North Sea Fishing

We’re delighted to write that Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert currently has two bodies of work exhibiting with Shetland ArtsNorth Sea Fishing is showing until August 27th at the Bonhoga Gallery, and Klondykers is showing at the Mareel arts centre for the next year, both in the Shetland Isles.

 

About the North Sea Fishing exhibtion, Shetland Arts wrote: “Scottish documentary photographer Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert captured the reality of the life at sea for the fishermen of Scotland’s North East fishing communities aboard the seine net fishing boats, Mairead and Argosy, in the North Sea in the 1990s.

These images serve as an important record of a period and style of fishing which is already passing into history, an insight into the working conditions for seine net fishermen, operating far from the safety and comforts of the shore. They capture the cramped conditions, monotony, and the grueling work in harsh conditions.

The North Sea – “a confused sea” as it was once described to me and, as one fishing trawler skipper told me, late at night, only the instrument panel lighting the bridge room, “the north sea, she’s a cruel mistress”.

With thanks to Ronnie Hughes and the crew of the Mairead, and Duncan Mackenzie and the crew of the Argosy, for their hospitality and generosity. All photographs shot in 1993 on the Mairead, and 1995 on the Argosy.

This is a touring exhibition hosted by the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther. The production has been made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of several organisations including Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow, Scottish Fishermen’s Trust, Scottish Fishermen’s Organisation and Loxley Colour Photo Lab.”

The Klondykers work (2 images above), shot in 1994, and published as a zine by Cafe Royal Books, looks at the period in Shetland’s history when fish processing ships from the Eastern Bloc countries would come to Shetland waters buying up catches of mackerel and herring from Scottish fisheries. The Klondykers work was written about by Shetland News here on the publication of the Cafe Royal Books. Very limited numbers of the Klondykers book will be on sale fro Shetland Arts during the run of the exhibition.

Speaking to the Shetland News, Jeremy says of his time photographing in Shetland “It was the period when communism had collapsed and Eastern Europe was opening up. To come to Shetland to see street signs in Cyrillic and people in all these foreign accents walking around – it was a fascinating time.

I remember driving out to the garbage dump. A couple of ships had been impounded in the port and hadn’t been allowed back to sea, and the company weren’t paying the crews any wages.

You had all these guys in the Lerwick garbage dump looking for things they could refurbish to take home, or things they could sell.

And I remember Shetlanders driving up and giving them packets of cigarettes, or bags of clothes and things. It was interesting to see that Shetlanders were rallying around to help them.”

North Sea Fishing, 8th July – 27th August, Bonhoga Gallery, Weisdale Mill, Weisdale ZE2 9LW.

Klondykers, for the next year, at Mareel, North Ness,, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 0WQ.

The North Sea Fishing exhibition, on completion of its run in Shetland, will travel onwards to:

Wick, St Fergus Gallery, 9th September – 21st October.

Thurso Art Gallery, 28th October – 9th December.

Greenock, Beacon Arts Centre, 6th January 2018 – 24th February 2018.

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North Sea Fishing

In Scotland’s Season of Photography, the Scottish Fisheries Museum is delighted to be hosting a striking exhibition of black and white images shot by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert aboard the seine net fishing boats, Mairead and Argosy, in the North Sea in the 1990’s. These images capture the reality of the life at sea for the fishermen of Scotland’s North East fishing communities – the cramped conditions, the monotony, and the grueling work in harsh conditions.

 

Bill Smith secures the nets, aboard the 'Argosy' seine-net fishing boat in the North Sea, Scotland, February 1995. Photograph by ©Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 1995.

Bill Smith secures the nets, aboard the ‘Argosy’ seine-net fishing boat in the North Sea, Scotland, February 1995. Photograph by ©Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 1995.

 

12th November 2016 – 19th February 2017
Entry included in museum admission.

Here, Jeremy talks about how the work came about:

“Considering I come from a land-locked family I’ve done my fair share of bobbing about on the waves of the planet, and no sea has more bobbing than the North Sea (although going through the 40degress and 50 degree latitudes of the Southern Ocean was quite interesting). The North Sea – “a confused sea” as it was once described to me and, as one fishing trawler skipper told me, late at night, only the instrument panel lighting the bridge room, “the north sea, she’s a cruel mistress”.

