It was with interest recently that I spotted a little link in a mailer from Street Level Photoworks / Photo Networks Scotland, that author Michael Cope would be doing a talk (last week) in Uist about his new book on The Photographs of Archie Chisholm.
I wasn’t aware of the name Archie Chisholm, or of his photography, and on following a few links, and a few emails, Michael Cope (and his publishers Thirsty Books) generously shared a pdf of the new book, and have allowed us to reproduce below an introductory text to the photographic works of Archie Chisholm along with a few of his images. – Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert.
The Photographs of Archie Chisholm: a unique documentary source for the Outer Hebrides in the Late Victorian and Edwardian eras
Archibald Alexander (‘Archie’) Chisholm (1859-1933) was the Procurator Fiscal in Lochmaddy, North Uist during the years 1881 to 1913. Outside of his professional life Archie had many other interests including archaeology and natural history, field sports, especially fishing, and, importantly, photography. What or who sparked Archie’s interest in photography? It is interesting to speculate that he developed his interest through his friendship with Erskine Beveridge the renowned archaeologist, antiquarian and photographer who also lived in North Uist at the same time. We know that in the preface to his book North Uist: Its Archaeology and Topography Beveridge acknowledges Archie as ‘among friends who have been most helpful’.
Archie’s photographic archive comprises nearly 300 images taken in the years 1892 to 1905. The images, taken from Harris to Barra, range from landscapes to portraitures, especially of the working and crofting communities, and from aspects of trade and commerce to the means of transport and communications. As such this is a unique documentary source of the life and times in the Inverness-shire part of the Outer Hebrides during the two decades at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Importantly all the photographs are attributable to one person – so providing continuity across a wide variety of themes not usually seen in other compilations.
Archie’s earliest photograph is dated 1892 and the first public exposure of his work was a series of plates contributed to W.C. Mackenzie’s book History of the Outer Hebrides in 1903. In the same year he provided some images to a series of picture postcards published by the Scottish Home Industries Association. In 1904 he published his own edition of 140 picture postcards known as the Cairt Phostail series.
Archie was keen chronicler of events with many of his photographs taken in and around Lochmaddy to include local celebrations at the annual cattle markets and fairs and a rare glimpse into the festivities surrounding Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in this remote corner of the realm. Also in the late 1890s he produced the contentious ‘eviction photographs’ which showed at least two families being evicted from their houses in Lochmaddy. Archie was active in upholding the rights of crofters and probably saw these events, very close to where he worked and lived, as a way to embarrass the estate owner at the time.
Family researches have gathered together all of Archie’s known photographic images from various museum archives, published pictures and postcards and family and other private collections. As far as possible all the original locations of the images have been established and present day photographs of the same places have been taken to highlight the changes, or lack of them, over the intervening hundred or so years; approximately three-quarters can be properly located.
With many thanks to Michael Cope, and Sean Bradley at Thirsty Books.
Document Scotland are very pleased to announce that we’re being represented in the inaugural Flow PhotoFestival, with two bodies of work. The new photography festival takes place across the Highlands of Scotland throughout September.
Colin’s work documents the ‘beautiful game’ and photographs of football culture in Scotland. Exploring the social process which surrounds football, McPherson immerses himself, and the viewer, into the rituals and practices of the fan as they embark on their weekly experience of football. Attention is given to the banal and the everyday details of the manner in which football is performed by the fan in the season. McPherson produces illuminating and insightful work on a ubiquitous aspect of contemporary Scottish culture. This work was previously shown at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert’sNorth Sea Fishing images are being exhibited at St. Fergus Gallery, Wick Library, Sinclair Terrace, Wick, KW1 5AB. The show runs from 9th Sept – 21st Oct.
High Life Highland are delighted to be hosting a striking exhibition of black and white images shot aboard the seine net fishing boats, Mairead and Argosy, in the North Sea in the 1990’s. These images, by Scottish documentary photographer Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, capture the reality of the life at sea for the fishermen of Scotland’s North East fishing communities – the cramped conditions, the monotony, and the gruelling work in harsh conditions.
The FLOW PhotoFest runs through September at a variety of galleries and exhibition spaces throughout the Highlands of Scotland.
