Joseph McKenzie’s Secret

JOSEPH McKenzie had a secret.

For the last 35 years of his life, the man known as “the father of modern Scottish photography” stopped exhibiting his pictures, withdrawing from public life. In the eyes of the world, he had retired, retreated to his home in Tayport, on Scotland’s east coast, with its long view over the firth to Dundee. His death on July 5th, 2015, at 86, prompted obituaries composed around a minor key of regret – here was a man of great ability whose work had been neglected, nearly forgotten by the public and the arts establishment.

 

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

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

 

Yet, all the time, all through those decades when his reputation faded like an old photo exposed to sunlight, McKenzie kept his secret: he was still taking pictures. He just wasn’t showing them.

He took photographs right up until a few days before he died. He developed his own work, as had always been his habit, writing title and date on the back in neat black pen, and adding the new pictures to the great stacks of prints that had come before. The result, as his son Frank puts it, is “one of the largest single artist photographic archives in the world”. In addition to tens of thousands of pictures, a great many unseen, there is an unpublished autobiography, a diary, poetry, and footage of McKenzie talking about his work; all the ingredients for the major retrospective exhibition, books and a documentary which the family hopes will follow.

“We’d like to get recognition for what he achieved,” says Frank. “We are also going to try to get an OBE posthumously for him. He deserves it.”

Frank is 57, the eldest of five children. We meet in the Victorian villa where Joseph McKenzie lived and worked and raised a family. Frank leads the way through the kitchen, opens a door, pulls back a curtain, and reveals the darkroom. Here is where all of McKenzie’s most celebrated work emerged from its chemical crucible, those moody, melancholy black-and-whites of 1960s street life: pie-sellers and gossip-mongers in cobbled Dundee; petrol-bombed homes in troubled Belfast; the Gorbals Children series, in which kids grimed in snot and jam play merrily in the Glasgow slums.

The darkroom has a low ceiling and white wood-panelled walls. McKenzie feels present through his tools. Two old Leicas rest in their case. A magnifier stands on top of an enlarger, and it is easy to imagine the photographer hunched over, squinting into the lens. A pair of white linen gloves sit on a cabinet, one placed neatly on top of the other. His hands, his eyes, his vision. This feels like a shrine, a place of relics and transubstantiation – flesh into film into art. Brown bottles of sodium metaborate stand, sacramental, on a shelf. Listen carefully and you can almost catch Tangerine Dream and Benjamin Britten and recordings of the John Peel show, the music McKenzie used to listen to here, drifting in from the past.

“Joe was a master printer,” the artist Calum Colvin had told me a few days earlier, emphasising how important, almost sacred the darkroom had been for his former teacher at Dundee’s Duncan Of Jordanstone College of Art. “He invested an emotional quality in the printing. They are visual poetry, really. I think he felt that there would be a revealing of his greatness after his death.”

Frank McKenzie nods when asked about this. Did his father wish for his work to be seen once he was gone? “He always wanted the recognition, but on the other side he was almost frightened of recognition. My personal analysis is he feared rejection. Because he’d had a lot of rejection in the early parts of his life. All the turmoil that he’d been through, I think he felt rejected. Parentally, he felt rejected. He always felt that he was a mistake and his mum didn’t really want him. There were some deep psychological fears of rejection.”

Joseph McKenzie was born in the east end of London in 1929. His father was a clockmaker left bankrupt following trouble with a business partner. The family knew real poverty and the sadness that came with it. Material possession were few. When, aged ten, McKenzie was evacuated to Dorset, he did not even own a bag and had to carry his pyjamas in a pillow-case sealed with tape.

“He felt his life had been a struggle from the day he was born,” says Frank, but it was struggle which gifted him an empathy for the difficult lives of others. “Because of my own deprived background I could identify with the children’s feelings; there was a rapport between us,” he wrote in the preface to his book Gorbals Children. An impoverished upbringing was not, he went on, insurmountable; then, thinking, perhaps, of his own childhood, “It is the hang-up of being unloved, unwanted, which is a real and permanent disadvantage!”

In 1947, McKenzie was conscripted into the RAF and spent three years as a corporal in the Photographic Corps. While stationed in Germany, he met his future wife, Shelly, who is Dutch and Catholic and inspired his conversion to that faith. In 1954, the year in which he joined the Royal Photographic Society, he began to teach at St Martin’s in London. Ten years later, he and his family moved to Scotland, where he headed up the new photography department at Duncan of Jordanstone. That year, 1964, also saw him embark upon his Gorbals Children study, inspired by the paintings of Joan Eardley; the show toured in 1965, marking the start of a run of work and exhibitions in which McKenzie was established as a soulful and sympathetic chronicler of the working class.