I think my first experience on the North Sea was on a fishing trawler, on an overnight assignment photographing fishing trawlers for a paper. There was a fisherman’s protest, lots of trawlers all together, protesting latest EU rules and regulations, net sizes and quotas. I got sent out to photograph. It was a night of adventure: watch dawn rise, shoot the other boats, back to harbour, home by lunchtime. The skipper that night, Ronnie, was a decent chap. I asked him how long he usually goes out for at a time, “10 days”, was the reply. “Can I come next time?” I asked. He smiled, he laughed, he replied, “if you think you can handle it, you can come, but there’s no going back. If you’re sea sick you’ll be sea sick for 10 days”. Count me in.”

The results of this expedition are captured in these striking images which serve as an important record of a period and style of fishing which is already passing into history and the Scottish Fisheries Museum is pleased to be able to provide our visitors with an insight into the working conditions for seine net fishermen, operating far from the safety and comforts of the shore.

We feel equally privileged to be hosting the inaugural display of this exhibition which will then tour other venues nationwide. The production has been made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of several organisations including Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow, Scottish Fishermen’s Trust, Scottish Fishermen’s Organisation and Loxley Colour Photo Lab.

Aboard the 'Argosy' seine-net fishing boat, in the North Sea, Scotland, February 1995. Photograph by ©Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 1995.

Aboard the ‘Argosy’ seine-net fishing boat, in the North Sea, Scotland, February 1995. Photograph by ©Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 1995.

The Scottish Fisheries Museum-partnered exhibition will then tour to the following venues across the country over the next year:

12th Nov. 2016 – 19th Feb. 2017 – Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther

23rd Feb 2017- End of March 2017 – Arbuthnot Museum, Peterhead

8th April – 13th May 2017 – Montrose Museum

20th May – 29th June 2017 – Signal Tower Museum, Arbroath

8th July – 27th August 2017 – Bonhoga Gallery, Shetland Isles

9th Sept – 21st October 2017 – St Fergus Gallery, Wick

28th Oct – 9th December 2017 – Thurso Art Centre

6th Jan 2018 – 24th Feb 2018 – Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

A related Education Pack developed by the Scottish Fisheries Museum’s Learning and Access Officer will be available for subsequent venues to engage with their local young people.

The Scottish Fisheries Museum will host a talk by the photographer Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert and featured fishing boat skipper Ronnie Hughes on Friday 2nd December, from 6pm.

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‘Klondykers in Shetland’

*** New just in! There’s going to be a second edition of the book printed. Another 150 are being printed to meet demands! More news soon, once they’re available ***

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert’s fourth Café Royal Book was released last Thursday, and very nicely sold out overnight! Thank you everyone for your interest and support.

Klondykers in Shetland 1994‘ is the last collaboration from Jeremy and Craig Atkinson at Café Royal for this year. If you do wish to try and get your hands on one then Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow, the shop at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, and possibly Foyles in London, have limited numbers still I believe.

Klondykers, Shetland 1994
Release Date 18.11.15
28 pages
14cm x 20cm
b/w digital
Edition of 150

 

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“There’s blue on red, red on red, green on black, and that one over there is just rust on rust”, chortled the Coast Guard helicopter pilot as we flew over the waters of the Shetland isles and looked down on the fleet of East European ‘Klondyker’ fish factory ships all moored, all awaiting the arrival of the silver fish.

It was the early 1990’s, Communism had collapsed and new economies were struggling in Eastern Europe. Ships had been sent to Scottish waters to buy up the mackerel and herring catches, and take them back frozen or tinned to feed Bulgaria, Romania and the countries of the former Soviet bloc.

But the arrival of the Klondykers as they were known was gaining unwanted attention, ships were running aground all too frequently on the rocks of Shetland, and on visits into port others were detained, deemed as being unseaworthy. With ships impounded, and without work, crews went unpaid, and the men speaking no English drifted to the garbage dumps to look for items which could be salvaged, recycled, and taken back to Eastern Europe.

