The Guisers by Margaret Mitchell

Over three Halloweens (2015-7), Margaret Mitchell photographed children who visited her home as Guisers. Their highly individual costumes displayed not only their originality but also conveyed aspects of the inner world of the child. Sophie spoke with Margaret about the project and took a look through the newspaper that Margaret has published in time for Halloween.

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

 

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

 

DS: We enjoy your work at Document Scotland, Stephen wrote about your projects ‘Family’ and ‘In This Place’ for the Document Scotland site in 2017. Your portraiture and long term projects feature children frequently, how did this project get started?

MM: All my photography is generally concerned with the intricacies and complexities of people and their lives. Other work has looked at issues around family, childhood, social geography and equality, of people and their lived experiences – all stories of people basically. This work presents a particular childhood experience within a centuries old tradition that continues to be practiced in Scotland.  Through the tradition of guising at Halloween and the costumes– the disguises – worn by over 60 guisers, we are given an insight into a child’s world and also a document of a time.

‘The Guisers’ started out back in 2015 as a reaction to what I observed as a parent living in a community where the tradition of guising is very strong in childrens’ lives here in Glasgow. I realised some people in the UK believed Halloween to be a recent American import which surprised me as I went guising as a child in the 70’s and my son continues to do so. Guising has been a tradition in Scotland and parts of the UK and Ireland for hundreds of years with its roots suggested to be in the Celtic Samhain festival. It was taken to America by emigrants from these various Celtic origins and added to other cultural influences to become the American trick-or-treat.

So this brings us back to nowadays and what contemporary children are doing in Scotland. What the tradition of guising and visiting neighbours’ houses means and within that what they choose, plan (often weeks in advance) and then create, to disguise themselves as and then perform a ‘party piece’ just as I did as a child. So I decided to start documenting this important and intriguing tradition but also to provide an insight into a child’s world through their costume, and within that, their fantasy and play choices.

 

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

 

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

 

DS: Guisers are a familiar site at Halloween in Scotland, and as a child I remember dressing up and going around the neighbourhood. The scale of this project though seems quite incredible to me – there are so many, who are all these characters?

MM: In my community there is a strong tradition of guising and we get an abundance of visitors every year – last year alone I counted over 80 guisers. I am sure it is different for different areas even within this city. When my son was younger, I would host Halloween parties and as he got older, guising itself took over. But it’s significant to remember that this is local children who are visiting our home, children whose parents you know or whom you know through friends of friends, who come as a group, or with parents and this is a sense of celebration, of excitement and of a community sharing. The photos only represent a relatively small number of the guisers who visit because I cannot take photographs and also listen to their songs and dances and jokes, manage apple-dooking and also do a photo. Some children visit me between school getting out – where they go dressed up for Halloween and celebrate during the day – and them starting guising proper at about 6 pm. Other children are photographed during guising itself when they come in, do their joke, dance or song and then do a photograph.  Someone called it my ‘Guisers Studio’ and I like that idea, that these children in that time of being in that emotional space in their mind, pop in and get their portrait taken. This day that becomes an exciting and celebratory evening during a distinct and important childhood experience. As mentioned, I know these children or they come with parents, friends, and friends of friends, so their participation is often spontaneous.

 

DS: The expressions suggest a pride in their costumes, and a seriousness – how do they behave during the portraits, what’s the exchange between you like, any funny stories? 

MM: I wouldn’t say anything particularly funny happens as the children are really quite serious in both the costumes they choose and also in the party piece they choose to perform. It is something they often plan a long time in advance – parents have even told me what their child starts planning just after Christmas is over! So very obviously, it is a major event in some children’s lives, greatly loved by them and with a lot of significance.

When children visited, I would ask about their costumes and why they chose that particular disguise. The reasons can be incredibly detailed and complex and through this, little insights are given into how a child is thinking when they choose to dress as they do. For example, some want to be creepy, they want to adhere to this idea of a ‘spooky’ Halloween and within that confronting darker undertones of life.

 

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

 

Others become more intricate, more abstract and subsequently more revealing in their reasoning. Some of this is evident in their appearance, added to by some information they shared with me when asked. One child told me he was a ‘Victorian Gentleman’ because he liked to speak 18th Century English. I find this fascinating that these interior worlds of a child’s play are then presented on this evening of guising. Another told me he was ‘Untitled’ when I asked who he was which I thought was intriguing as he looked like he had been in an accident. Most of the costumes are home-made, mash ups of fantasy play. Some are as expected: the zombie, the witch, the movie characters. Others are slightly darker, more invented, something that tends to appear as the children become a little older and inventing more, not reproducing certain common strands.