About the North Sea Fishing exhibtion, Shetland Arts wrote: “Scottish documentary photographer Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert captured the reality of the life at sea for the fishermen of Scotland’s North East fishing communities aboard the seine net fishing boats, Mairead and Argosy, in the North Sea in the 1990s.
These images serve as an important record of a period and style of fishing which is already passing into history, an insight into the working conditions for seine net fishermen, operating far from the safety and comforts of the shore. They capture the cramped conditions, monotony, and the grueling work in harsh conditions.
The North Sea – “a confused sea” as it was once described to me and, as one fishing trawler skipper told me, late at night, only the instrument panel lighting the bridge room, “the north sea, she’s a cruel mistress”.
With thanks to Ronnie Hughes and the crew of the Mairead, and Duncan Mackenzie and the crew of the Argosy, for their hospitality and generosity. All photographs shot in 1993 on the Mairead, and 1995 on the Argosy.
Speaking to the Shetland News, Jeremy says of his time photographing in Shetland “It was the period when communism had collapsed and Eastern Europe was opening up. To come to Shetland to see street signs in Cyrillic and people in all these foreign accents walking around – it was a fascinating time.
I remember driving out to the garbage dump. A couple of ships had been impounded in the port and hadn’t been allowed back to sea, and the company weren’t paying the crews any wages.
You had all these guys in the Lerwick garbage dump looking for things they could refurbish to take home, or things they could sell.
And I remember Shetlanders driving up and giving them packets of cigarettes, or bags of clothes and things. It was interesting to see that Shetlanders were rallying around to help them.”
North Sea Fishing, 8th July – 27th August, Bonhoga Gallery, Weisdale Mill, Weisdale ZE2 9LW.
Klondykers, for the next year, at Mareel, North Ness,, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 0WQ.
The North Sea Fishing exhibition, on completion of its run in Shetland, will travel onwards to:
It’s fair to say that tackling the subject of fishermen as a documentary photographer offers both abundant source material, but comes also with a series of pitfalls. Whist the allure of Scotland’s coastal and fishing communities draws us into a rich history set against the contemporary narrative of a once-thriving industry in seemingly terminal decline, the fact that so many great photographers have spent time and effort capturing fishing in all its forms means that the bar is set incredibly high in terms of producing something relevant, interesting and different from what has gone before. Indeed in his ongoing project Mare Liberum, Freedom of the Seas, Davenport cites two legendary bodies of work, Pleine Mer by Jean Gaumy, and Fish Story by Allan Sekula as major influences. So far, so good. When it came to Davenport’s work, made chiefly at a number of locations around north east Scotland since 2014, the then final year photography student at Newport showed us a set of images which although technically good and aesthetically pleasing, left a void in terms of connecting with the subject and telling a story. There was something there, but we could not at that stage see what it was.
Fast forward almost a year, and Davenport’s project reached a milestone as a small selection formed part of his MA final show exhibition. To supplement this, he produced a newspaper with images from the project, giving further context and meaning to his work. This publication has transformed the work and what is presented on the pages illuminates both the photography and the story behind it. The idea came from discussions with friend and fellow photographer, Rocco Venezia, (who also collaborated with the design of the newspaper) to have something other than prints on the wall for the exhibition at West Wharf Gallery in Cardiff.
The end result connects us with the people involved in the story and the state of the Scottish fishing fleet at a time when the implications of Brexit – unknown and uncharted – will probably redefine what it means to be a fisherman in Scotland in the 21st century as the Common Fisheries Policy recedes over the horizon and into history.
It was Davenport’s connection to the area he was born – the town of Banff on the Buchan coast – which gave him the initial impetus to make the work. It is places such as this which have seen the greatest changes in fishing over the past two decades as the European Union’s decommissioning policy has wielded the axe to so many small and medium-sized fishing boats. Concurrently, the consolidation of the industry now means that so-called super trawlers now rule the roost and these enormous and incredibly high-tech vessels compete in Scotland’s territorial waters with boats from outwith the country, to land almost all the nation’s catch.