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I went to the Shetland twice, around 1994, to photograph, both times on assignment, badgering fish merchant agents to take me out to the ships on their speedboats when they visited to cut deals with Bulgarian skippers. Or another time I agreed with the Coast Guard to be used as ‘live practice’, to be lowered by harness and winch onto a moving ship in exchange for getting up in their helicopter to shoot aerial shots of the Klondyker fleet. I readily agreed, for the excitement, for the adventure, and for the access knowing that Colin Jacobson, then picture editor at the Independent Saturday Magazine, would never hire me a helicopter.

Cyrillic signs hung in Lerwick town centre, telling the men of the Klondykers where they could find the Fisherman’s Mission, where they could find God, cups of tea and some help, and you could spot the men as they walked the town, in their Eastern European fashions of leather jackets and jeans. Up at the garbage dump I photographed as islanders drove up to offer the Klondyker men old televisions and electronics, or just to stop by and bring them cigarettes and gifts.

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Out on the ships I got lucky and found myself on a ship crewed by Romanians, and I managed to use the little Romanian language skills I’d learned while working on another project outside of Bucharest. I chatted with the ship’s doctor, and he played his accordion for me, we toured the ship, and I photographed as men and women worked, cleaning the mackerel which had just arrived, or played table tennis as they awaited more fish.

The ships have gone now, but the word Klondyker still holds resonance in the Shetland, and of course upon the rocks are the ships which never left. – Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert.

 

Visit Café Royal Books website.

 

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Methil – by Gregor Schmatz

From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

 

Gregor Schmatz has recently finished a BA Photography at Edinburgh Napier University. Document Scotland caught up with him and had a chat about his ongoing degree show project about Methil in Fife, Scotland.

 

DS: Tell us a little about yourself Gregor, and why you decided to make this particular project.

GS: I was born in Germany but grew up most of my life in Luxembourg. After a brief year in Australia I moved to Edinburgh where I completed a degree in Photography at Edinburgh Napier University.
Currently I am pursuing a career as a freelance editorial photographer.

I thought about doing a project about Methil or the area for a while and then I had to decide on my final year project for University. Since it became a project for University I had enough time to drive up there on a regular basis.

DS: What were your original hopes, objectives and ambitions for shooting the work? Why make this project?

GS: I knew that there was a lot to explore visually, just interesting photos to be found. But I also liked the project because it is of contemporary interest on a national and UK wide basis, I could sell this project in different ways.
But the subject matter was different from what I have done before, so I also had to adjust and think things through a bit more. Plus after 4 years in Edinburgh I am very happy I ended  the course with a particularly Scottish project.

The Windmill construction plant by SHI, who recently announced that they will pull out of the country. From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

The Windmill construction plant by SHI, who recently announced that they will pull out of the country. From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

 

DS: Why did you decide to shoot it in the way you did?

GS: I thought the project through more because it was a new subject matter for me, but I still shoot everything more or less instinctively. Currently I shoot everything medium format, it just works for me.

DS: Did you know Methil before? Why there?

GS: I drove through Methil with friends from Fife, that’s how I came across the area first. I knew I could shoot there pretty much immediately.

From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

 

DS: What do you think these photographs say about Methil?

I tried to portray it in a way that people can make up their own mind but at the same time I was also aware that Methil had a overly bad reputation already and I wanted to focus on the everyday there, not the extreme.

From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

 

DS: In your introduction you call Methil “an overlooked Scottish town.” What do you mean by that?

GS: Simply that most people never heard of it, or if they did, it was something bad. And there are many places like this; unknown towns, which actually have a huge history but lost their industry and slowly became increasingly desolate.

DS: Have people in the images, from Methil seen the work and if so what feedback, thoughts do they have on the work?

GS: Only one pair have seen them and they liked the images, but they were also surprised of the images. I think it was just a bit strange for them to see a series of images about their town, places they see everyday. All the other people in the photos were short encounters, I have no contact details.

From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

 

DS: You’ve been studying at Napier for the last few years, how did you get started in photography and can you tell us a little about your journey to where you are now as a photographer?

GS: I think I first bought a SLR before travelling, that’s when I started seeing all the possibilities and just started taking photos and never got bored of it. My project “Amerikanare” was a project I started at the end of the first year at University. It was my first serious project and I went back last summer to finish it and the final project was exhibited in Boston and published in a couple of magazines. This is the project where learning curves were the most obvious and I learned a lot from doing it. Looking back I definitely feel more secure in my image making and more defined, but it just took time. I think I always had certain tendencies or preferences in photography but the course at Napier gave me the chance to explore many different styles and get better at taking photos through many many small projects. But I am far from settled, there are exciting times ahead.

