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 In addition to tens of thousands of pictures, a great many unseen, there is an unpublished autobiography, a diary, poetry, and footage of McKenzie talking about his work; all the ingredients for the major retrospective exhibition, books and a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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Collecting The Gorbals.

A Stroll Through The Gorbals

To walk in the Gorbals area of Glasgow is to walk through a district of this city immortalised in iconic photographs, a district whose name is known far and wide, for better or for worse, and whose history has been captured in silver by some of the great photojournalists of the British post-War years. I couldn’t help but ruminate on this while there, in the Gorbals (and why is it always the Gorbals, never just Gorbals?), during a recent photographic assignment.

Radical Independence Campaign mass canvassing in support of Scottish independence, in the Gorbals, Glasgow, Scotland, June 2014. ©Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 2014, all rights reserved.

Radical Independence Campaign mass canvassing in support of Scottish independence, in the Gorbals, Glasgow, Scotland, June 2014. ©Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert 2014, all rights reserved.

 

I was there to photograph canvassing and leafleting by supporters of the Radical Independence Campaign during the run-up to the recent referendum on Scottish independence. It was a sunny day, a Sunday, the streets had colour from the flowers people tended in gardens and from the colour of the shutters on a modern-designed apartment block. It was a million miles from some of those iconic images I carried with me in my mind, of Oscar Marzaroli’s fifty-odd Shades of Grey, or Bert Hardy’s two little ragamuffin boys forever linked arm-in-arm heading off on an immortal chore.

 

The Gorbals, © Sarah Amy Fishlock 2014, all rights reserved.

The Gorbals, © Sarah Amy Fishlock 2014, all rights reserved.

 

The Gorbals, © Chris Leslie 2008, all rights reserved.

The Gorbals, © Chris Leslie 2008, all rights reserved.

 

As I walked the streets it was impossible to recognise any landmarks from those iconic photographs, all had changed, all had gone, buildings torn down and their inhabitant’s memories moved on. All that was left to remember of those earlier times were the black and white images and the infamous tales they tell of poverty and deprivation, of children finding hope and entertainment on heaps of rubble and within chalked games on walls.

No one perhaps knows these Gorbals images better that Neil Carragher, a native of Hamilton, Scotland, but now retired and living in Canada. For the past decade or so Neil and his wife Blanche have worked hard amassing a collection of vintage photographs of the Gorbals and know the streets well. After my own sojourn around the same-but-different streets, photographing in digital colour, I spoke with Neil about their print collection.

Neil’s interest in these photographs stemmed, perhaps not so unsurprisingly, from originally collecting over a 30-year period art work by the Scottish colourists, and from owning “six or seven Joan Eardley paintings, one of which was a little boy with baggy pants hitched up, an old belt, an orange sweater and a skelly eye. It was so touching. I bought that one just when my mother died which was about 1993 and I still have it here in my collection. I love Joan Eardley’s work.

“I’ve travelled fairly extensively and left Glasgow immediately after my first degree, and I went to London and then to Switzerland. Putting that Scottish collection together helped me keep in touch with Scotland I guess. I knew all the dealers and auction houses over the years, but when my mother died I bought that little Scottish Joan Eardley. It was a chalk drawing on glass paper. And as I kept looking at that I kept remembering the areas of Glasgow that I knew when I went to university between 1956-1960 in Glasgow, which was just about the end of the Gorbals.”

I wondered if Neil had moved onto collecting the prints of Marzaroli’s street waifs and Bert Hardy’s street urchins as he had been one himself. But no, Neil explained, “I think you have to give that to Joan Eardley, as I had about half a dozen of her drawings and paintings, and the more I looked at them the more I remembered my childhood. So I wasn’t part of the Gorbals, but I did observe and when I was at university I stayed in Townhead, so used to see those children playing around outside. So when I started, I’m a keen photographer myself, mostly a travel photographer, so I decided that there had to be some remnants or there had to be some record of the Gorbals and Glasgow at those times existing. So I started a search which during the first few years was very painful indeed because I couldn’t get anything. I went to all the newspapers… but I discovered all, most of the newspapers as they were taken over by English and American companies, destroyed their old images. It’s scandalous, it’s the heritage gone. Those reporters should have been in the middle of it…”

