Glasgow has long history of photographers chronicling life on its streets and in the schemes.
Some have been restless natives, others interlopers. Some passed through, others stayed and got to know Scotland’s biggest city and most populous conurbation. Glasgow gives generously to visitors, ready with smiles and stories, yet half-hidden are the truths which underpin a narrative of poverty, inequality and myriad social ills. It has all been photographed before.
It is these themes which offer the exploring eye an opportunity to grasp the Glaswegian reality. It’s no mean city and there’s no half measures, after all. Our memory bank of images is often saturated by Glasgow’s past. From Thomas Annan during the Victorian era, through Joseph McKenzie and Oscar Marzaroli’s (currently on show at Street Level Photoworks) peripatetic perambulations around the city slums, we have become familiar with a style of photography which leans heavily on tropes as metaphor. That’s not to say these photographers’ documentation of the way we lived is inaccurate or cliched. Far from it. It is a vivid truth, naked and unvarnished.
More recently, the images made by French Magnumista Raymond Depardon have come into plain sight. Shot in 1980, we see a city in its most forlorn and decayed state, updated in shocking, vibrant tints. Beauty in brutality. It is almost as if the past has been coloured in for us. A reminder what was and still is. Still more now find Glasgow a canvas on which to re-imagine the present. A roll call which includes Document Scotland’s own and others who gravitate to and navigate through the city.
To these canons of work we can now add Jörg Meier, a German who stumbled across Glasgow almost by accident in 2019 and has since embedded himself in the Dear Green Place and befriended her people. His work immediately sets you at ease. Here is a photographer who is comfortable in his surroundings. It is not difficult to imagine him striking up conversations in bars and cafes, his inquisitive nature satisfied by Glasgow’s warm embrace. His work, set out somewhat haphazardly in a project called ‘Aye’, provokes us into emotions, like all photography of value should do. It is, it seems to me, as if he has been here forever. Was that him refusing to pay Maggie’s Poll Tax? Or out on a pro-Independence demo? Or tumbling out of a gig at the Barrowlands? Or even gliding through the crowd to an Old Firm match. He looks at home here, at least that what his photography tells us.
Jörg was initially attracted to Glasgow on an exploratory trip to Scotland which involved a bike ride to Falkirk, alma mater of his favourite band, Arab Strap. But it was Glasgow he fell for. It reminds him, he tells me, of his native Dortmund, of how and where he grew up four decades ago, of the lamented decline of heavy industry, the decay and depression – and cold. With this history at the forefront of his mind, he started looking around Glasgow and seeing parallels in the shapes and forms of his childhood. Soon, he was making connections through a project near Ibrox which helps and supports people who need a second chance in life. It is at this point that his photography breaks on through to the other side.
Away from the rain-lashed streets, the eternally grey skies and banks of housing etched out in geometric shapes and sizes funnelling back from the meandering, sleepy river Clyde, he befriends locals in a way which is both genuine and heartfelt. It feels like a solid relationship is established. His portraiture leans on an idiosyncrasy which hides and reveals much simultaneously. We feel empathy and sympathy, but we still do not know the whole story. It feels good to be inside, although there is a hint of damp menace in the surroundings. Like being in a room heated only with a two-bar electric fire on a cold day outside. Nevertheless, it is warm an intimate.
He trades on ambiguity, in the way so much contemporary German photography does. It is, however, underpinned by an intellect, the difference being it is not cold nor calculated, rather enquiring, inquisitive in nature. It lets Glasgow flourish.
I ask Jörg if his project is finished. The answer is somewhat noncommittal. Like all of us, he is held in check by Covid’s chains, unable for now to rekindle his love for Glasgow, to take up with its people and restart the relationship. There is so much to do when released from the pandemic purgatory. In the meantime, enjoy what he has shown us this far on his journey. I look forward to seeing him working in Glasgow again soon. We’ll say aye to that.