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In the early 1970s, there came a fork in the road. McKenzie had spent the last years of the previous decade travelling within Ireland, taking photographs – titled Hibernian Images – which contrasted the peaceful rural life in the Republic with the sectarian violence of the North. For a show of this work in Aberdeen, he submitted a catalogue statement which he claimed was then altered by the gallery to remove text which the curators seem to have felt appeared sympathetic to the idea of armed struggle against the British state.

“My father went berserk,” Frank recalls. “He said, ‘This is censorship. You have no right to do this.’ And that’s when things really busted up. He just withdrew. He said, ‘Well, if I can’t show my work in the way I want to show it, I’m not showing it.’”

This was when McKenzie stopped exhibiting new work in public. Between 1974 and 1980, he turned part of his home into a gallery which could be viewed by appointment, and in 1987 there was a retrospective in Glasgow, but after that – nothing. This feels, looking back, like an act of self-sabotage, even a sort of martyrdom. “Joe was a great one for thinking about sacrifice,” says Calum Colvin. “He felt that his integrity had been sacrificed by that incident to do with Hibernian Images. He felt that he was suffering, in a sense, for his artistic beliefs.”

Albert Watson, who went on to have a high-profile and successful career in the United States, was a student of McKenzie’s in the mid-1960s. He finds his old teacher’s decision frustrating. “He had a lot of self-doubt. But you can’t blame the world. You love photography? You pick up a camera and shoot.”

But can’t one counter that with the JD Salinger argument? We can choose to be frustrated that he wrote stories and then hid them away in a drawer, or we can be grateful that the few books that do exist are exquisite. “Yes,” says Watson, “in a way you are right. You can say, ‘Well, the Gorbals Children – he did that.’ And I do think those pictures are terrific. I feel very positive about Joe. But my observation is that he could have done more.”

Anna Robertson, head of fine and applied art at Dundee’s McManus Gallery, which owns a major collection of McKenzie’s photographs, believes he backed himself into a corner with his decision not to show new work publicly. “As a very honourable man who lived by a series of beliefs, it would have been difficult for him to come back from that,” she says. “To say he saw the world in black and white is a trite thing to say about a photographer, but he did. He had a highly developed sense of what was morally right and wrong, and what was right and wrong for him. There weren’t shades of grey in his own life, and he felt he had to take these stances.”

It’s an interesting thought: the stubborn, awkward, damaged, morally outraged side of his personality which drove him to take such brilliant photographs of poverty and turmoil may have been the very character traits which made him unable, or at least unwilling, to keep on taking and showing them. For, although he continued to work, his photographs were very different from what had come before.

“His work became more introvert,” says Frank. “He started looking more around the home. He took pictures of family. He took a lot of stuff around the local area. He liked taking walks along the Braes in Tayport, and down the harbour.

“So, yeah, he carried on photographing, but it was closer in. You can see that he went from being a man who challenged the world to a man who imploded – gradually, gradually, gradually until he condensed down to the immediate vicinity, and you can see what he ended up doing. Everything he did in the end was around here in the garden.”

These, then, were the last photographs of Joseph McKenzie – careful, tender, even obsessive studies of flowers and leaves and overgrown paths. Humans are absent, but his own humanity is not. They are in colour, they were taken on digital cameras, and they seem to contain within them an infinite sorrow.

Perhaps, though, it is wrong to see these pictures as sad. McKenzie loved his garden, according to his priest and friend Father Aldo Angelosanto, and he would have regarded photographing it as using the gift God gave him in the service of representing the mystery of God’s creation. “He felt his Catholicism deeply,” says the priest. “He put his soul into his photographs.”

Father Aldo conducted McKenzie’s funeral at Our Lady Star Of The Sea in Tayport, a service attended by family, students and friends. Among them was Graeme Murdoch, former chief executive of the proposed Scottish National Photography Centre.

“One of the hymns had the words, ‘You fear the light may be fading. You fear to lose your way,’” Murdoch recalls. “I think that was Joe; why he kept taking pictures right up to the end.”