We have to remember too though that we are looking at these photographs through adult eyes, perhaps taking our own knowledge and experience of the world and laying those onto these children when it may not be the correct interpretation. I try to remain mindful of that but at the same time I believe some costumes are incredibly revealing into these childhood worlds, into a world of play, of fantasy, and for some, the consolidation of the darker elements in life.

 

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

 

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

 

DS: I agree, it’s fascinating, especially seeing them in such a huge number, to interpret the images and their underlying narrative, what do you feel the project communicates in a wider context, what do you see here?

MM: Essentially, this work looks at the complexity of being a child as presented through their chosen costume – their disguise – at Halloween. In a wider framework this is a portrait of these children at this specific time, within this ongoing tradition in Scotland. It presents not only the varied disguises they are choosing and making (often with the parents’ help of course) but also offers us the viewer a little entry point into their world and their minds; to their experiences of being a child –  a guiser – in Glasgow, in Scotland in our present time. They are continuing this tradition that I myself did and all those who preceded through the years of guising and making lanterns from turnips, visiting their neighbours and performing for some nuts, sweeties and fruit in return. It is very much about community, about sharing. It is also about the experience of childhood and confronting darker elements and dealing with them. It is interesting that some children chose not to deal with or confront the ‘scary’. For example, one boy dressed as a footballer (‘I had a beard but it washed off’) because he does not like ‘scary stuff’. Another younger child also dressed as a footballer but had blood running down his legs in zombie mode. A good amount of these costumes are not based on anything factual or character-based but are invented by the wearer. There is a unicorn (two children inside) who I know walked to school and home again dressed as this fantastic unicorn. They told me they dressed as such so that if people got scared at Halloween, they might be happy when they saw them. A lot of thought and reasoning goes into this one night. A lot of childhood experience.

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

 

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

From the series ‘The Guisers’ image © Margaret Mitchell 2018

DS: Are planning to continue? This year will there be a queue of 50 guisers outside your door whilst you lie on the floor with the lights off?

MM: Haha well, I am not sure. I didn’t think I would last year and then I set up my ‘Guisers Studio’ at the last minute. So yes, perhaps I will. It usually comes from children and parents asking me so we will see. My son is getting older but he is still guising at least for one or two more years. Children in the project range from about 3 up to about 14, so there comes a time, a cut off, when they no longer want to go out guising.

 

Thanks Margaret for taking the time to talk to us in such depth about this project

To accompany this series Margaret has made a publication of all 60 guisers from the past 3 years that she photographed. All those involved will receive a free copy as a way of thanks for being involved and as a keepsake for this time in their lives, for their creativity and their intriguing presentation of being a child at Halloween.

Copies are available to purchase through Street Level Photoworks and online from Margaret at the links below.

https://margaretmitchell.co.uk/the-guisers/
https://margaretmitchell.bigcartel.com/

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10 From The North | 10 bho Tuath – an An Lanntair exhibition

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When We Were Young

We’re delighted that the next photography exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, ‘When We Were Young’, will include work from the Scottish photography archive by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert. Included in the group show will be Jeremy’s images of Roma children, photographed in Sintesti Roma camp in Romania in the early 1990’s, part of his multi-year project photographing the Roma settlement on the outskirts of Bucharest, ‘Satra, The Roma of Sintesti.

 

WHEN WE WERE YOUNG:
PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHILDHOOD FROM THE
NATIONAL GALLERIES OF SCOTLAND
14 October 2017 – 15 April 2018
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JD
Admission FREE
nationalgalleries.org | 0131 624 6200
#WhenWeWereYoung

Part of Photography Scotland’s 2017 Season of Photography

The magic and wonder of childhood will be the subject of a new exhibition of photographs at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (SNPG) this autumn. When We Were Young will delve into the rich collection of the National Galleries of Scotland to explore how the lives of children have fascinated photographers from the earliest days of the medium to the present. More than 100 images, which capture children at play, at work, at school and at home will reveal how the experience of being a child, and the ways in which they have been represented, have changed radically in the past 175 years.

The photographs not only reveal the shifting attitudes towards children and their representation, but also show the evolution of the photographic processes from early daguerreotypes to contemporary digital prints.

Opening on 14 October 2017 at the SNPG, When We Were Young is the second in a series of thematic exhibitions being held to inspire a new appreciation for this extraordinary art form.