But to be a collector is to not be put off easily, the hunt is after all sometimes the reward itself. Neil continued, “so I managed to contact Oscar Marzaroli’s widow, through a film maker friend and she was very reluctantly to see me but after a while she realised I was quite serious and I met her several times and she gave me access to the files that, the photos that Oscar left, which are a good part of my collection. Some of them, he did his own printing, so some of them are not brilliant, but certainly they are the original stuff. I loved his photographic eye. So I think I got more or less the cream of the crop from her and she told me basically he only had one showing since the time he died and he didn’t sell any from that, so it thought that was pretty scandalous too.” As with many artists it seems to achieve success or fame, Neil remarked, “you have to die first.”

But Neil’s collection has grown large over the years, Marzaroli’s images were “the start and I had to go to England to find photojournalists who had been sent up to Scotland after the war to photograph the worst slums in Europe. And through various methods I managed to contact one or two of the widows of those photojournalists. And I also got a collection, which had come from the old Picture Post magazine, which ended up in Chicago. And I bought a bunch of those from a professional photographic dealer in Chicago and also in New York. But none of those old photographs came from Glasgow or from Scotland full stop.”

To peruse the images of Neil’s collection is to be reminded of the great power of photojournalism in the post-War years, of the great names of Picture Post, or of pre-eminent photographers Bill Brandt, of John Bulmer, Grace Robertson, Margaret Watkins and many more.

Neil reminisced, “As I continued looking for old Glasgow photographs I found that Glasgow wasn’t unique of course, Liverpool was the second port and had just as many problems with immigration and resettling people as Glasgow had. Then I went on to collect photographs of London after the Second World War with children playing in the streets. The fact was I just couldn’t find any more Gorbals photographs but I liked the theme and I thought it was concentrated enough to continue picking up those older photos.

I think I view the collection as an historical statement which should be preserved and used for research into historic social issues that Scotland and even part of those blitzed areas in London and Liverpool have. The reason for that is I found people, my contacts in Glasgow and Edinburgh, were not in the least interested in that time period. It was almost like it was a black era. Scotland may have had that but it was only a microcosm of the society and therefore we should forget about it. And I don’t think it should be forgotten at all, because these places like the Gorbals produced people who worked extremely hard, whom a lot of them emigrated and have done extremely well. We should take that as being a significant positive rather than being a negative.”

Did Neil class himself with these people I wondered? “I do. I had to leave Scotland in order to get on because the opportunities within Scotland itself were very limited.”

But those opportunities he went on to find enabled him to build, in time, his large collection of photographs, “I think it is about 300 prints. I’ve never sat down and counted, but someone told me, I said there must be 200 and they said no there is 300 here. But that is somebody who was going through it with a toothcomb with the objective of taking it and putting it into an archival collection.

Well it ended up as not just Gorbals, Gorbals was the principal theme and as I said I ran out of work to collect or people who would give me some work. My objective now is to give it away in one piece.”

I was intrigued to know of the options available to a collector specialising in vintage prints of one particular city neighbourhood, from a very particular era. What images existed, was it solely waif-like children playing on street corners, or was there more to be seen? Neil explained, “Oh, quite a few, I wasn’t interested in particularly general landscape work, but there is one or two showing the demolition of the Gorbals but that is enough just as the background. I was more interested in the social side of it. How the children amused themselves, you know children have a capacity to enjoy themselves no matter what the conditions are. And I had to have photographs of the situations in pubs, now you see some older ones there. I actually commissioned a young photographer, Johan Campbell, who comes from Glasgow, to go back over and photograph, to go inside the pubs of Glasgow, and of Celtic supporters, and also to photograph outside the games. I also have work by David Gillanders, I got to know him quite well. I just love his work. I think he is the only serious social photographer that I’ve encountered in recent years. So I thought I had to include his work. So it’s not just about children, I mean Glasgow on a Friday night it shows the vicious side of it, but then that does exist. And I think it should be recorded. It’s not meant to be a sweety confectionery type of collection. It’s meant to be hard and tough. I’m not sure if that comes over.” He continued, “I’ve got a series done by a South African artist of men coming out of the shipyards and in the pubs, standing there you know with a pint and a half, they’re getting drunk before they go home and give what’s left to their wives.”

