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.
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.
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.”
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.’
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!