Research Note 10: Orkney Library & Archive

Orkney Library & Archive, Kirkwall Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2022)

The photography of Dr Beatrice Garvie (1872-1956) has come to my attention solely through the ongoing meticulous work of artist and researcher Fiona Sanderson. Sanderson had come across Garvie’s photographs through her own connection to North Ronaldsay, Orkney. As part of her time on the island as the community doctor in the 1930s and 40s, Garvie had photographed Sanderson’s grandmother ‘Jenny South Ness’. Sanderson has, over several years, presented her ongoing research as part of a number of events including ‘Holm Sound’ (Episode 7: BLØM, 2022); and XPoNorth’s podcast series ‘Unforgotten Highland Women’ (2022). As an artist involved in a ‘Culture Collective’ project in North Ronaldsay, Sanderson has also introduced Dr Garvie and her work to North Ronaldsay schoolchildren. As part of her  research, Sanderson has contacted Garvie’s family, and, through her own connections with North Ronaldsay, the families of those in the photographs. This has allowed Sanderson to work collaboratively to name and caption, when not noted in Garvie’s own captions. Sanderson also recognises the ethical issue of use of the photographs in further public platforms such as exhibitions and events, asking permission as some may not wish to have photographs of family members shown. This research approach is also echoed in Shona Main’s work with Jenny Gilbertson’s early films in Shetland, asking communities to name those beyond the central islanders involved.

Like Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004), who lived with the MacRae sisters in North Glendale, South Uist for five years in the early 1930s’, Dr Garvie also lived in the community she was photographing for 15 years from the 1930s to ‘40s. As can be noted through the work of Shetland filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson who also, latterly as a teacher, lived and worked in the community she had documented, this sustained period of immersion allowed for a full understanding and recording of the changing seasons and their impact on the island.  For Gilbertson,  ‘A Crofter’s Life in Shetland’ (1931) was filmed over the period of a year, showing seasonal farming and fishing cycles. Seasons can also be perceived in Garvie’s work through the types of farm labour she photographed. The weather is also apparent, for example, in one sequence  of unloading the boat ‘The Earl Sigurd’, with snow lying on the pier in the foreground. As Sanderson points out, Garvie as a doctor is likely to be the only woman photographer to have taken photographs of the babies and children she brought into the world, there is a sense of time passing in her photographs of the children beginning to grow up, from babies into toddlers. Dr Kenneth Robertson, a physician in South Uist from 1956-1981, is a later example of a doctor in Scotland photographing the community they served.

Garvie captured communal work in North Ronaldsay, from re-roofing the baker’s shop, to repairing the unique wall that encircles the high shore line around the island, keeping the seaweed-eating sheep on the foreshore. Her photographs really have a unique sense of ‘place’, with the lighthouse, as a main landmark, often discernible in photographs where she has focussed on farm work, such as of a woman scything. There are several sequences of activities relating to ‘tangle work’, such as men and women piling up kelp in heaps; and then placing these in ‘kilns’ on the shore to set light to. A handwritten description on the back of one of the photographs reads:

‘Tangle stacks. Tangle is collected from the beach during winter… left on this ridge of stones above the beach – about July is forked into circular shallow pits… and burned, becoming lumps of dark grey material. This is shipped to Grangemouth Chemical Works.

As I have noted before, some of the male photographers of this period were keen to perpetuate the idea of island Scotland as a romantic and remote location, however Garvie’s description firmly links the labour of the islanders to Scottish industry, on this occasion, in Grangemouth. As we see later, the boat and the plane, also recorded in Garvie’s photography, link up North Ronaldsay to Orkney mainland and mainland Scotland. Jenny Gilbertson’s film ‘A Crofter’s Life in Shetland’ also shows modernity and tradition living side by side in this period.

