Lewis Legacy

The family of John MacKay with his wife Anne (born Morrison), 20 South Shawbost, circa 1900-1905.
Photograph © Proiseact Tormod an t-Seoladair, 2013, all rights reserved.

An afternoon of talks and photographs will take place today at the Old School Community Centre at Shawbost on the island of Lewis to celebrate the life of Dr Norman Morrison (Tormod an t-Seoladair), whose pre-World War I photographs of life in the area are being presented in public for the first time.

Dr Morrison (1869-1949) had a long an interesting life; he completed a short spell of education in a so-called blackhouse school, but despite this rose to prominence as the co-founder of the Scottish Police Federation, a pioneer in herpetology in Scotland, an author on books on history and folklore as well as gaining a reputation as a fine glass-plate photographer.

Dr Norman Morrison in police uniform, circa 1905 holding an adder.
Photograph © Proiseact Tormod an t-Seoladair, 2013, all rights reserved.

Now, a one-day symposium (open to the public tickets on the door) celebrating the many facets of Dr Norman Morrison’s work accompanied, for the first time ever by a public display in Shawbost of the striking photographs that have inspired this initiative. A variety of invited expert speakers will give talks on the many achievements of Tormod an t-Seoladair.

Comann Eachdraidh an Taobh Siar were gifted the intellectual copyright over copies of these negatives by the descendants of Dr Norman Morrison, and intends to appreciate and explore Dr Morrison’s legacy through reproduction of the images and collaborative projects in the community. Roddy Morrison, Chairman of the Westside Historical Society said, “This discovery lifts a curtain, allowing us to look at an unseen chapter of our past.”

Kate Macleod of 21 North Shawbost and her father’s sister in bed, Shawbost, Lewis, circa 1900-13.
Photograph © Proiseact Tormod an t-Seoladair, 2013, all rights reserved.

The negatives are historically invaluable, unique in content and previously unknown; they skilfully show groups of villagers and individuals posed in the local landscape. The photographs have merited national and local interest from the Scottish National Galleries and CNES’s Tasglann project, in addition to being a source of fascination for the local community.

These images are significant and unique in portraying community life in the early 20th century. Photographer Murdo Macleod, who was born and brought up in Shawbost and has been invaluable in bringing this project forward, commented, “The photographs, whilst fascinating in themselves, are also a missing piece in the photographic heritage of the Hebrides – predating Paul Strand’s Hebridean work by up to fifty years and standing in stark contrast to the output of George Washington Wilson.”

Dr Norman Morrison in police uniform, undated.
Photograph © Proiseact Tormod an t-Seoladair, 2013, all rights reserved.

A lasting legacy from Dr Norman Morrison will remain in the community for future generations through photographic archives and the production of a DVD recording, documenting community inter-generational walks, observing and listening to the history of the area in partnership with Iomairt Ghaidhlig Iar Thuath Leodhais.

Dr Morrison will also be the subject of an hour long documentary to be produced by Corcadal Productions for BBC Alba.

Catherine Maclennan (1827-1912) of 44 North Shawbost, Lewis, circa 1905-12.
Photograph © Proiseact Tormod an t-Seoladair, 2013, all rights reserved.

Further information can be found at the Proiseact Tormod an t-Seoladair website or on their Facebook page.

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Paul Strand’s Hebrides: subtle, sensitive with a dash of Marxist steel

Paul Strand‘s book of Hebridean photographs, ‘Tir a’Mhurian‘, was published fifty years ago this month. In The Guardian’s Scottish Blog Fraser MacDonald, of Edinburgh university, reviews it’s relevance and the background to Strand’s project. By kind permission of Fraser MacDonald, and The Guardian we republish his article here.

Paul Strand and Basil Davidson’s ‘Tir a’Mhurain’, MacGibbon & Kee Limited, 1962.

 

Paul Strand’s Hebrides: subtle, sensitive with a dash of Marxist steel

There are more than a few odd things about Paul Strand’s book of Hebridean photographs Tir a’Mhurain which was first published 50 years ago this month.

Consider, for instance, this remarkable coincidence: a notable Marxist photographer, an exile from McCathyite America with the FBI on his trail, arrived in South Uist within weeks of a secret survey of the island as a possible testing range for America’s new nuclear missile.