One of the most striking aspects of the work presented on the pages of his newspaper is the ethnic mix of the crew of the boats which Davenport worked with. It nails the lie that the fishing industry supports scores (hundreds? thousands?) of ‘indigenous’ jobs. I look at the Filipino faces staring back at me from the pages (around 1000 men from the Philippines have crewed for the Scottish fishing industry in the last decade) and wonder what this multicultural workforce makes of Peterhead or Fraserburgh and what these communities make of the men whose honest toil puts fish on our plates and in the nation’s chippies. It is a further mark of how the world of traditional, manual work continues to change in the interconnected, global world of business.
Scotland’s skippers were the most enthusiastic Brexiteers and it will be interesting to see how this plays out over the coming years. Hopefully Davenport, his studies behind him, will continue to find the motivation and skill to continue with this striking and worthwhile project.
12th November 2016 – 19th February 2017 Entry included in museum admission.
Here, Jeremy talks about how the work came about:
“Considering I come from a land-locked family I’ve done my fair share of bobbing about on the waves of the planet, and no sea has more bobbing than the North Sea (although going through the 40degress and 50 degree latitudes of the Southern Ocean was quite interesting). The North Sea – “a confused sea” as it was once described to me and, as one fishing trawler skipper told me, late at night, only the instrument panel lighting the bridge room, “the north sea, she’s a cruel mistress”.
I think my first experience on the North Sea was on a fishing trawler, on an overnight assignment photographing fishing trawlers for a paper. There was a fisherman’s protest, lots of trawlers all together, protesting latest EU rules and regulations, net sizes and quotas. I got sent out to photograph. It was a night of adventure: watch dawn rise, shoot the other boats, back to harbour, home by lunchtime. The skipper that night, Ronnie, was a decent chap. I asked him how long he usually goes out for at a time, “10 days”, was the reply. “Can I come next time?” I asked. He smiled, he laughed, he replied, “if you think you can handle it, you can come, but there’s no going back. If you’re sea sick you’ll be sea sick for 10 days”. Count me in.”
The results of this expedition are captured in these striking images which serve as an important record of a period and style of fishing which is already passing into history and the Scottish Fisheries Museum is pleased to be able to provide our visitors with an insight into the working conditions for seine net fishermen, operating far from the safety and comforts of the shore.
Klondykers, Shetland 1994 Release Date 18.11.15 28 pages 14cm x 20cm b/w digital Edition of 150
“There’s blue on red, red on red, green on black, and that one over there is just rust on rust”, chortled the Coast Guard helicopter pilot as we flew over the waters of the Shetland isles and looked down on the fleet of East European ‘Klondyker’ fish factory ships all moored, all awaiting the arrival of the silver fish.
It was the early 1990’s, Communism had collapsed and new economies were struggling in Eastern Europe. Ships had been sent to Scottish waters to buy up the mackerel and herring catches, and take them back frozen or tinned to feed Bulgaria, Romania and the countries of the former Soviet bloc.
But the arrival of the Klondykers as they were known was gaining unwanted attention, ships were running aground all too frequently on the rocks of Shetland, and on visits into port others were detained, deemed as being unseaworthy. With ships impounded, and without work, crews went unpaid, and the men speaking no English drifted to the garbage dumps to look for items which could be salvaged, recycled, and taken back to Eastern Europe.
I went to the Shetland twice, around 1994, to photograph, both times on assignment, badgering fish merchant agents to take me out to the ships on their speedboats when they visited to cut deals with Bulgarian skippers. Or another time I agreed with the Coast Guard to be used as ‘live practice’, to be lowered by harness and winch onto a moving ship in exchange for getting up in their helicopter to shoot aerial shots of the Klondyker fleet. I readily agreed, for the excitement, for the adventure, and for the access knowing that Colin Jacobson, then picture editor at the Independent Saturday Magazine, would never hire me a helicopter.
Cyrillic signs hung in Lerwick town centre, telling the men of the Klondykers where they could find the Fisherman’s Mission, where they could find God, cups of tea and some help, and you could spot the men as they walked the town, in their Eastern European fashions of leather jackets and jeans. Up at the garbage dump I photographed as islanders drove up to offer the Klondyker men old televisions and electronics, or just to stop by and bring them cigarettes and gifts.
