectful and light hearted self-portrait of my parents in their retirement and to document the village that I grew up since I emigrated at such a young age. My parents are getting old and after being in the States for two decades, I feel like my photography can help me understand them more from the chunk of time I’ve been absent in the family. My family are quite content and support anything I’m doing really, just as long as I’m afloat and eating ok. They are not connected to the internet world and rarely see my photos unless a family member reports to them what I’ve been up to on the internet. I send prints occasionally, a few of them they don’t like so much and think I’m daft when I am making photos of them. My mother has 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 enjoy revisiting the nostalgia each time I go home.
DS What was your camera set-up when taking the pics close to home? Why did you make that choice?
SC I made the photographs using 35mm, medium and large format. I find that the bigger the format, the more quality time I can spend with my family or subjects 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. It’s also nice to take a break from using digital cameras when I got back, as I use them to death for my commercial and editorial work, here in the states.
DS Tell us something about your family as individuals and as a family unit?
SC They are just your average Scottish working class retirees and comedians battling on and keeping each other going. They vacation in Spain like a lot of Scotland holidays makers and support Glasgow Rangers, despite their epic fail in the premiere league. In-house bar opens at 9pm every night, (sometimes earlier).
DS When was the last time you were in Scotland? What changes have you noticed? What were the biggest challenges taking pictures, both on the road, and nearer to home?
SC I came back last summer for a visit with my girlfriend. It hasn’t changed around where I grew up, except for graffiti being painted over, or the local neds changing their gang names. It’s always been a challenge and kind of scary making photos sometimes in schemes. I’ve definitely been swung-at, chased and asked why I am taking photos, even by children. The last thing I want is to get stabbed again! Why else would I take photos in schemes if I’m not from the Social Security? On the road and out of the scheme, you just become another tourists taking photos pretty much.
DS What are your plans for further photography in Scotland?
SC I plan on continuing this project and see what corner it takes me, or until I think it’s done. I’m planning on riding my bike with some friends from John O’Groats to Land’s End this summer, which should make for a good adventure and good photo ops. Maybe we’ll stop through my parents house for a cuppa?
Ian Paterson and John Maher are two photographers who found themselves covering the same subject matter in the Hebrides and decided it would be best to join forces and present their work as a joint exhibition and potential book. Document Scotland, a great believer in photographers finding common cause and pooling resources, wanted to find out more about their inspiring and very different take on the social history of the Western Isles.
Paterson and Maher’s exhibition, “‘A’ Fàgail na Dachaigh: Leaving Home’”, has just opened at An Lanntair,in Stornoway. This choice of venue is supremely apt as the photography concentrates on the interiors of abandoned croft houses strewn across the Western Hebrides. Rusty cars, dissolving into peaty landscapes are well known in this part of the world, but less well known are the scores of stony croft houses which fell into disrepair when owners vacated them in the post-war movement of Islanders to towns and cities elsewhere in Scotland, but also abroad.
John Maher, an Englishman, who used to be in the band The Buzzcocks, moved to Harris several years ago and became a photographer. Paterson is from Fife and has been making regular visits to the Hebrides to try and capture the sense of sadness and loss that pervades these ruins. Document Scotland caught up with Ian recently and got him to explain his fascination with the abandoned croft homes of the Western Isles.
It’s difficult to remember my first visit since it was many years ago, in the 1980’s, and I very much regarded these homes as a normal part of the Hebridean landscape. I’ve always been aware of them but only relatively recently decided to take photographs. It is always an incredibly emotive experience going into a house for the very first time. I usually spend a good 20-30 minutes just taking things in before the camera comes out. It is impossible to be in these sorts of locations without stopping and thinking about the family that used to live there. I’ve described the experience before as ‘Marie-Celestial’, if you’ll allow me to invent a phrase.