I asked Neil what his wife Blanche, who hails from Ayrshire, thinks of his collecting habit, “…my wife has put a stop to this for the time being. She says I have to find a home for it, you know preserving photographs is not an easy task. They have to be in terms of temperature and humidity well preserved. I’ve done my best here but now I need storage. So I’ve certainly paused it for further reflection. Let’s put it that way and this collection as such stands on its own and I think my next job is to find a home in Scotland for it.”

I was intrigued as to whether or not his wife lends a curatorial eye when viewing work to purchase, Neil laughed, “Ha! She’s a good critic, let’s put it that way!”

And what of the work that escaped, sometimes even good collectors can’t find everything. Without pause, Neil replied, “yes there was a guy– Joseph McKenzie. I met Joseph half a dozen times in his home. I viewed his collection. I would have died to have some of those works. He was not budging. And we kept a correspondence, over several years.”

And now in the era when everything is limited edition and aimed to be collectible, with the internet and it’s plethora of selling and buying sites, auction houses and yard sales, is it easier now to collect these prints? “Getty bought most of the Picture Post and it is easy to look at those photographs and buy modern prints but that was not my interest. So yes you can. I was interested in getting older prints as original as possible, as close to the date as I could that they were photographed. That’s part of the art of collecting I think and that’s why I think the collection has a little bit of heft. Yes you could put together a modern print version of the collection very easily indeed.”

As a working photographer here in Scotland myself, and as a co-founder and member of Document Scotland – a collective of four working photographers in the documentary field, I was intrigued to ask Neil his view of the industry here. He was happy to share his insight, “I found very few contacts in Scotland that I was able to make that were the least interested in photography. You’re a photographer yourself you correct me if I’m wrong. I contacted half a dozen of the photographic clubs and so on, pah, they wouldn’t give me the time of day. I don’t know why, when, if I do that in North America I usually get some sort of feedback, it’s easier to make contacts. I don’t know.

In terms of my art collection, none of the people who you’d regularly go to for let’s call it fine art, were interested in photography. I think the one exception is the Fine Arts Society that put a collection of Marzaroli’s work three or four years ago but it was just a six week ‘let’s see if we can sell some of these’ type of thing…Why there is not a deeper interest in, let’s call it fine art photography, I don’t know.”

“When I talked to David Peat before he died, I bought his collection, he hadn’t sold any. So I bought the whole collection that he had and he kept the original which has been given to the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, but I bought the only copy that he made. He was of course in the business for a long time and he was echoing what you’re saying. Nothing has changed and Marzaroli was the same, and essentially died in poverty. Tough field photography for a professional. That’s not the case in North America, or France, Germany. I think it is easier if people understand it is a fine art and to be encouraged. It will come but you know Scotland always was a wee bit behind.”

And is there a difference between collecting within Scotland and England? “My experience of England is mostly London, which is a bit of an international microcosm.” And with a smile in his voice, “there’s three or four people there over the years who I’ve dealt with, thieves and vagabonds, but never the less they do try.”

And from these thieves and vagabonds, I wondered does Neil collect any contemporary Scottish photography? Why only stop in the days of Picture Post, even life in the Gorbals now comes in glorious technicolour? “I haven’t tried, nor would I know how to source it. That’s really what I’m saying to you. I did have a contemporary Scottish art collection, young people, contemporary, looking for a sale. What I loved about that was meeting the artist and him explain his work and how he went about it. Now if there was such a medium available in Scotland for contemporary photography I think that would be very encouraging, but I didn’t find it.

Scottish contemporary art is very expressionist, they are certainly very different to what is produced in England and that is why I loved it. I found Scottish contemporary art to be very creative and I’m sure that is exactly the same with photography.”