From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

From the series Methil © Gregor Schmatz 2015

 

DS: You mention that this project is still on going – what plans do you have to continue?

GS: I just learned that the Windmill plant will actually shut, so this is a bit a sad ending, however I will try and expand the series to the Levenmouth area.

DS: What are you up to right now? How are things since graduating and what are your future plans?

GS: Very good! I had a great exhibition in Boston as part of the Flash Forward Festival and some nice magazine and online features, creating some important contacts for the future, so I feel pretty lucky!

 

Thanks Gregor – to see more of Gregor’s work visit his website www.gregorschmatz.co.uk

 

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1970s GLASGOW – Photographs by Keith Ingham

Keith Ingham‘s photographs, taken from 1976 – 1979, were shot as part of a project for The People’s Palace Museum. Large parts of Glasgow’s East End, especially in Calton, were due for major demolition and it was felt the soon to be disrupted community should be recorded. This series of images document life in not solely in the East End but also including the Clyde ferries, Byres Road and the canals.

 

Bottle Washing, Dunn & Moore's, London Road

Bottle Washing, Dunn & Moore’s, London Road © Keith Ingham all rights reserved

The exhibition will be on at The Pelican Restaurant, 1377 Argyle Street, G3 8AF (across the road from The Kelvingrove Museum) from 30th January 2015

To see more of Keith’s work take a look at his website here www.keith-ingham.com

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Shipwrecked in Govan

The cranes of the Govan shipyard on the banks of the Clyde in Glasgow. © Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

The cranes of the Govan shipyard on the banks of the Clyde in Glasgow. © Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

 

We’ve been here before! Seeing all the images this week in the media from the Govan shipyard in Glasgow, reminded me of the last time the yard was in crisis and under threat of closure and redundancies.

Workers at the Govan shipyard on the Clyde. © Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

Workers at the Govan shipyard on the Clyde. © Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

On 14th April 1999, I was dispatched along with reporter Jack O’Sullivan by the Independent to get over to the yard, as a major announcement by the then-owners Kvaerner was expected. Like all these types of assignments, the newspaper photographer is there very much as an intruder, illustrator or, at worst, an inconvenience. I always felt like a bit of all three.

Workers at the Govan shipyard. © Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

Workers at the Govan shipyard. © Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

The thing that struck me back then – and still amazes me when I look at contemporary images – is the sheer scale of the shipyard. Monolithic cranes, gigantic equipment, monumental structures. And towering out of the grey gloom that day, ships. Vast hulks, speckled with tiny dots, which I came to realise were people, working high on the scaffolding or towers.

A solitary worker and a crane at the Govan shipyard. © Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

A solitary worker and a crane at the Govan shipyard.
© Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

The men, often casually dressed in their own clothes, jeans, jerseys, jackets, ignored the small gang of press photographers, reporters and television crews who weaved their way across the yard, trying to form impressions and frame the story. I don’t remember being made to feel welcome, but equally, the reception we got was not hostile. Weary resignation to fate? Maybe, or possibly they were used to it by then.

A worker carrying equipment through the yard. © Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

A worker carrying equipment through the yard. © Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

It is, of course, impossible to form an impression of what life was really like at the yard. In those pre-digital days, time on an assignment for the next day’s newspaper was even tighter that it is today. It was a case of making an image which could convey a sense of the story. At that point no-one knew what the outcome would be. In the end, it was a happy one, of sorts. BAE Systems bought the shipyard and on the back of Royal Navy orders has continued to make vessels.

Workers making their way out of the Govan shipyard at the end of their shift. © Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

Workers making their way out of the Govan shipyard at the end of their shift.
© Colin McPherson 1999, all rights reserved.

As I headed off to file my photographs to the Independent, I knew that this was just a chapter in the long, slow and painful decline of Scotland’s heavy industries. I am just content that I was able to see a small snapshot of the story before moving on to the next assignment.