The houses we have photographed have been empty anytime from the 1960’s to within the last decade. Houses that have been empty for longer than this tend to have very little left in the way of evidence of habitation.The reasons for leaving vary but are often economic in nature. The general depopulation of the islands throughout the last century (mainly on account of a lack of economic opportunity in comparison with the mainland) has to be the principal cause. There is also the more local situation whereby a family would find it cheaper and easier to create a ‘new build’ house on a more suitable part of the croft rather than renovate the existing property. Many of the original houses were built before the road system, near the water’s edge, with boat being the main method of transportation. There is no intended political message about land management and/or ownership. We are purely interested in documenting these wonderful spaces for what they represent to the people of the islands. It is not an area we are ignorant of though, being acutely aware of the various community buyout programs that have taken place and are presently under negotiation. Our sole purpose is to preserve a visual record, with accompanying memoirs, of a small proportion of the houses that now lie empty up and down the Western Isles.
We’ve actually had fantastic support from both locals, and previous tenants, on seeing the photographs online. To be honest we were expecting some negative feedback too, with the subject matter being of such a sensitive nature. After all, not everyone will have only happy memories and there are some who may not want to be reminded of harder times at all. Several previous occupants of houses (some whose families still own the crofts) have been in touch having seen them on Facebook or our exhibition website. We cannot thank these individuals enough for taking the time to get in touch and we’re hoping to meet some of them at the opening this weekend. We’ve also received very emotional messages from people who left the islands for the New World 30-40 years ago and for whom the images represent a trip down memory lane. I’m sure there will also be people who do not like the idea of what the project embodies, and this is completely understandable too. We have tried incredibly hard to talk with family members and locals at every step of the process, and to be honest without their support we probably would not have been able to put together the exhibition at An Lanntair.
We don’t open cupboards or move furniture around so we only see what lies in front of us but the two most common items that we come across seem to be old shoes and dead sheep! In fact my young son Cameron asked me why they didn’t just make the houses out of the stuff the old shoes are made from since then they would last forever. Old black and white photographs were present in several of the houses with many depicting naval scenes, many of the menfolk from these crofting families after WWII would have gone off to the Merchant Navy. A house I photographed a few years ago on South Uist had a copy of a Burlingtons fashion catalogue dated 1962 lying on the bed in a wee back room. The pages were bone dry and the colours in the magazine were as if they’d been printed yesterday. Other items we’ve come across include an old cine film projector, TV sets, outboard motors, Gaelic bibles and old telephones.
There was one situation last year when I’d been in a house for about an hour photographing a room, trying to get different compositions and playing around with perspective. Out of nowhere there was the sound of someone crashing down the stairs in the centre of the house. I panicked and shouted out my name and purpose by way of an introduction – to be completely ignored by the Scottish Blackface ewe that tore passed me!
‘Leaving Home’ will run from Saturday 9th November until 31st of December at An Lanntair, Stornoway.
Please check-out Stephen McLaren’s audio slideshow of his project, Moral Hazard, which features in today’s Guardian.
Moral Hazard documents the fallout from the financial crisis as felt at its epicentre in the City of London.
Paul Duke, a Scottish photographer who now lives in London, has completed a series of black and white portraits of the men and women who work in the fishing industry on the North East coast. Each subject was shot uniformly, standing against a dark backdrop in a portable studio which Paul set-up in shipyards, factories and fish processing sheds. The resulting project is called, “At Sea”.
Paul’s portraits let you know immediately that these are people involved in arduous work. You get the sense that although they are still for the portrait, that their minds are still on the job, wondering when their colleagues will call them back to the task at hand. Although the sea, the source of these livelihoods, is never seen, its smell and wetness lingers in each picture.
No sense of nostalgic hero-worship for people living arduous lives stifles the project. Paul’s generous approach to his subjects and his simple straight-on compositions remind us of that very real people still rely on the sea’s bounty for work and a wage whether they be mums or dads, school-leavers or seasoned professionals. Document Scotland was excited to hear that Paul has an up-coming book and a couple of exhibitions are about to take place also, so we wanted to find out some more about the origins of At Sea.