One of the key aspects of Garvie’s style is her ability to catch ‘movement’. Her photography often captures a ‘live’ rather than staged, activity. She has made no effort to edit or to ask for the action to be repeated or frozen, for the benefit of the camera. The hands of those working the land are often a blur. In one  photograph, she captures a man throwing a rope to the incoming boat. His body is in a diagonal, with the black of the boat’s hull providing a backdrop for the water droplets cascading from the rope to be seen against. As well as the movement of the subject, when seeing an activity in photographic sequence, such as the tangle work, Garvie’s own movement as a photographer becomes apparent. She ranges round the point of focus, photographing up close, then moving behind to photograph the same activity at a distance. Sanderson is currently working with Garvie’s relatives to identify the type of camera she used. From the low angle of the camera looking up, as was synonymous with the period, it looks likely that that camera was held at waist height.

A second aspect to note in Garvie’s style as a photographer is that her compositions often revolve around strong shapes. This may be the distinct curve of a furrow connecting up to horses and plough in the foreground, or placing the large stone circle of a shallow pit on the shore as the immediate focus in the photograph, with the islanders burning kelp in another pit, in the far distance. This sense of shape also comes into her pictures of children. In one, a triangular composition is dominant; a large triangular wooden frame is echoed by the triangle of a mother’s body (who is sitting perched within it), which in turn frames the baby, dressed in white, that she holds in her lap. These shapes and her liking for the abstract is also followed through with unusual cropping in her framing of the subject. A young boy on top of a gate post is framed from just below his shoulders down. This, and Garvie’s innate understanding of perspective, sets the triangle created by his legs echoed by the chimneyed end of a cottage in the distance.  In looking at Garvie’s photography as a whole, in the 500-strong collection of photographs, these are not unintended compositions but a preference for strong and unusual compositions.

This is carried through to Dr Garvie’s aerial work. Orkney Archive holds the Gunnie Moberg (1941-2007) collection where, in Moberg’s work such as ‘Stone Built’ (1979, Stromness Books & Prints), Moberg took photographs from an airplane of Orkney’s archaeological sites and stone structures, including the ‘seaward wall’ of North Ronaldsay. It is pleasing to think that in the same archive, Dr Garvie is a forerunner to Moberg. Garvie photographed aspects of an aerodrome being built on North Ronaldsay and the excitement of island events such as the first Royal Mail flight in 1939 linking up the UK to North Ronaldsay. Again drawn to abstract shapes, Garvie also photographed North Ronaldsay, Kirkwall and Caithness by air, the shape of the white wing  sometimes visually echoing that of an island peninsula. In compositions that focus soley on dark and alternating light strips of fields with the dots of the haystacks, her aerial work is at its most sublime.

Just as the women photographers Violet Banks and Margaret Fay Shaw kept their work in photograph albums, the holdings at Orkney Library & Archive show that Dr Garvie kept the majority of her work in albums too. However, whereas Banks’ albums were only found through the sale of the dresser that they were kept in, Sanderson discovered that the accession of the albums had begun following the death of Dr Garvie, with North Ronaldsay islanders asking Garvie’s relatives for the return of the photograph albums. Their importance as an archive of a generation of islanders, to their families, is a key part of these works.

The  forthcoming exhibition ‘Glean: Early 20th Century Women Filmmakers and Photographers in Scotland’, at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, (12 Nov 2022-12 March 2023) will feature the work of fourteen women. A selection from Dr Garvie’s work will add important co-ordinates, those of North Ronaldsay and Orkney, to the breadth of locations these fourteen women worked in. Furthermore, Dr Garvie’s work brings with it a distinct style and approach to recording a Scottish community over a prolonged period of time in the 1930s and 40’s. Sanderson will be developing an event as part of this exhibition programme.

With thanks to Fiona Sanderson, and to Lucy Gibbon and Colin Rendall at Orkney Library & Archive.

Research Note 9: Edinburgh Central Library and Highland Folk Museum

The latest research visits (April & May 2022) have been on the trail of a particular series of photographs by Dr Isabel Frances Grant (1887-1983) that are part of the IF Grant Photographic Collection. I moved from one digital archive, am baile to two physical archives- Edinburgh Central Library which holds the photographic collection itself and Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, which is the embodiment and repository for IF Grant’s wider work as the founder of Am Fasgadh.