Out on the ships I got lucky and found myself on a ship crewed by Romanians, and I managed to use the little Romanian language skills I’d learned while working on another project outside of Bucharest. I chatted with the ship’s doctor, and he played his accordion for me, we toured the ship, and I photographed as men and women worked, cleaning the mackerel which had just arrived, or played table tennis as they awaited more fish.
The ships have gone now, but the word Klondyker still holds resonance in the Shetland, and of course upon the rocks are the ships which never left. – Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert.
We delivered four lovely boxes of prints and a hard drive of digital files to St Andrews this week and are very pleased that Document Scotland’s work has now become one of the most recent acquisitions to the St Andrews University Special Collection.
We’ve had the pleasure of working with the ever charming Marc Boulay and his team at the University over the last year or so. Thank you Marc for all your help, assistance, support and enthusiasm for our work.
Although it has been a number of years since Document Scotland’s Colin McPherson produced the main body of work in his Catching the Tide series, the photographs of his long-term project documenting the lives of Scotland’s remaining salmon net fishermen continue to be published.
A new book entitled The Salmon Fishers – a history of the Scottish coastal salmon fisheriesby Iain A. Robertson features 14 monochrome images taken from the series. The book is a detailed summary of the history of the ancient tradition of using nets to catch salmon and sea trout for the commercial market and recalls the many twists and turns the industry has had to negotiate to survive into the 21st century. It talks of the lives of the fishermen but also of the bureaucracy and parliamentary strictures which have reduced a once-thriving industry to near-invisibility in many parts of the country.
Colin’s work with the fishermen began in the mid-1990s when the fisheries were still principally owned and managed by great companies which had exploited the salmon for over a century. Firms such as Joseph Johnston & Sons owned the leases to many profitable netting stations and employed hundreds of men. With dwindling fish stocks, the flooding of the market by cheaply-produced farmed salmon and an aggressive buy-out campaign by angling interests, the days of salmon netting seemed numbered. It was this which spurred Colin on to making as complete a record as possible of salmon netting which has lead to many years travelling and photographing the fishermen and their stations from the Solway in the south to the north west tip of Scotland in Sutherland. Companies such as Johnstons are long gone, but the record of their fisheries is in part preserved by Colin’s work.
If Santa brings you a fist full of book tokens at Christmas, what better way to invest them than by ordering a copy of The Salmon Fishers and reading up on a previously ignored part of Scotland’s rural history and tradition?
Paul Duke, a Scottish photographer who now lives in London, has completed a series of black and white portraits of the men and women who work in the fishing industry on the North East coast. Each subject was shot uniformly, standing against a dark backdrop in a portable studio which Paul set-up in shipyards, factories and fish processing sheds. The resulting project is called, “At Sea”.
Paul’s portraits let you know immediately that these are people involved in arduous work. You get the sense that although they are still for the portrait, that their minds are still on the job, wondering when their colleagues will call them back to the task at hand. Although the sea, the source of these livelihoods, is never seen, its smell and wetness lingers in each picture.
No sense of nostalgic hero-worship for people living arduous lives stifles the project. Paul’s generous approach to his subjects and his simple straight-on compositions remind us of that very real people still rely on the sea’s bounty for work and a wage whether they be mums or dads, school-leavers or seasoned professionals. Document Scotland was excited to hear that Paul has an up-coming book and a couple of exhibitions are about to take place also, so we wanted to find out some more about the origins of At Sea.
When did you realise you wanted to do this project?
My wife’s grandfather was born in Macduff. As a child she went back for summer holidays with her family along the Moray Firth. Like myself, she is a Scot – we met at the Royal College of Art – like many young people who go to London to study – we got stuck, had a family, and have lived here ever since. I’m sure it’s an age thing, but we started to get very homesick a number of years ago – we decided then to buy a seaside cottage along this coastline, we had an overwhelming need to have one foot back in Scotland.
Over the years I started to make friends with people from the local community. Many, if not all, had connections or family who worked in the fishing industry in one-way or another. I was well aware through media coverage that the fishing industry was experiencing a decline – it was the first hand stories that made me realize that it would be timely to document this community during this critical period – I didn’t want to present a nostalgic viewpoint of the industry, my intention was always to offer a pertinent comment on the present – a slice of time, if you like.