When did you realise you wanted to do this project?
My wife’s grandfather was born in Macduff. As a child she went back for summer holidays with her family along the Moray Firth. Like myself, she is a Scot – we met at the Royal College of Art – like many young people who go to London to study – we got stuck, had a family, and have lived here ever since. I’m sure it’s an age thing, but we started to get very homesick a number of years ago – we decided then to buy a seaside cottage along this coastline, we had an overwhelming need to have one foot back in Scotland.
Over the years I started to make friends with people from the local community. Many, if not all, had connections or family who worked in the fishing industry in one-way or another. I was well aware through media coverage that the fishing industry was experiencing a decline – it was the first hand stories that made me realize that it would be timely to document this community during this critical period – I didn’t want to present a nostalgic viewpoint of the industry, my intention was always to offer a pertinent comment on the present – a slice of time, if you like.
What made you go for the lit portraits with backdrop approach?
Strangely enough most of my previous project-work has been made using available light. The decision to use location lighting for this project was easy actually – one I was most comfortable with during the early stages of making the work. I knew the project would be done over a long period of time and at different times of the year. I had to achieve continuity in the set and I knew this approach would ensure this – I also had to make sure that every shoot was productive, and I couldn’t rely on the weather. It was also important for me to gain parity amongst the sitters – applying a constant, in this case, quality of lighting, was both a technical and aesthetic device employed to achieve this. The plain backdrop reinforced the idea of commonality – many of the locations I used were busy places with lots of activity and clutter – it was necessary therefore to remove these distractions, to democratize the portrait and encourage the viewer to focus on the sitter, the gaze. Again as another measure to support this I shot in black and white – I needed to strip it down to its core – I wanted to simplify the language.
How did you find your subjects?
One of the first things I had to find and organize before I started shooting was good locations. This was a slow process and it took time to get the trust and permission to set-up my portable studio in these busy working environments. There were certain key people who made this possible, and with their help, I started to find good spaces. I quickly found a routine, I would set-up early in the morning, get everything ready, then go out and chat to people. I would let them know where I was based for the day, and they would come and find me. It’s fair to say, there was a lot of hanging around, I had to be patient and some days were better than others.
Were you seeking-out specific kinds of faces?
During the making of the work I was happy to engage with everybody and couldn’t be too choosy about whom I wanted or didn’t want to shoot. Although people were warm and accommodating, it was a challenge finding subjects comfortable enough to have their picture taken. It was a very alien task for many to down tools, so to speak, to stand in front of a camera in the workplace, in front of their friends and workmates and it was hard to keep the sitters attention. I worked very quickly and always on my own – 6×7 medium format camera, one roll of film per sitter – 10 shots. Each portrait was done in a 5-minute time span – there was no choice really, it was the only way to get the portrait in frenetic surroundings.
After I stopped shooting, and during editing for the exhibitions and book, I made decisions regarding the type of faces and people I wanted to use. During the process of shooting I wanted to concentrate on getting the portraits – it took time, focus and energy just doing this, so I understood quite early on in the project that I wouldn’t over analyse the work in progress – I was aware of what I was producing, but I wanted the development of the work to be as organic and as honest as I possibly could. It wasn’t until the final stages of editing that I had clarity. There are always many factors that influence choice in editing, but with this work, I approached the task in anthropological terms also – it is the people who make the industry after all – through careful selection I wanted to provide representation that would create the narrative.
What did your subjects think of the experience?
I make a point of always giving the subjects a print of their portrait – it only seems fair to me. The reaction was positive and supportive. I think the community in general understood that my motives were genuine. I worked on this project over a three-year period and shot in excess of one hundred portraits – I spoke to many people and heard various accounts and stories about the decline of an industry – it was a humbling experience and a privilege to have the community embrace the project – it was their collaboration that saw the project through.