IF Grant described Am Fasgadh as ‘a pioneering attempt to create a Highland variant of the well-known folk museums of Scandinavia’. [1] She originally organised an exhibition in Inverness in 1930, in the hope that someone upon seeing the history and the material culture of different areas of the Highlands and islands, would create such a museum. Whilst the exhibition, lasting 7 weeks and receiving ‘close on 20,000 visitors’ [2] proved popular, no one came forward. IF Grant then went on to tour over Scotland to collect and buy artefacts, which she subsequently housed in three iterations of Am Fasgadh (‘The Shelter’). Grant saw Am Fasgadh as ‘providing a shelter for homely Highland things’ [3] in Iona (established 1935), Laggan and Kingussie. Following gifting her collection and museum to the four Scottish Universities [4] in 1954, Am Fasgadh was taken over by Highland Region in 1975.

The IF Grant Collection online at am baile and held at Edinburgh Central Library brings together IF Grant’s own photographs with the work of other photographers that she purchased, including Margaret Fay Shaw and Violet Banks. All the photographs depict different aspects of Highland life. Shaw’s photographs augment a gap in the collection on South Uist; whilst Banks’ works are of the ‘Last remaining inhabited thatched cottage’ in Eigg and a white thatched cottage in Sconser, Skye.

Grant’s own photographs, (attributed to her in the IF Grant Collection), depict a keen interest in different building styles and variations of thatched cottages across Scotland. Whilst there are examples from the larger islands of Lewis, Mull, Skye, and Arran, Grant also photographed buildings in Colonsay, Ulva and Lismore. She took examples across the north of Scotland in Thurso and Durness, around to north west, in Mallaig and Morar. Intriguingly, there is also a sub section of Grant’s photographs which are of ruinous cottages, which on one emotive level illustrate that this way of life was fast disappearing. Grant notes the cause in the early 1930s as ‘the Scottish Board of Agriculture was carrying a housing drive. Every steamer I travelled in appeared to be loaded with piles of window frames, sanitary equipment, etc… one began to wonder if any cottage of the traditional style would be left’. [5]

My research day at Highland Folk Museum, concentrating on IF Grant’s own photography, has proved to be three-fold – seeing the volume of photography that Grant commissioned from other photographers, mostly relating to Am Fasgadh; the subsequent usage of that photography to disseminate the existence of the museum further afield; and, some context relating to her own photography series of the cottages. Firstly, Grant worked with different photographers as well as postcard publishers Valentines and JB White, to document artefacts, interiors and exteriors of the three iterations of Am Fasgadh. She then utilised this documentation for spreading the word of the museum, in particular as saleable composite image postcards for museum visitors. A number of the photographs also illustrate articles on the museum in Scots Magazine and The Listener. Names that crop up repeatedly in her photograph album captions are Glasgow photographer John Mackay, who took photographs of the objects such as stools, chairs and farming implements, on mostly stark white backgrounds; and Donald B MacCulloch, whose address stamped on the back of one loose photograph in an album places him in Aviemore. In amongst another archival box, several visitors mailed IF Grant photographs of their day at the museum, which illustrates cameras were very much everyday objects used by the general population.

Cover of photograph album, with IF Grant’s handwritten index Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2022)