What about Strand’s blind insistence, at the height of the cold war, that his book only be printed in Leipzig, East Germany? He cited technical rather than political reasons, favouring a special print process that was only available on the other side of the iron curtain.

Another oddity: when looking for an author to write the accompanying text to Tir a’Mhurain (Gaelic for Land of the Bendy Grass), he rejected many eminent Scottish writers (Hamish Henderson, Neil M. Gunn and Sir Compton Mackenzie) in favour of an English journalist. Basil Davidson (who died in 2010) ended up writing a pitch perfect commentary but until this commission he had never even been to the Hebrides.

Tir a’Mhurain is as strange a book as all of this might suggest.

Strange too is that this is a work of high Modernism with an affinity for folk culture. It embodies a steely Marxist aesthetic but remains subtle and sensitive to the individual islander. And though now neglected, it is surely one of the most important moments in the portraiture of Scotland.

Strand certainly thought so. Not given to self doubt, he ranked himself third in the pantheon of world photographers, after Scotland’s David Octavius Hill and the Frenchman Eugène Atget.

This sort of egotism is not particularly attractive but nor is it entirely wide of the mark; within the history of Scotland’s photography, only Hill has a prior claim to significance.

Yet even now Paul Strand does not get the recognition he deserves, at least not on this side of the Atlantic. Imagine if Strand’s colleague Ansel Adams had shot a Scottish Highland portfolio? The emporiums of Scottishness on the Royal Mile would be brimming over with the supersized prints and calendars.

Strand’s work is rather less accessible. It was always expensive for one thing – ostensibly because of his belief in the integrity of the photographic print as an original artwork. He berated Adams for allowing his work to be reproduced in poster form though it was precisely this strategy that sealed Adams’ reputation as America’s pre-eminent landscape photographer.

Strand’s landscapes make no bid for Adams’ sublime grandeur. They have a depth that is less yielding to a casual glance; he makes us work to think about the relations between and within images – the ties of labour that bind Hebrideans to the landscapes of their making.

Tir a’Mhurain was in many ways a political project in the guise of an ethnographic one. He pictured locally celebrated tradition bearers – the bards and storytellers – and he did so straight; no tricks.

As Davidson observed, “We are looking at subjects not objects; but these same subjects are also looking back at us, again at us as subjects, with the same intense equality of interest.”

Outraged by what he saw as an aggressive Nato militarism, Strand originally conceived of Tir a’Mhurain as, in part, a protest against the development of the rocket range in South Uist.

But by the time the book was finished, the rocket range was already a done deal and the Corporal missile – the world’s first nuclear missile – was soaring high over the Atlantic towards St Kilda.

With bleak timing, the book was published just weeks before the Cuban missile crisis when the world came closest to the scenario of “mutually assured destruction”. It was in these dark days of the cold war that Strand held out his vision of Hebridean community as an inspiration. But his own native land was having none of it.

The United States banned the book unless imported copies bore an obvious stamp ‘Printed in Germany, USSR occupied’ – a stipulation to which they knew Strand would never consent.

As a committed communist, Strand was often at odds with the political climate. That history didn’t exactly go Strand’s way is evident by the fact that, long after the end of the cold war, the South Uist rocket range is still open for business – though as a privatized industry now run by defence corporations.

But still the photos remain – evocative portraits of Scottish lives and landscapes under the shadow of the bomb.

– Fraser MacDonald.

Follow Fraser MacDonald on Twitter, and on his blog Modern Lives, Modern Landscape.

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Welcome to Document Scotland

Welcome to Document Scotland.

We’re three photographers, with more than 50 years experience of photographing projects, assignments and commissions in Scotland and worldwide. We’re passionate about photography, photographers, Scotland, and documenting the times and places we live in.

We aim to encourage and promote documentary photography in Scotland and by Scottish photographers by creating a forum for ideas, discussion and sharing outstanding work. Our aspiration is for contemporary Scottish documentary photography to be exhibited, published and enjoyed throughout the world. We believe that we are living in an exceptional period of Scottish history and that photography has a vital role in documenting the changes which are taking place in Scotland.

Whether you would like to discuss or comment upon the photographs you see on these pages, or would like to license images you find here for reproduction or for exhibiting, or even if you are looking to commission photography for a project you have in mind, then we would love to hear from you.

Scottish flag flutters near Crosbost, Lewis, Scotland in February 2001. ©Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 2001, All rights reserved.

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