Tell us about the exhibition and the book
The book was never my main intention to start with. I always thought that the exhibition would be the final outcome and the most appropriate thing for the work. The exhibition format is exciting, it’s always satisfying to present the work to an audience but, nevertheless, it is a transitory experience. The culture of the ‘photography book’ as an artifact has grown in recent years, and I realized through discussion with my contemporaries that a publication was valid and, would offer the project longevity. Peter Willberg, an old friend from the RCA, designed the book. Peter is a celebrated book designer and, at the top of his game – he has produced many fine books for major artists, galleries and museums – I was very fortunate that he agreed to take the project on.
John Bellany, who sadly died last month, kindly wrote a very poignant and heartfelt piece earlier this year, as an afterword for the portraits – I feel very honoured and proud that his words are included in the book – John more that any other Scottish artist understood the significance of the fishing industry and its people.
On 1 November, the project will go on show at Duff House, Banff – 10 life-sized prints from the series. This majestic country gallery is central to the community and it will give me great pleasure to hang the work in this noble space – on a personal level it offers the opportunity to give something back to the community – an offer of gratitude to the people who helped me realize my initial goals.
More images from Paul’s project can be seen at his website….http://paul-duke.co.uk/at_sea.html
His exhibition open at Duff House – Banff, 01 November 2013 – 17 January 2014
Late Summer in California is the perfect time to watch the Scottish-American diaspora at play. Highland Games, like the one in Dixon, a small farming town near the State capital, Sacramento, tend to come at the end of a sultry season and so the sportsmen and women, like the shinty players, and the heavy games specialists can do their lung-busting feats in relatively mild conditions. The North Californian Camanachd club led by Michael Bentely have been playing Shinty at Highland Games in California since the mid 1980s. Men and women are welcome to join and you don’t have to be of Scottish descent to play although everyone who joins seems to sign-up for induction into the world of tartanalia, clan heritage and whisky appreciation.
Professor Carlos F Borges may have a hispanic name but his devotion to the Scottish Heavy Games tradition of caber tossing, hammer throwing etc is legendary in these parts. All throughout the Dixon games, Prof. Borges gives a running commentary on who is throwing and tossing further than the competition. He wanders the field with his radio-microphone, cowboy hat and ZZ-Top beard in constant motion. Prof. Borges also teaches heavy-duty applied mathematics to students and is partial to a big stogie.
Elizabeth and Andrew Davis have Scottish great grandparents or maybe even great-great grandparents. They love Scottsh dancing and all day long during the Dixon Games hordes of young Calfornian kids like them are sword-dancing and leaping gracefully in front of stern judges. Scottish dancing seems to be one of the most vital traditions at California Highland Games and the one that seems to communicate the Scottish cultural virus most effectively across the generations. Elizabeth wins several trophies at the Dixon games.
Bill Scott is a retired shepherd. With his collie Rex they are the best man and dog team at the Dixon Games. A recent stroke has reduced Bill’s capacity to remember the Scottish place names that he was brought-up learning from his parents but his ability to manouver Rex and a flock of sheep around a dusty Californian corral remains un-diminished.
Alan Hebert is also a stalwart of the heavy Games in California. He is devoted to all things Scottish and dreams of tossing the caber at the Highland Games in Argyll which is the ancestral home of his clan. Next year he hopes his dream will come true. In the meantime he remains an IT guru in Silicon Valley and also makes kilts in his spare time. Burns Suppers in Silicon Valley are legendary according to Allan and I have booked myself in for that experience next January.
The passion for Scottish sports and culture at events like the Dixon Highland Games seems undiminished and shinty, heavy games, dancing, shepharding and traditional music seem as popular as ever among this group of Americans with links -however tenuous – to the old country. It would make a great tv series, this mix of friendly but ultra-competitive Scottish-Americans on the Californian Highland Games circuit. At the end of the day though, it is the Stars and Stripes that gets the ceremonial treatment and everyone goes back to life on the Pacific West Coast.
