This month sees the first new whisky distillery for a century officially opening in Fife.
Document Scotland photographer Colin McPherson was commissioned by the company responsible for the project, MacDuff International, a Swedish-own film with head offices in Glasgow, to document the construction of the InchDairnie facility from a brown-field building site to completed distillery.
Rather than setting a brief which would befit a commercial contract, McPherson was given unrestricted access to the site and the people working there, in order to photograph the various stages which brought the project together. He was asked only to focus on the workers and their work, to engage with them and show the many skills and attributes which are required to bring such a major project from concept to reality.
Over the course of 15 months from early-2015, McPherson made repeated visits to InchDairnie, watching the seasons changing and the buildings taking shape. The various contractors came and went and left behind their legacy. The distillery, designed and built by John Fergus and Co, began production by the end of the year as the building work continued through the wet and windy winter of 2015-16. By May 2016, with the building and landscaping work done, the final result looked as aesthetically pleasing as a fine glass of malt.
The photographs are to be archived by MacDuff International as a permanent record of the project and discussions are under way about a possible publication to mark this historic moment and showcase the work made by McPherson over the last year. In the meantime, McPherson is planning to return to InchDairnie in the coming months to photograph the team of distillers and other workers employed permanently on site.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Document Scotland were delighted to be interviewed by The Dundee Courier about the exhibition ‘Seeing Ourselves’. Stephen spoke with Jennifer McLaren and explained a little about what brought us together, our aims and our passions and how we curated the exhibition.
It had been a long day.
I had started early, going straight to Home-Start Levenmouth offices and interviewing all who worked there.
It was just before Christmas and everyone was running around trying to organise the bags of presents which had been donated. Never ending lists filled with children’s names were being checked off and discussed…
“who would like the fire-engine over the small truck?”
“is she too old for this book?”
“her sister might steal that”
“ooo this is perfect for…”
“she’s a Tom boy she won’t like that!”
I was told that these were likely to be the only presents that these children received this year, so it was very important to find the right thing for the right child.
After the morning of sorting out toys and interviewing, I had arranged to meet with a volunteer and her young charge. We went to an arts and craft centre in a park where we painted magnets. It was incredibly windy and it was difficult to even open the car doors without them closing in your face as we climbed back into the car. It was freezing cold and the last of the trees clinging leaves flew from their branches. The magnets were going to be presents that the young girl could give to her Mum for christmas.
I took pictures through-out the day and found myself learning a great deal about the community I was documenting, the role of a volunteer and the children and parents they then helped.
On our way back we stopped off at the local super-market. The little girl I was with charged around pointing at everything and hoping she could persuade her volunteer to buy it.
I was so aware of her wanting these things and equally aware of her mums inability to afford them and there it was, aisles and aisles of toys that all the parents had to walk down and say no to. That’s why I took this picture.
Giulietta’s photograph, and others from her series, “Home-Start Levenouth”, can be seen at Fotospace Gallery, Rothes Halls, Glenrothes, as part of the “Seeing Ourselves” exhibition, which is curated by Document Scotland. The exhibition continues until August 1st 2013.
Document Scotland’s latest newspaper, which accompanies the exhibition can be bought online. Treat yourself. https://new.documentscotland.com/seeing-ourselves-newspaper/
Document Scotland- David, Thank you for letting us showcase your work on the Burry Man of South Queensferry. Can you tell us a little about the background to the custom, and how you first heard about it or became interested to photograph it ?
David Levenson- The Burry Man is the main figure in an annual ritual that takes place in South Queensferry, near Edinburgh every August. A local man is covered from head to foot in thistle burrs. He is paraded through the town at a snails pace supported by two assistants. He is in the costume for nearly nine hours, often in sweltering heat, and can easily lose nearly a stone in weight. Able only to drink through a straw, he is sustained by a few wee drams, and lots of water. I shot it back in 1997 when the Burry Man was Alan Reid, who did it for 25 years, until 1999.
I had seen Homer Sykes classic book “Once A Year” shot in the 1970’s, and was fascinated by the quirky rituals that he had photographed. I was encouraged to shoot my own version of it by Christopher Angeloglou, my picture editor at Colorific!, my agency at the time. Covering some of these events is almost a rite of passage for documentary photographers in the UK. Before Homer, Patrick Ward and Tony Ray Jones had captured elements of it, and before that many other press photographers over the years. I could see from photos of the event that it was one I had to cover. It was however the only one in the story that I shot in Scotland.
DS- How does photographing in Scotland, and at an event like this, fit within your overall photographic practice and interests?