 

Colin McPherson photographed news stories, sport and features in Scotland for the Independent and Independent on Sunday from 1995 until he moved to England in 2004. He still works for both papers, which have been redesigned and relaunched today.

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“At Sea” by Paul Duke

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.

DS

When did you realise you wanted to do this project?

PD

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.

DS

What made you go for the lit portraits with backdrop approach?

PD

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.

DS

How did you find your subjects?

PD

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.

DS

Were you seeking-out specific kinds of faces?

PD

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.

DS

What did your subjects think of the experience?

PD

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.

DS

Tell us about the exhibition and the book

PD

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

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The Johnston Collection

How many archives have you ever come across that document one area of a country, that span 112 years, and from which all the images were shot by three generations of photographers from the same family ? Not many we expect. Is it even possible you wonder. But indeed, as great as it sounds, there is a collection which exists such as that described.

It is with great privilege and excitement here at Document Scotland, that today we run both a large article and a selection of images from the impressive Johnston Collection based in Wick, a collection spanning 112 years and encompassing the work of three generations of the Johnston family.

We only found the website of the Johnston Collection recently, after a tip-off from Niall McDiarmid, but with relish we’ve been perusing the images, and very kindly, Harry Gray, Chairman of the Collection, has granted us permission to feature some of the beautiful images, and also kindly provided the following article for us to publish.

We hope you enjoy the images here as a folio, and also the article below, and please visit the Johnston Collection’s website itself to peruse further great images.

Herring fishing boats off Wick harbour Stornoway fifie “Rambler” follows WK1 “First” to the harbour mouth. Estimated date : 1860 – 1869 ©The Wick Society, all rights reserved.

 

The Johnston Collection, by The Wick Society

In 1976 in the town of Wick in the far north of Scotland Alexander Johnston, photographer, retired. A not uncommon event in everyday life but in this instance his retirement brought to an end 113 years of the Johnston family photographic business. His retirement also affected The Wick Society, a local group founded by Wick historian Iain Sutherland who was concerned about the changing face of the town and its impact on the local heritage and its preservation.

Alexander Johnston was interested in the thoughts and ambitions of the Wick Society and approached Iain Sutherland with the offer of his photographic equipment and anything else of interest for the intended museum.

Former Wick Society Chairman and founder member of the Society Donald Sinclair takes up the story; “a group of us met with Alex Johnston and he first showed us his garage then took us upstairs to his dark room and store. There was little light, the walls were undecorated wood and everything was very damp. The main enlarger was on a small platform in a small room, this was because the light source was on the floor above i.e. the condenser lens box was fitted tight to the ceiling, the light source turned out to be an enamel bucket with a lamp holder fitted to the bottom. The enlarger was in fact an old plate camera which had been modified. When this was removed it simply fell to pieces, the joints had parted and any screws and nails had all rusted away. Another of the Johnston enlargers had been constructed as a reflected light enlarger and this can be seen in the reconstructed dark room in Wick Heritage Museum.

We couldn’t believe our eyes when we entered the former dark room and adjoining rooms. In those far off days there was very limited knowledge of temperature and humidity control or light levels on the longevity of photographic materials and there were thousands upon thousands of glass negatives some stacked in piles three feet high, others wrapped in sheets of blotting paper. Ironically it was the stacking that saved many of the negatives and although some were damaged at the edges most were okay. One secret of the survival of many of the plates was the use of Copal varnish. The proof of this was made clear when we came across some stereoscopic images where only one side had been varnished and remained clear while the opposite image had deteriorated. Many of the negatives seemed to have been made using a collodion based emulsion and the images on those were lost for good. Many were stuck together and others irreparably broken. So of the estimated 100,000 negatives about one half was destroyed. The only premise available to the Wick Society at that time was the old Pilot House overlooking the harbour and the remaining 50,000 or so plates were, with great effort moved into that building.”

Now fast rewind back to 1828 the year that French Photographer, Niecepore Niepce took what is recognised as the first photograph. One year later the firm of Charles Coventry, plumbers of Edinburgh sent one of their men north to Wick to work on the lead flashings on the roof of the new Parish Church of Wick. His name was William Johnston. When the church was completed in 1830 William decided to stay on in Wick. The new Thomas Telford designed fishing village and harbour of Pulteneytown on the south side of Wick bay which had begun in 1805 was a hive of building activity as the herring fishing industry expanded and William saw great possibilities for the future. He settled down, marrying a local girl Louisa Williamson and they had nine children, the eldest, Alexander was born in 1839. This was the year in which Jacques Mande Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot introduced the first commercially successful photographic processes.