I assure Neil at this point that there is good contemporary photography being produced here, Document Scotland have been showing work by many photographers at our salons, in our publications and shows. We, as a photography collective, try to enable one viewing platform where collectors like Neil can see work from the young and enthusiastic, as well as old and experienced photographers who are still out there, still walking the streets, carrying colour digital or old school black and white and who are still producing work in Scotland. I mention to Neil that Document Scotland recently had the honour of Glasgow-born photojournalist Harry Benson CBE generously accepting our invitation that he become the collective’s Honorary Patron, and I had noticed that Neil, in his collection, has a few of Harry’s prints.

“I met Harry in New York, when we’re talking about contemporary photography and contemporary art and I said I like to meet the artist and talk of why they’re doing their work. I met Harry in his apartment in New York and he told me of his life and I took a few prints from him. Particularly the one in Kelvingrove Park, the kids in the fountain, which is a famous one, I wanted to get it from him. That made a big difference, and he talked about how tough it was for him and how it’s only in recent years he’s been accepted as being a social photographer in Scotland. He’s just a lovely man. He’s a survivor too. For me meeting him made me enjoy his photography more. That’s the link I think.”

Glasgow-born photographer Harry Benson, at home in New York, © Stephen McLaren/Document Scotland 2014. All rights reserved.

Glasgow-born photographer Harry Benson, at home in New York, © Stephen McLaren/Document Scotland 2014. All rights reserved.

 

And with that Neil accepted my invitation to join Document Scotland for a salon event next time he is home in Scotland, an evening when Scottish contemporary photographers who walk the same streets as Bert Hardy did, entering similar houses as Bill Brandt and Thurston Hopkins, can share work, share thoughts and hopes and raise a glass to those who went before but whose prints still reflect the way ahead.

All text © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Document Scotland 2014. All rights reserved.

The images reproduced above do not form part of Neil Carragher’s Gorbals collection and are used as examples of contemporary work from the Gorbals area, by contemporary photographers.

Sarah Amy Fishlock‘s image comes from her series ‘Citizens’ – ‘During my time as Artist in Residence at the Citizens Theatre between July 2013 and February 2014 I worked on a range of participatory photographic projects with theatre staff, audiences and community members. Citizens documents theatre staff in their unique working environment, as well as the changing landscape around the theatre, situated in the Gorbals, Glasgow.’

Chris Leslie has been documenting the changes in the east end of Glasgow in his project Glasgow Rennaissance, and in his new book ‘Nothing is Lost‘.

Thanks to Marc Boulay, formerly of the St. Andrews University Special Collections Photography Archive, for the introduction to Neil Carragher and his collection of Gorbals images.

And of course thank you to Neil Carragher for sparing time to chat and his kindness in allowing us to write about his collection. Thanks Neil!

See also The Gorbals, by photographer John Claridge, from Cafe Royal Books.

 

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“Belated praise for Joseph McKenzie.”

Journalist and editor Alan Taylor has kindly given us permission to republish his appreciation of photographer Joseph McKenzie who recently passed away, aged 86. This article first ran in The National, on July 20th 2015. (See also The Herald obituary of Jospeh McKenzie.)

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

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

 

Belated praise for Joseph McKenzie – a neglected pioneer of Scottish photography, by Alan Taylor.

‘DON’T it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Never were Joni Mitchell’s words more fitting than in the case of Joseph McKenzie, who died a few days ago, aged 86, and whose funeral will take place on Friday at Tayport. His obituarists routinely described him as “internationally acclaimed”, “one of the most ambitious and prolific post-war photographers”, and “the father of modern Scottish photography”. No one would have enjoyed the irony of these posthumous hurrahs more than McKenzie himself, for he had long since stopped exhibiting publicly and had just cause to believe he was suffering from that terrible disease that can afflict even a towering talent, namely neglect.

But if the wider world was unaware of McKenzie’s achievement, he did not want for admirers among those who view life through a lens. Graeme Murdoch, former chief executive of the Scottish National Photography Centre, recalls once asking him if he possessed a digital camera: “His harrumph could have been heard across the Tay.” Albert Watson, who is feted for his portraits of celebrities and whose work has often graced the covers of Vogue and Rolling Stone, was one of McKenzie’s students. “Joe was a wonderful teacher,” he says, “passionate and intense. From the minute I picked up a camera I felt the same.” Another who was taught by him is the artist Calum Colvin. “His technical skill was profound and the quality of his printing was stunning,” he says. “As a student of his I remember him speaking little about the history of photography but his attention to the poetic voice of the print was immense.”