Starting a new series is always a tentative process: The fulfilment of an idea that may have been gathering momentum in a closet somewhere in a corner of your mind. Will a story translate from idea form to visual reality? Will I waste my time working on something that may lead to nothing?
The night before I made this image my mind was still going through familiar questions. I had spent a few days on the political youth project and so I was planning to visit the Conservative conference in Troon to push forward with the project. However I was unsure if a party political conference would provide the kind of interesting images that I was looking for. Would there be enough young people in attendance to justify making the trip? Would the building provide the right character and back-drop to my images? I’m sure all photographers are familiar with this self-questioning and critical approach to their own ideas. The truth is it all probably stems from the same thing- fear of failure. And there is only one to deal with this and that is to keep pushing forward.
So I made the trip to Troon, regardless of my reservations, fears and doubts, and I pushed forward with the project. To my surprise I arrived in Troon to find that the conference was not being held in a sparkling, modern conference centre but in a town hall with original decor dating back a few decades. As I wandered through the crowded corridors and past the various stalls it quickly became apparent that there were plenty of interesting young Conservatives to photograph. I settled on these aged yellow curtains in, what looked like an old school gym hall, as my background. The light was good and I decided the curtains would provide a nice contrast with the fresh, suited-and-booted individuals I had seen at the conference. I balanced my reflectors on some chairs and began approaching subjects.
Robert’s photograph, and others from his series, Political Youth, can be seen at Fotospace Gallery, Rothes Halls, Glenrothes, as part of the ‘Seeing Ourselves’ exhibition, which is curated by Document Scotland. The exhibition finishes today, July 31st 2013.
Document Scotland’s latest newspaper, which accompanies the exhibition, can be bought via our publications page.
As the old maxim in publishing goes, celebrity sells.
So I was delighted to encounter Rod Stewart on a scrubby patch of land, a few short yards inside Scotland. Not the real McCoy, of course, but an invocation to attend a musical tribute to the great Jockney singer at some nearby watering hole. An evening with Rod Stewart in Gretna? Perfect for the purposes of my project. Had it have been Elvis, Lady Gaga or, heaven forfend, Michael Bublé, then this particular picture simply wouldn’t have worked. It had to be someone whose personal identity is intwined between Scots and Cockney, fitfully patriotic, yet permanently absent. Step forward, Rod Stewart.
‘A Fine Line’ is, for me, not just about the physical border between Scotland and England, but an investigation of the criss-cross identity of people and places along the frontier. My exploration of the border is just that: a journey without an agenda, a series of chance encounters and found moments which build a mosaic of something bigger, more tangible.
There are many threads which run through the work, one of the primary strands being humour. Subtle, dark, subconscious, playful or blatant, I am constantly looking for instances which juxtapose the serious with humorous. To laugh with, more than at, but to recognise the absurdity in much of what we see.
After taking the Rod Stewart photograph, I started to think of the cover of his new album, which pictures him, guitar-slung-over-back, sauntering away from the camera, carefully avoiding the waves lapping at his feet on some anonymous sandy beach. You might believe that the shot is taken at Malibu, St Tropez, Mozambique or some other glamourous location. But I reckon it might just be staged somewhere on the Solway, possibly a few miles from Gretna. And that leads me to believe that maybe the real Rod Stewart did appear to me in that forgotten field, sandwiched between the thundering M74, the Outlet Village and the border. In fact, I can almost hear him now: “If ya want my body and ya think I’m sexy….”
Colin’s photograph, and others from his series, “A Fine Line”, can be seen at Fotospace Gallery, Rothes Halls, Glenrothes, as part of the “Seeing Ourselves” exhibition, which is curated by Document Scotland. The exhibition continues until August 1st 2013.
Document Scotland’s latest newspaper, which accompanies the exhibition can be bought online. You know you want to. http://www.documentscotland.com/seeing-ourselves-newspaper/