What made you go for the lit portraits with backdrop approach?
Strangely enough most of my previous project-work has been made using available light. The decision to use location lighting for this project was easy actually – one I was most comfortable with during the early stages of making the work. I knew the project would be done over a long period of time and at different times of the year. I had to achieve continuity in the set and I knew this approach would ensure this – I also had to make sure that every shoot was productive, and I couldn’t rely on the weather. It was also important for me to gain parity amongst the sitters – applying a constant, in this case, quality of lighting, was both a technical and aesthetic device employed to achieve this. The plain backdrop reinforced the idea of commonality – many of the locations I used were busy places with lots of activity and clutter – it was necessary therefore to remove these distractions, to democratize the portrait and encourage the viewer to focus on the sitter, the gaze. Again as another measure to support this I shot in black and white – I needed to strip it down to its core – I wanted to simplify the language.
How did you find your subjects?
One of the first things I had to find and organize before I started shooting was good locations. This was a slow process and it took time to get the trust and permission to set-up my portable studio in these busy working environments. There were certain key people who made this possible, and with their help, I started to find good spaces. I quickly found a routine, I would set-up early in the morning, get everything ready, then go out and chat to people. I would let them know where I was based for the day, and they would come and find me. It’s fair to say, there was a lot of hanging around, I had to be patient and some days were better than others.
Were you seeking-out specific kinds of faces?
During the making of the work I was happy to engage with everybody and couldn’t be too choosy about whom I wanted or didn’t want to shoot. Although people were warm and accommodating, it was a challenge finding subjects comfortable enough to have their picture taken. It was a very alien task for many to down tools, so to speak, to stand in front of a camera in the workplace, in front of their friends and workmates and it was hard to keep the sitters attention. I worked very quickly and always on my own – 6×7 medium format camera, one roll of film per sitter – 10 shots. Each portrait was done in a 5-minute time span – there was no choice really, it was the only way to get the portrait in frenetic surroundings.
After I stopped shooting, and during editing for the exhibitions and book, I made decisions regarding the type of faces and people I wanted to use. During the process of shooting I wanted to concentrate on getting the portraits – it took time, focus and energy just doing this, so I understood quite early on in the project that I wouldn’t over analyse the work in progress – I was aware of what I was producing, but I wanted the development of the work to be as organic and as honest as I possibly could. It wasn’t until the final stages of editing that I had clarity. There are always many factors that influence choice in editing, but with this work, I approached the task in anthropological terms also – it is the people who make the industry after all – through careful selection I wanted to provide representation that would create the narrative.
What did your subjects think of the experience?
I make a point of always giving the subjects a print of their portrait – it only seems fair to me. The reaction was positive and supportive. I think the community in general understood that my motives were genuine. I worked on this project over a three-year period and shot in excess of one hundred portraits – I spoke to many people and heard various accounts and stories about the decline of an industry – it was a humbling experience and a privilege to have the community embrace the project – it was their collaboration that saw the project through.
Tell us about the exhibition and the book
The book was never my main intention to start with. I always thought that the exhibition would be the final outcome and the most appropriate thing for the work. The exhibition format is exciting, it’s always satisfying to present the work to an audience but, nevertheless, it is a transitory experience. The culture of the ‘photography book’ as an artifact has grown in recent years, and I realized through discussion with my contemporaries that a publication was valid and, would offer the project longevity. Peter Willberg, an old friend from the RCA, designed the book. Peter is a celebrated book designer and, at the top of his game – he has produced many fine books for major artists, galleries and museums – I was very fortunate that he agreed to take the project on.
John Bellany, who sadly died last month, kindly wrote a very poignant and heartfelt piece earlier this year, as an afterword for the portraits – I feel very honoured and proud that his words are included in the book – John more that any other Scottish artist understood the significance of the fishing industry and its people.
On 1 November, the project will go on show at Duff House, Banff – 10 life-sized prints from the series. This majestic country gallery is central to the community and it will give me great pleasure to hang the work in this noble space – on a personal level it offers the opportunity to give something back to the community – an offer of gratitude to the people who helped me realize my initial goals.