Those who took the trouble to visit McKenzie at his Tayside home were at first greeted gruffly, as if by a man who was not used to company other than that of his immediate circle. His gaze was steely and his tolerance of fools non-existent.

As the hours wore on, however, he defrosted and welcomed inquiries about his work. Lunch was a Scotch pie or two garnished with brown sauce and accompanied by a mug of tea. McKenzie had no social pretensions. “He loved to challenge the status quo,” says Murdoch. He was constantly taking photographs, always in black and white, running off a reel of film a day. His archive, carefully stored and meticulously documented, comprises tens of thousands of prints, very few of which have seen the light of day. “What has been seen,” says Colvin, “is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Joe always claimed his work would remain private until after his death.”

Though he was umbilically attached to Scotland, McKenzie was born and educated in London, in 1929. After conscription and regular service in the RAF in the years immediately after the war, he studied photography at The London College of Printing. Thereafter, in 1954, he was appointed Lecturer in Photography at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, a post from which he prematurely retired in 1986.

The 1960s were perhaps McKenzie’s most productive decade. Then, noted Gerry Badger, a writer on photography, he was “a lone wolf for Scottish photography – a lone wolf howling at the establishment, some might say”. During that period McKenzie had one exhibition after another: of children in the Gorbals, of Dundee as it wrestled with post-industrial deprivation, of Northern Ireland embroiled in sectarianism. His images were haunting, unsentimental, depressing, brutal, empathetic, indelible, a testimony to human indomitability and harsh existence. They were also, acknowledged Badger – in an essay to accompany Pages of Experience, a selection of McKenzie’s photographs from 1947 to 1987 – “grudgingly received north of the Border, and wholly disregarded south of it”.

WHY this was so is hard to tell. What is clear, though, is that McKenzie’s disillusionment with the reception of his work was profound and long-lasting. In particular, he was angered by the vituperative reaction in some quarters to his exhibition, Hibernian Images. This was the fruit of many months spent in Ireland in 1967 documenting a society in a state of anarchy: petrol-bombed homes, burnt-out pubs, ragged children building brick forts, graffitied walls, rookie troops looking apprehensive. The Troubles had begun to brew and McKenzie was no objective observer. As a Roman Catholic convert with five children, his sympathies lay with the Catholic minority, which may partly explain the venomous hostility to his work. Whatever the reason, McKenzie was chastened and determined never again to show it. However, from 1974 to 1980 he mounted exhibitions in a large room in his Tayport home, which was open to visitors by appointment.

He took much inspiration from American photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Paul Strand, whose photographs of a rural community in South Uist, taken in 1954, bear obvious similarities with McKenzie’s of Donegal and elsewhere in Ireland in the 1960s. But it was on his own doorstep, in the Hawkhill area of Dundee, that he found what may have been his best subject. Using his lunch hours, he wandered the cobbled streets of a “city in transition”. Here he found three, elderly women – the antithesis of the three graces – chatting in lane about who knows what. Over a steaming brazier a labourer attempted to stay warm. Elsewhere an infant sprawled on the pavement beneath its upturned pram. And then there was Mrs Wallace in her eponymous pie shop, wearing a white apron and offering for sale nothing but a few unappetising pies. It was probably taken in 1964 but it has the air of an image from a time almost beyond memory.

McKenzie took photographs to immortalise such “ordinary” folk. A photograph, he once wrote, was like a living epitaph. As for himself, he was an outsider, a role which he both embraced and wore like a hairshirt. Unappreciated even by those with whom he worked at Duncan of Jordanstone, he persevered regardless, unable or unwilling to compromise or kow-tow to those who might have helped his career, confident that one day his as yet unexplored archive would set his reputation right.

Text ©Alan Taylor/The National, all rights reserved 2015.

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