DL- My favourite type of work has always been social documentary, and the recording of events for future posterity. So this project fell naturally into that classification. I have always found Scottish people to be a particularly friendly bunch, and have always enjoyed working up here. It was a very pleasurable day spent following the Burry Man and his team around.
I have always been aware of the historical value of documentary photography, but with hindsight, I wish that I had shot a bit looser in the 1970’s and 80’s. Elements that at the time I had cropped out when shooting, are the things that now give the pictures a historical context. It is very difficult, if not impossible to imagine what around us will change or disappear in years to come. Few photographers have that vision to capture the banality of daily life. Martin Parr is one of the few. Even now just 16 years later, the fashions of those around the Burry Man in the photos, look dated.
When I first left school I worked in a Fleet Street photo agency Fox Photos, and one of my jobs was filing prints in the archive. There were the most fantastic press and feature pictures shot from the 1920’s through to the 1970’s and I learnt so much by studying them. Their value was not just as good photography, but as a historical record of their time and the people who lived then.
You walk through a graveyard, and it’s just unknown names on headstones, but they were all people with fascinating stories to tell once. By documenting their existence in pictures we let them live on. Who goes to visit the grave of their great grandparents? They only exist to us when we have photos to remember them by. Documentary photography is a terribly important thing, but these days so many stupid barriers are put up to try and prevent us taking pictures.
DS- I see from your website that you’ve shot at a few such quirky British customs or festivals, why do you choose to photograph at such events, such customs? Do you feel these customs are dying out, or not? Does the photographing of them help keep them alive do you believe?
DL- I shot events like the Burry Man all around the UK, to build up a quirky story on ancient customs and rituals. At the end I edited the set down to a meaningful one, and went to the Sunday Times magazine with it. They were my first choice to use it and fortunately for me they liked it, and ran it over 10 pages.
I think that most of these events could still be around in a hundred years time – though having said that, I have heard that one, the Britannia Coconut Dancers in Lancashire, is struggling to find new members to take part. That is a tragedy because it is these regional rituals, that help define an area. All of them rely on active participation of the local community to survive.
DS- What draws you to documentary work, say such as your project on the Bank of England?
DL- The thing I love about being a photographer is that it gets you into places that you would normally never go, and enables you to meet people that you would never otherwise know. For example the Bank of England story – they had not let a photographer through the door for a hundred years, when I went in. By chance, I had got talking to the head of their PR on a job, and discovered it was the Banks 300th anniversary coming up. I managed after a lot of effort to talk them into letting me come in and do a behind the scenes reportage. If it wasn’t for the birthday angle, it would not have happened. I got access everywhere, even the gold vaults, deep underground. In fact I went into the gold vaults twice because I cocked up the first shoot! Working on colour film in those days, I hadn’t allowed for the strength of the fluorescent tube lighting, and everything had a green cast…fortunately they let me back down to reshoot it.
DS- How do you disseminate your work, such as that of the Burry Man, and do you find an audience for it?
DL- Apart from its initial publication in the Sunday Times magazine, the images from the story have not been used a great deal since. That is why I was so pleased when Craig Atkinson from Cafe Royal Books, asked to publish the story as a small ‘zine. Having an archive of work, it is nice to be able to re-visit it years later, and have it published in ways that were not possible even a few years ago.
DS- Congratulations on your publication of the Burry Man as a Cafe Royal booklet. What appealed to you about publishing it in an edition of 100, and as such a ‘zine ?
DL- I discovered Craig Atkinson of Cafe Royal Books, after he had published some books by John Claridge, that I had bought from him. Claridge is a top advertising photographer, but grew up in the 60’s in the East End of London. As a young man he had taken the most wonderful black and white documentary images of the area where he lived and the people that he knew. He has been re-discovered and seen by a new audience via the wonderful spitalfieldslife.com blog.
Cafe Royal Books only do limited print runs of a hundred copies. The ‘zine market is a new one to me, but one that has been enabled by digital printing. It seems a great way to have a small story published relatively cheaply. Like you with your Document Scotland paper, there are so many new avenues available to us now to show our work. It is easy to look back on the golden age of Colour Supplements, but too easy to forget all the fantastic stories that never got published!
DS- Where can people buy your very reasonably priced zine ?
DS- Many thanks David for graciously letting us showcase the pics, and hear your words.
David Levenson (UK) began his career at Fleet Street press agency Fox Photos. He shot the Iranian Embassy siege, the Brixton riots and the early days of Lady Diana. Throughout the 1980s Levenson photographed Charles and Diana on Royal Tours around the world, visiting over 50 countries and producing 16 illustrated books on their travels, two of which made the Sunday Times Best Seller list.
David Levenson is the only photographer ever granted full behind the scenes access into the Bank of England, for a story that ran in the Daily Telegraph magazine.