More images from Paul’s project can be seen at his website….http://paul-duke.co.uk/at_sea.html
His exhibition open at Duff House – Banff, 01 November 2013 – 17 January 2014
How many archives have you ever come across that document one area of a country, that span 112 years, and from which all the images were shot by three generations of photographers from the same family ? Not many we expect. Is it even possible you wonder. But indeed, as great as it sounds, there is a collection which exists such as that described.
It is with great privilege and excitement here at Document Scotland, that today we run both a large article and a selection of images from the impressive Johnston Collection based in Wick, a collection spanning 112 years and encompassing the work of three generations of the Johnston family.
We only found the website of the Johnston Collection recently, after a tip-off from Niall McDiarmid, but with relish we’ve been perusing the images, and very kindly, Harry Gray, Chairman of the Collection, has granted us permission to feature some of the beautiful images, and also kindly provided the following article for us to publish.
In 1976 in the town of Wick in the far north of Scotland Alexander Johnston, photographer, retired. A not uncommon event in everyday life but in this instance his retirement brought to an end 113 years of the Johnston family photographic business. His retirement also affected The Wick Society, a local group founded by Wick historian Iain Sutherland who was concerned about the changing face of the town and its impact on the local heritage and its preservation.
Alexander Johnston was interested in the thoughts and ambitions of the Wick Society and approached Iain Sutherland with the offer of his photographic equipment and anything else of interest for the intended museum.
Former Wick Society Chairman and founder member of the Society Donald Sinclair takes up the story; “a group of us met with Alex Johnston and he first showed us his garage then took us upstairs to his dark room and store. There was little light, the walls were undecorated wood and everything was very damp. The main enlarger was on a small platform in a small room, this was because the light source was on the floor above i.e. the condenser lens box was fitted tight to the ceiling, the light source turned out to be an enamel bucket with a lamp holder fitted to the bottom. The enlarger was in fact an old plate camera which had been modified. When this was removed it simply fell to pieces, the joints had parted and any screws and nails had all rusted away. Another of the Johnston enlargers had been constructed as a reflected light enlarger and this can be seen in the reconstructed dark room in Wick Heritage Museum.
We couldn’t believe our eyes when we entered the former dark room and adjoining rooms. In those far off days there was very limited knowledge of temperature and humidity control or light levels on the longevity of photographic materials and there were thousands upon thousands of glass negatives some stacked in piles three feet high, others wrapped in sheets of blotting paper. Ironically it was the stacking that saved many of the negatives and although some were damaged at the edges most were okay. One secret of the survival of many of the plates was the use of Copal varnish. The proof of this was made clear when we came across some stereoscopic images where only one side had been varnished and remained clear while the opposite image had deteriorated. Many of the negatives seemed to have been made using a collodion based emulsion and the images on those were lost for good. Many were stuck together and others irreparably broken. So of the estimated 100,000 negatives about one half was destroyed. The only premise available to the Wick Society at that time was the old Pilot House overlooking the harbour and the remaining 50,000 or so plates were, with great effort moved into that building.”
Now fast rewind back to 1828 the year that French Photographer, Niecepore Niepce took what is recognised as the first photograph. One year later the firm of Charles Coventry, plumbers of Edinburgh sent one of their men north to Wick to work on the lead flashings on the roof of the new Parish Church of Wick. His name was William Johnston. When the church was completed in 1830 William decided to stay on in Wick. The new Thomas Telford designed fishing village and harbour of Pulteneytown on the south side of Wick bay which had begun in 1805 was a hive of building activity as the herring fishing industry expanded and William saw great possibilities for the future. He settled down, marrying a local girl Louisa Williamson and they had nine children, the eldest, Alexander was born in 1839. This was the year in which Jacques Mande Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot introduced the first commercially successful photographic processes.