A selection of Joseph McKenzie’s photographs from the Women Of Dundee series, on loan from the McManus, will be shown at Stills: Centre For Photography, Edinburgh, February 6-April 10th, 2016

©Peter Ross 2015, all rights reserved.

 

Read also:

‘Joseph McKenzie, An Appreciation’ by Alan Taylor. 

‘Oscar Marzaroli’s Castlemilk Lads’ by Peter Ross.

Peter Ross website, and his ‘Daunderlust, Dispatches from Unreported Scotland’ book.

Peter Ross on Twitter.

Thanks to Peter for graciously allowing us to reproduce this article, which had first appeared in the Journal Magazine of the Royal Photographic Society.  And thanks to Adam Elder for allowing us to use his portrait of Joseph McKenzie.

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Nick Hedges – A Life Worth Living

In 1968, Shelter employed Nick Hedges to document the oppressive and abject living conditions being experienced in poor quality housing in the UK. We commissioned the work in an effort to raise consciousness about the extent of unfit living conditions and to illustrate, in human terms, what the real cost of bad housing was.

A number of Nick Hedges’ images are on display on large billboards in St Andrews Square in Edinburgh this month, if anyone  recognises the people photographed or know what happened to them they are encouraged to contact Shelter – you can do by emailing mediascotland@shelter.org.uk

 

Couple-in-a-Leith-tenement-flat-Edinburgh-1972-433-18

Couple in a Leith tenement flat Edinburgh © Nick Hedges/Shelter 1972

Family living in an overcrowded tenement flat Glasgow © Nick Hedges/Shelter 1971

Family living in an overcrowded tenement flat Glasgow © Nick Hedges/Shelter 1971

Mother living with her children in an overcrowded single end tenement flat Glasgow © Nick Hedges/Shelter 1971

Mother living with her children in an overcrowded single end tenement flat Glasgow © Nick Hedges/Shelter 1971

The thing about people living in slum housing is that there is no drama…it’s about the absolute wearing down of people’s morale in a quiet and undemonstrative way.
Nick Hedges

View of Glasgow tenements © Nick Hedges/Shelter 1971  "It is apparent in the number of times disaster hits the city, every year some tragic event reinforced its reputation upon the rest of the country. A tenement fire, a gas mains explosion, a football crowd disaster, the shipyard crisis, the unemployment rate, another fire disaster; the list is endless". Nick Hedges

View of Glasgow tenements © Nick Hedges/Shelter 1971

 

Unemployed colliery worker Glasgow tenement © Nick Hedges/Shelter 1971 "They are the grimmest environment that I’ve encountered. This has something to do with the size of the stone used in their construction, the entry to them through the cave like entrances, the deep and dark stairwells and the relentless pattern of streets. The tenements are built around a courtyard which becomes a battlefield and refuse dump." -  Nick Hedges

Unemployed colliery worker Glasgow tenement © Nick Hedges/Shelter 1971


Teenage girls waiting in backyard of tenement block Maryhill © Nick Hedges/Shelter 1971

Teenage girls waiting in backyard of tenement block Maryhill © Nick Hedges/Shelter 1971

See a link here on the Shelter website for Nick Hedges’ honest and striking account of his time photographing in Scotland for Shelter.

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Hugh Hood’s 1974

Glasgow ©Hugh Hood 1974-2013, all rights reserved.

 

Hugh Hood, by Allan Brown.

For four decades now, the photography of Hugh Hood has hidden in plain sight. Quite literally. It lies in a
ring-bound folder in a corner of the Mitchell Library’s Glasgow Room, sharing shelf space with the dusty
gazateers and the typewritten reminiscences of old Shettleston.

A note has been Sellotaped to its cover, inviting browsers to learn more by consulting a member of staff. I
did this but it seemed there was nothing to learn. No-one knew from whence the folder had come. Index
cards and tetchy cardiganed librarians were quizzed, but to no avail. The folder, it seemed, was rogue, feral,
abandoned, orphaned. Which only served to echo its contents, for they depicted the Glasgow of the 1970s.
And who was Hugh Hood? It was easy, in his comprehensive absence, to imagine the sort of man he’d been.
Surely one of those doughty Glaswegian old boys, laid off from the shipyards perhaps; a self-improving
bunneted amateur, killing his time with a Box Brownie bought at the Barras? Turned out he wasn’t. Thanks
to Malcolm Dickson at Street Level, Hugh was tracked down. In fact, he was and is a thriving photographer
and documentary film maker, engaged mainly on commercial work, based out of London. In the early 1970s
he had studied photography at the Glasgow College of Printing. Between lectures, for practice, he ventured out
into the city. Or what there was of it.