Alexander Johnston, (1839-1896), photographer. ©The Wick Society, All rights reserved.

 

Alexander, who was destined to become the founder of the photographic business left school at the age of 14 to enter the family plumbing business working as a clerk and at one point he worked in the harbour office. By 1859 he was back in the family business but his interest was awakening in the new art of photography. By 1863 he had set up a small studio at his father’s house and very soon after that he had premises in Wick High Street. To the local population he must have cut a strange figure indeed as he walked the streets with his mobile darkroom and camera on a hand cart capturing the early scenes at the busy harbour. (This would have been the “wet plate” collodion process) Wick was now the “herring capital of Europe” and the “silver darlings” as the herring were known attracted over 1100 boats which crowded into the harbour over the fishing season June to September each year while thousands of migrant workers swelled the town’s population. They were photographed preparing their boats, setting the tan sails for sea, landing catches and onshore, were recorded in scenes of intense activity which show the teams of workers who gutted, cured and packed and carted the salted barrels of herring for export all over the world. The Johnston plates also show the boat builders, coopers, rope makers, basket weavers, plumbers, shop keepers and others in supporting industries and at leisure to give a wonderful glimpse of social history. The images seem to have been developed on location with a complicated mix of chemicals as, working by touch he poured the liquids on the plates hidden from sight and light inside his mobile darkroom.

In 1869 the Kildonan Gold Rush in Sutherlandshire brought over 700 miners to the area in search of riches. Alexander accompanied by a friend in a borrowed horse drawn carriage adapted to make a darkroom, made a four day journey to the diggings at “Baile an Or” (the place of gold) to capture the scenes, only seven plates survive and these are the only known photographs of gold diggings and shanty town in this country

Portrait photography had begun to catch the public imagination. The studio part of the business expanded quickly. By 1872 Alexander had to move to much larger premises in Wick’s Bridge Street as people began to come to him and his younger brother James (now a partner) to have their photographs taken. Their business continued to grow and in 1892 new spacious premises were acquired in Wick Market Place. In 1895 a branch had been opened in the town of Thurso which was attended to by Alexander.
Alexander did not enjoy the best of health and in 1896 while he was in Edinburgh for medical treatment he died suddenly at the age of 57.

His son William now 17 appears to have had some experience of the business as he assumes a partnership with uncle James and travelling each day by train takes on the running of the Thurso branch. The opening of the Thurso studio created a rich collection from that end of the county as William, as well as looking after the studio travelled all over the area capturing an invaluable collection of images of town and rural life of the time.

With the outbreak of WW1 there was a surge in portraiture as men departing for military service had images of their loved ones recorded as reminders of happier days at home. This has also resulted in a rich vein for today’s genealogical researchers. James Johnston passed away in 1922 and William shouldered the business until his son Alex returned from Art College in 1932 and joined the business, working there until 1942 when he was called up, serving as a photographer with the RAF for the duration of WW2. The Johnston’s were never tied to the studio and although portraiture provided the bulk of their income the working and social life of the county was caught through the twenties and thirties, scenes that are highly regarded today as an important social commentary but were in the words of Alex Johnston “simply a way of making extra income by selling picture postcards.” Their first love was painting and indeed this talent ran through the family from the beginning and examples of their art are displayed in Wick Heritage Museum. William passed away in 1950 and Alexander ran the business until his retiral in 1976 bringing 113 years of Johnston photography to an end. Alexander passed away in 2011 at the age of 101.

In 1979 the local Council offered the Wick Society the lease of numbers 18 – 27 Bank Row a row of early 19th century terraced houses. This was accepted and in 1981 the new centre was opened. Concurrently with all the work renovating and repairing the buildings the Johnston Collection was moved into its new home.