Alexander, who was destined to become the founder of the photographic business left school at the age of 14 to enter the family plumbing business working as a clerk and at one point he worked in the harbour office. By 1859 he was back in the family business but his interest was awakening in the new art of photography. By 1863 he had set up a small studio at his father’s house and very soon after that he had premises in Wick High Street. To the local population he must have cut a strange figure indeed as he walked the streets with his mobile darkroom and camera on a hand cart capturing the early scenes at the busy harbour. (This would have been the “wet plate” collodion process) Wick was now the “herring capital of Europe” and the “silver darlings” as the herring were known attracted over 1100 boats which crowded into the harbour over the fishing season June to September each year while thousands of migrant workers swelled the town’s population. They were photographed preparing their boats, setting the tan sails for sea, landing catches and onshore, were recorded in scenes of intense activity which show the teams of workers who gutted, cured and packed and carted the salted barrels of herring for export all over the world. The Johnston plates also show the boat builders, coopers, rope makers, basket weavers, plumbers, shop keepers and others in supporting industries and at leisure to give a wonderful glimpse of social history. The images seem to have been developed on location with a complicated mix of chemicals as, working by touch he poured the liquids on the plates hidden from sight and light inside his mobile darkroom.
In 1869 the Kildonan Gold Rush in Sutherlandshire brought over 700 miners to the area in search of riches. Alexander accompanied by a friend in a borrowed horse drawn carriage adapted to make a darkroom, made a four day journey to the diggings at “Baile an Or” (the place of gold) to capture the scenes, only seven plates survive and these are the only known photographs of gold diggings and shanty town in this country
Portrait photography had begun to catch the public imagination. The studio part of the business expanded quickly. By 1872 Alexander had to move to much larger premises in Wick’s Bridge Street as people began to come to him and his younger brother James (now a partner) to have their photographs taken. Their business continued to grow and in 1892 new spacious premises were acquired in Wick Market Place. In 1895 a branch had been opened in the town of Thurso which was attended to by Alexander.
Alexander did not enjoy the best of health and in 1896 while he was in Edinburgh for medical treatment he died suddenly at the age of 57.
His son William now 17 appears to have had some experience of the business as he assumes a partnership with uncle James and travelling each day by train takes on the running of the Thurso branch. The opening of the Thurso studio created a rich collection from that end of the county as William, as well as looking after the studio travelled all over the area capturing an invaluable collection of images of town and rural life of the time.
With the outbreak of WW1 there was a surge in portraiture as men departing for military service had images of their loved ones recorded as reminders of happier days at home. This has also resulted in a rich vein for today’s genealogical researchers. James Johnston passed away in 1922 and William shouldered the business until his son Alex returned from Art College in 1932 and joined the business, working there until 1942 when he was called up, serving as a photographer with the RAF for the duration of WW2. The Johnston’s were never tied to the studio and although portraiture provided the bulk of their income the working and social life of the county was caught through the twenties and thirties, scenes that are highly regarded today as an important social commentary but were in the words of Alex Johnston “simply a way of making extra income by selling picture postcards.” Their first love was painting and indeed this talent ran through the family from the beginning and examples of their art are displayed in Wick Heritage Museum. William passed away in 1950 and Alexander ran the business until his retiral in 1976 bringing 113 years of Johnston photography to an end. Alexander passed away in 2011 at the age of 101.
In 1979 the local Council offered the Wick Society the lease of numbers 18 – 27 Bank Row a row of early 19th century terraced houses. This was accepted and in 1981 the new centre was opened. Concurrently with all the work renovating and repairing the buildings the Johnston Collection was moved into its new home.
The first stage of cataloging could now begin and the negatives were sorted into two initial categories “scenes” and “portraits” the latter were passed a box at a time to a group of volunteer ladies who, using an old x-ray screen examined each image and recorded any information that the photographer had scribed along the edges, usually a name, address and date, some of the negatives were wrapped in blotting paper with the information written on the paper. At this point the Society invested in conservation quality boxes and envelopes and for the first time the negatives were in a safe environment.
The “scene” images were initially handled by Donald Sinclair and the late Willie Lyall the latter choosing the images while Donald, using the enlarger as his light source began to produce copy contact prints. They worked two hours every Tuesday and Thursday evenings and at the weekends. While Willie chose the images Donald set up the dark room, mixing and stabilising the temperature of the developer, stop bath and fixer. In the early days frequent test prints were made to assess the negative density/f-stop to adjust the light intensity and the exposure time and as techniques improved 50 prints were processed in two hours.