What Hugh found was a Glasgow that had given up the ghost; a weary, frazzled interzone, half of which was
being flattened as the other half was in the throes of construction. This Glasgow was a city of ghosts and
rubble, its air a miasma of sandstone dust and occluded sunlight. Hugh’s work was local history reframed as
National Geographic anthropology. Who were these people, you wondered; had they really been so
bedraggled, so tired, so beaten?

It seems they were. The folder contained close to fifty monochrome prints, sheathed in their polythene
wallets. I flicked through, astonished that pictures so potent and so fascinating were so obscure. Every
totem and trope that made up Glasgow’s visual sense of self was present and correct: the tenements, the
cheeky wee boys, the Gorbals back courts, the cranes on the river, further cheeky wee boys. Yet the work
had to it no civic dimension, it contained nothing that was cherishably Glaswegian, nothing quaint or
beguiling: no long-hairs queuing outside the Apollo or infants frolicking in Kelvingrove Park. There were
no People’s Palace postcards here, no PR – just frank and unblinking assessments of a vanquished city,
nursing its shattered jawlines, awaiting the deliverance of some far-distant modern day.

Glasgow ©Hugh Hood 1974-2013, all rights reserved.

 

One shot in particular was instructive. A girl, six years old maybe, pushes a broom at the mouth of a
tenement close. The viewer is reminded of a Douglas Corrance or of a Joan Eardley painting, of an entire
school of Glasgow images in which tousled, grinning kids serve as counterpoints to the pervasive dereliction
and decay. In this kind of image Glasgow children are undaunted by the horrors around them for they are
symbolic of a better future. But not here. You looked closely at this picture and noticed that behind the girl
was a bricked-up window upon which was scrawled the most offensive of Anglo-Saxon epithets: in chalk, in a
round childish hand. In Hugh Hood’s Glasgow, nothing stayed clean for long. The damp was both physical
and moral, and on the rise constantly.

Or consider the Glasgow back court. Conventionally, these were depicted as grubby wonderlands, anklebiter
assault courses, shabby playgrounds, with kids swinging from washing lines and leaping from midden
to midden like Tarzans in short trousers. Again, not here. The back court Hugh stumbled across was like a
vision of hell, a bomb-site wasteland of shattered slate and scattered timber, of gutted prams and torn-up
sofas; the square root of squalor. None of the enclosing tenements have their windows intact, suggesting
they were on the verge of being pulled down. Two little girls sift through the carnage, appraising their finds.
In another shot, two boys appear with possibly dark intent through the haze of a bonfire. The sight is
sinister, indistinct, pregnant with malevolence; the ultrasound of a Glasgow yet to be born.
A close analogue to Hood was Oscar Marzaroli. Each man worked the same patch in the same period. As
photographers they were similar, yet strikingly distinct. Marzaroli’s pictures, for all their greatness, set out
always to oblige. They were commercial and persuasive. We can almost hear their creator charming his
scruffy subjects with his portrait-studio patter or picture him awaiting the arrival of a particularly photogenic
raincloud.

Glasgow, 1974-78. © Hugh Hood 1974-2013, all rights reserved.

 

Hugh’s vision of Glasgow was danker and blanker, he was a photographic stalker, keeping quiet, staying
out of things. Marzaroli went for the cheerful and the quirky; Hugh for the sad, the dislocated, the brokendown.
Which was handy, for the Glasgow of 1974 seemed to harbour little else. To paraphrase Keith
Waterhouse, it was a city that looked as though it were helping police with their enquiries. Relevant here
particularly is Hugh’s picture of Gerry’s Snack Bar, a terrifying semi-condemned caravan parked on a scab
of waste ground, offering resistible permutations of pies, beans and burgers, its macabre parody of the
service industry only intensified by a jaunty cartoon of a French chef. Pensioners stroll past the ailing Art
Deco underground station at Bridge Street in the rising, looming shadow of a scaffold-clad tower block. An
old boy sets up an antique gramophone outside the Krazy House clothing emporium at Glasgow Cross, in a
doomed pastiche of showmanship. At Bridgeton Cross an old Corporation bus seems to be fleeing the
scene. A fly-blown clown with an acoustic guitar leads children through the Barras, like the worst Pied Piper
on earth.