One of the earliest works in the collection is a daguerreotype of a family photographed by James Howie (1791-1858). Having trained as an artist, Howie was known as a portrait and animal painter; he switched to photography and established the first professional photographic studio in Edinburgh in 1841 (only two years after photography was first introduced). His customers had to climb multiple flights of stairs, then use a ladder to access a skylight leading to the roof of his outdoor studio, where they would then perch several floors above a bustling Princes Street below and were told to “sit as still as death”.

Some photographers’ directions for children were more amenable. Julia Margaret Cameron’s literary and religious evocations of the 1860s brought an imaginative element to the depiction of childhood. In her portrait of Kate and Elizabeth Keown, titled The Red and White Roses, the two sisters are shown close up with one clutching a sprig of flowers, the other has hands clasped as if in prayer. The work was not intended as simply a portrait of the photographer’s neighbours on the Isle of Wight, rather it was a metaphor for youthful beauty and the passage of time. Cameron has posed the girls to create an artistic scene and deliberately records them in soft focus so as to create a dreamlike, ethereal quality in the photograph.

Some of the photographs show young children at work or in a work environment—apprentices at ship yards, fisher girls on the beach, or children working family farms and crofts, such as Larry Herman’s 1974 portrait of John Watson at work on a dairy farm in Ayrshire, and Paul Strand’s portrait of John Angus MacDonald on his family croft on South Uist in 1954. In the work of MacMahon of Aberdeen, the photographic studio captured three young boys at a fish processing plant in the town in order to provide a sense of proportion and scale for the giant cod that was being shipped overseas to Portugal. The picture shows the smallest boy in the middle of the composition, dwarfed by gargantuan fish.

From uniformed school pictures to class outings and lessons, another selection of photographs shows children within an educational context. Among the works on display is a series of images by Edith Tudor-Hart (1908–1973), whose intimate pictures of teachers and pupils from Camphill School, Aberdeen, were originally commissioned for a magazine essay in 1949. Tudor-Hart explored the teaching philosophy of the institution which is displayed in the tenderness of the work that addresses the school’s ethos of providing support and education for children with developmental disabilities, mental health problems and other special needs.

The exhibition also explores the notion of play, a subject synonymous with childhood. From portraits of Victorian children with their dolls and books to explorations of today’s virtual playground, the photographs reveal that while children may have vastly different toys from the past compared with the present day, there is still the desire to escape into a world of make-believe and imagination. Many photographs reveal the street playgrounds of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Roger Mayne’s Children playing on a lorry, Glasgow (1958). Like so many of Mayne’s highly contrasting, black and white photographs, it captures perfectly the children’s vitality and abandon in a simpler time, whereas Wendy McMurdo explores the state of modern play which often is situated both in the real and virtual worlds. Inspired by the recent phenomenon of Pokémon GO, which involved young children searching out computer-generated characters inhabiting physical sites and landscapes, McMurdo photographed a number of children and utilised digital technology to obscure their faces and create a splintered portrait—symbolic of their fractured play between two worlds.

When We Were Young is also a chance to see, for the very first time, new works recently acquired by the Gallery from artists including; Wendy McMurdo, Glasgow-based Margaret Mitchell and leading South African photographer Pieter Hugo. The carefully selected photographs, all from the national collection, celebrate the notion of childhood as recorded by the camera since the 1840s with a delightful and engaging selection and coinciding with the Year of the Young Person in 2018.

“This is the second of our thematic exhibitions drawn from the photography collection here at the National Galleries of Scotland. This fun and engaging display of childhood from all over the world will feature iconic images alongside less well known works, old favourites and new acquisitions—essentially something for everyone, no matter what your age!”

Anne Lyden, International Photography Curator, Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Part of Photography Scotland’s, Season of Photography 2017, a lively series of exhibitions and events taking place across Scotland from September to November 2017.

Part of Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing festival
Luminate runs a diverse programme of creative events and activities throughout the year, including a nationwide festival of arts and ageing. Luminate’s sixth festival takes place 1 – 31 October 2017.

About the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery
When We Were Young: Photographs of Childhood from the National Galleries of Scotland is being shown in the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery and is part of a continuing series of photographic exhibitions (including Lee Miller & Picasso and Ponte City) in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Gallery, named after the renowned American photographer, is supported by a very generous donation from The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. The gallery is the first purpose-built photography space of its kind in a major museum in Scotland.

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