By 2002 a new age was entered, the scanning of the prints onto a computer was begun and a numbering system worked out and at that point it was possible to produce good quality prints up to A3 size.
In 2008 a new group was formed in the Wick Society named the Johnston Section and people were recruited into this new section which was given the remit to bring forward the digitisation of the entire Johnston Collection. At first, time was spent gathering information, making contact with other groups with digitisation experience and trying to produce costs and planning for the project. Computers, an A4 flatbed scanner and large format printer were acquired making it possible to scan, restore and exhibit A1 size prints which showed up the incredible detail captured within the glass negatives. Exhibitions have been held in Wick, Thurso and in the rural villages of Halkirk and Castletown. These exhibitions were very popular but the intention of the group was to preserve the collection as well as to display it.
In digital form the collection can be used on the w.w.w., for viewers within the museum and in presentations off site. This would also result in the decreased handling of the original images and enable the museum to make hard copies.
In 2009 North Highland College saw an opportunity to join a national project, Joint Information Services Committee (JISC), which aims to make historic documents and images available to the College/University network. This would be done via a website from which students can download material for study projects and the North Highland College proposed that the Johnson Collection would be suitable material for this project. The North Highland College had the further objective of setting up a training course in the practise of scanning/ digitisation/archiving as a contribution to supplying trained manpower for the UKAEA Nuclear Archive planned for Wick.
The agreed standard for scanning resolution was 1200 dpi, to allow large scale printing and high quality files to be stored as tiffs for the Society, as lower resolution jpegs suitable for student projects and as low resolution images for the newly created web site www.johnstoncollection.net. Un-restored tiff files are kept by the Society as well as copies of those cleaned up for exhibition.
Facilities, training and equipment were provided by North Highland College for Wick Society volunteers to work alongside the College Media Unit to digitise the ten thousand images required for the JISC project and the equipment has become the property of the Wick Society on its completion. In July 2012 North Highland College took the decision to close the Wick Campus where the Johnston Section had been working on the digitisation process. This had been expected and The Wick Society had already converted attic rooms in the Wick Heritage Museum into a workshop and all of the equipment was moved to there. The efforts to scan the remaining forty thousand negatives in the Collection continue and to date the Johnston Collection web site contains nearly twenty thousand images.
We all get 15 minutes of fame, so the story goes. To stretch the Warholian reference, in 2005 I got the best part of half-an-hour starring on prime time television. Not strictly true, I admit. It was my photography and the subject of my work which captured the attention of the nation. I was merely a narrator. A walk-on part in my own story. I was reminded of this episode in my career as the short film was first broadcast exactly seven years ago today and featured my work with Scotland’s last salmon net fishermen, a project which had already been ongoing for around a decade.
Entitled ‘Catching the Tide’ and commissioned by Scottish Television and Grampian Television, it allowed me to introduce my work and two of the pivotal figures in the salmon netting community with whom I had formed a strong bond and collaborated with over the years. The film was a family affair: directed by my sister Katrina McPherson and edited by her husband Simon Fildes. Filmed beautifully by cameraman Neville Kidd, the documentary managed to capture the ever-changing weather, dramatic scenery and the perseverance and effort required by the fishermen. Having worked with the whole crew and production team previously as a stills photographer on a number of projects, I felt completely at ease during the filming, even managing to keep seasickness at bay during a stormy afternoon at the bag nets off Auchmithie.
I’ve no idea what the viewing figures were like, but I did get a lot of feedback about the film and the photography. Most was positive; some was negative; a couple of letters were threatening. I knew I was tackling a very sensitive story with the film. The salmon netsmen have many enemies, particularly within the powerful angling fraternity. Those critics didn’t like the slant of the content. My view was that my work was ventilating a particular point-of-view. Anyone can disagree with or criticise that perspective. That is their right. I felt strongly that it was story which had to be told.
The film went on to be repeated on terrestrial television and has been shown subsequently at a number of film festivals across the world, including the Tehran Film Festival, which threw up the tantilising prospect of my words being dubbed into Persian!
For me, it was an interesting way to diversify the direction of a project which was very close to my heart and which I had been associated with for many years. It showed just how a project can change direction and mutate during its lifetime. And it gave me my 24 minutes of fame.