The Johnston Collection website

 

The first stage of cataloging could now begin and the negatives were sorted into two initial categories “scenes” and “portraits” the latter were passed a box at a time to a group of volunteer ladies who, using an old x-ray screen examined each image and recorded any information that the photographer had scribed along the edges, usually a name, address and date, some of the negatives were wrapped in blotting paper with the information written on the paper. At this point the Society invested in conservation quality boxes and envelopes and for the first time the negatives were in a safe environment.

The “scene” images were initially handled by Donald Sinclair and the late Willie Lyall the latter choosing the images while Donald, using the enlarger as his light source began to produce copy contact prints. They worked two hours every Tuesday and Thursday evenings and at the weekends. While Willie chose the images Donald set up the dark room, mixing and stabilising the temperature of the developer, stop bath and fixer. In the early days frequent test prints were made to assess the negative density/f-stop to adjust the light intensity and the exposure time and as techniques improved 50 prints were processed in two hours.

By 2002 a new age was entered, the scanning of the prints onto a computer was begun and a numbering system worked out and at that point it was possible to produce good quality prints up to A3 size.
In 2008 a new group was formed in the Wick Society named the Johnston Section and people were recruited into this new section which was given the remit to bring forward the digitisation of the entire Johnston Collection. At first, time was spent gathering information, making contact with other groups with digitisation experience and trying to produce costs and planning for the project. Computers, an A4 flatbed scanner and large format printer were acquired making it possible to scan, restore and exhibit A1 size prints which showed up the incredible detail captured within the glass negatives. Exhibitions have been held in Wick, Thurso and in the rural villages of Halkirk and Castletown. These exhibitions were very popular but the intention of the group was to preserve the collection as well as to display it.

In digital form the collection can be used on the w.w.w., for viewers within the museum and in presentations off site. This would also result in the decreased handling of the original images and enable the museum to make hard copies.

In 2009 North Highland College saw an opportunity to join a national project, Joint Information Services Committee (JISC), which aims to make historic documents and images available to the College/University network. This would be done via a website from which students can download material for study projects and the North Highland College proposed that the Johnson Collection would be suitable material for this project. The North Highland College had the further objective of setting up a training course in the practise of scanning/ digitisation/archiving as a contribution to supplying trained manpower for the UKAEA Nuclear Archive planned for Wick.

The agreed standard for scanning resolution was 1200 dpi, to allow large scale printing and high quality files to be stored as tiffs for the Society, as lower resolution jpegs suitable for student projects and as low resolution images for the newly created web site www.johnstoncollection.net. Un-restored tiff files are kept by the Society as well as copies of those cleaned up for exhibition.

Facilities, training and equipment were provided by North Highland College for Wick Society volunteers to work alongside the College Media Unit to digitise the ten thousand images required for the JISC project and the equipment has become the property of the Wick Society on its completion. In July 2012 North Highland College took the decision to close the Wick Campus where the Johnston Section had been working on the digitisation process. This had been expected and The Wick Society had already converted attic rooms in the Wick Heritage Museum into a workshop and all of the equipment was moved to there. The efforts to scan the remaining forty thousand negatives in the Collection continue and to date the Johnston Collection web site contains nearly twenty thousand images.

 

Visit the website of The Johnston Collection, and the Johnston Collection Facebook Page.

 

 

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Glasgow’s Clydeside.

The PS Waverley passes the Kvaerner shipyards, prior to a ship launch, on the River Clyde, Glasgow, Scotland, 1993. ©Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 1993, all rights reserved.

A quick short post from here in grey Scotland this morning. Monday morning and there’s plenty to be done, as ever.

Back in 1993 as a young freelance photographer I shot this Glasgow image, of the shipbuilding on the River Clyde, the Paddle Steamer Waverley and a view of the city. I’ve always been happy with the photograph, to me it captures the city, and the heritage of the Clyde. A couple of weeks ago the Editorial Photographers UK website asked me for an image and a story to use on their Showcase page, and as I had just returned to work here in Glasgow again after 9 years in Japan, I thought it apt to dig this shot out of the archive. If you click over to the EPUK website you can enjoy the backstory to how I shot this photograph of shipbuilding, and PS Waverley, on the River Clyde. A short read for your morning coffee break.

Follow this link if you’d like to see more photographs of shipbuilding on the River Clyde, Glasgow, Scotland. Many thanks.

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