Altogether this is a lost world, shown without sentiment or nostalgia, rendered neutrally and
naturalistically. There is nothing cute or huggable or wry or self-mythologising. It all seems unutterably
strange, primitive, as eccentric as a top-hatted Victorian on a tram. And yet, occasionally, it remains the
Glasgow we know today. One shot shows late-night revellers at a fast-food van near the then-new concrete
furrow of the M8. A similar van stands on the very same spot today and remains a magnet for the small-hour
refugees of Sauchiehall Street. Like the mice in Bagpuss Hugh’s cast of Glaswegian dageurrotypes still
come to life, every weekend, when the pubs close. Whether by chance or design, by luck or skill, by accident
of history or by history of accident the photographs of Hugh Hood captured an eternal, brutal truth about
the city, that, no matter how tempered it becomes, its skull is forever threatening to break through its skin.
Which is why these spooky, candid and remarkable documents deserve an audience far in excess of those
who haunt the overlooked nooks of the Mitchell Library.

(Above text ©Allan Brown 2013, all rights reserved, used with permission).

 

‘Krazy House’, Glasgow. ©Hugh Hood 1974-2013, all rights reserved.

 

Glasgow ©Hugh Hood 1974-2013, all rights reserved.

 

Document Scotland also wrote to Hugh, who kindly replied letting us know a little background to his images and working methods, and graciously gave us permission to showcase his work. Here is what Hugh shared with us….

“The project was started in 1974 when I was twenty. I came across a magazine called Creative Camera which was a showcase for what was called documentary photography then, but is now known as street photography. The photographs were very different from the usual stuff seen in photography magazines of the time in the sense they were not about technical theory. Two photographers really got me to look at taking photos in a different way; Robert Frank and Tony Ray-Jones, whose photographs I came across in Creative Camera. They had long-term projects to document such as Frank’s vision of America on the road, and Tony Ray-Jones’ which covered the old English customs that were dying out and the English seaside.

I then started ‘Look at Glasgow’ as my project in 1974 and tried to photograph the people and the cityscape. It was a bit random in a sense, as I would wander around different areas of the city with my camera and hope to find good photographs – which was really a hit or miss situation. But on other occasions I would have to contact for example, the ship yards and the underground to get permission to photograph in their workshops and yards. Although I say Glasgow 1974, the images cover a period up to 1978 on and off. The main areas of Glasgow I would look to photograph were Woodside, Anderston, Gorbals and Govan.

I never once had any problems standing on a street corner or going into backcourts and take photographs of adults or children. I never asked their permission but would interact with them afterwards if they were interested in what I was doing. This was a time when very few people had cameras and were more innocent about photography than today. I don’t think I would dare photograph children today playing in the streets for fear of being arrested.

I did try to get institutions like publishers to make a book and contacted galleries to have an exhibition, but had no takers. Glasgow did not have any galleries that I was aware of which exhibited photography at this time. (There was one in Edinburgh, but I’ve forgotten its name). It was a bit odd as the Glasgow photographer Annan, who photographed what would be termed “street photography” in the 1880s, was being exhibited back then. After 1978 I kind of stopped the street photography. I subsequently found out that other photographers were doing similar work in 1970s in Glasgow, and it’s a shame we never meet up then to combine our interest.

Most of my photography was done at weekends and holidays as I had a full-time job as a photographer and a colour printer for various companies in Glasgow.

Camera-wise, I started with a Nikon F with 28mm lens and then bought an old Leica M2 with 35mm lens and 50mm lens, which was used for most of the street photography.

I had “lost” all my 35mm negatives after I moved to London in 1980 to start a film course at the Polytechnic of Central London. But in 2006 they were found again at my brother’s house in Glasgow and I then bought a scanner to start up loading to my website. The images now have a historical interest with people contacting me because they show someone they knew or a place they lived.” – Hugh Hood.

 

Glasgow, 1974-78. © Hugh Hood 1974-2013, all rights reserved.

 

Hugh Hood’s photography website is here, and there is a slideshow of 1974 Glasgow images set to music, which is tremendous to see, but also quite sad, to see the vanishing Glasgow neighbourhoods. All images and text by Hugh Hood are copyright of Hugh Hood 2013, all rights reserved. You can message photographer Hugh Hood on Twitter here.

Journalist and writer Allan Brown is on Twitter. Send him a note, tell him how great his writing is.

 

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