In the photograph albums held in Am Fasgadh, Grant’s own captions provide a good level of detail relating to the authorship of photographs of the museum interiors and exteriors. An example is ‘Large photograph by D.B. MacCulloch’. However, on the pages there are also smaller, unattributed photographs of the museum. One option would be to surmise she did not note when a photograph is one of hers, but it is difficult to be sure of her authorship when she worked with numerous photographers. In Box 6, there are two foolscap sheets of paper, which are the only visual reference to the series of thatched cottages held at Edinburgh Central Library. There are 6 photographs affixed across the two sheets, with captions relating to object and place, in IF Grant’s handwriting. ‘1. A ruined cottage in Inverness-shire’ shows the pared back gable, stripped of thatch. It sits on the page next to ‘2. A very primitive cottage in Barra with hearth in the middle of the room’. The photograph captions do not state the author, however the image of the Barra interior, is definitely one of Margaret Fay Shaw’s. The Edinburgh Central Library holds larger reprints of this image, correctly attributed to Shaw. On the second foolscap page, the photograph with caption ‘5. Lewis houses’, reverts back to likely being taken by Grant. In this example, is the blurring of authorship down to IF Grant’s larger role of collector? Did she see her own photography as part of a larger collection, alongside other photographers’ work?

In Box 5, commissioned Aviemore photographer Donald B MacCulloch appears again, this time writing an article ‘Am Fasgadh: The Iona Museum’, for Scots Magazine and Scottish Country Life. MacCulloch states, ’She [IF Grant] has also formed a remarkable collection of old thatch cottages, and of various domestic activities carried on throughout the North Country and islands’ (P.48). This is the first external appraisal of the series as part of a collection.

Furthermore, the inclusion of these photographs in the exhibition catalogue for the ‘Highland Exhibition Inverness’ 1930, pre-dates this series to Grant’s subsequent establishing of Am Fasgadh’s first iteration in 1935. The introduction essay on P30 notes:

There will be a collection of portfolios [in the exhibition] for those who care to spend more time … there will be a large collection of photographs of old Highland cottages and of familiar work scenes.

The last entry in the catalogue reads: ‘Portfolio of Photography of life in the Highlands, lent by Miss IF Grant, Balnespick.’ Grant saw this particular portfolio’s purpose as one which augmented the exhibition, for those interested in the subject.

It is not unusual to traverse ground between archives to understand better the motivations and aims that each of the women photographers and filmmakers from early 20th Century in Scotland had for their work. The path between Edinburgh Central Library and Highland Folk Museum is no different. In a photocopied bibliography of Dr IF Grant’s written work, held at Am Fasgadh, it is noted ‘”Random recollections of the distribution of Local Types of Cottages”, typescript, 17pp, deposited with Edinburgh City Libraries, a companion piece to IF Grant Collection of photographs (1965)’. I shall look forward to returning to Edinburgh Central Library to learn more about this portfolio of images, and, hopefully, to shed more light on the photography she authored.

With thanks to Helen Pickles, Highland Folk Museum and Iain Duffus, Edinburgh Central Library

Am Fasgadh entrance Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2022)

Footnotes

[1] P.11, ‘The Making of Am Fasgadh: An account of the Origins of the Highland Folk Museum by its Founder’, Isabel Frances Grant, (2007, National Museums Scotland).

[2] From Report of the Joint Honorary Secretaries to The Executive Committee of the Highland Exhibition 1930, typescript, (Accessions no: 2:1985), Am Fasgadh

[3] P.191, ‘The Making of Am Fasgadh: An account of the Origins of the Highland Folk Museum by its Founder’, Isabel Frances Grant, (2007, National Museums Scotland).

[4] P.10, Hugh Cheape, introduction, ‘The Making of Am Fasgadh: An account of the Origins of the Highland Folk Museum by its Founder’, Isabel Frances Grant, (2007, National Museums Scotland).

[5] P.30, Ibid.

Hive Mind: Researchers of Early Twentieth Century Women Photographers and Filmmakers in Scotland

In 2019, I was invited by National Trust for Scotland archivist Fiona J Mackenzie to be involved in the #CannaTweet Conference ‘The Female (or Those Identifying as Female) Photographer in Scotland & Her Archives- Contribution and Connection’ [1], which gave me the opportunity to consider the field of researchers currently working on early twentieth century filmmakers and photographers in Scotland.

Shona Main is exploring the work of Shetland film-maker Jenny Gilbertson  (1902-1990), whose archive is held by Shetland Museum and Archive. Shona is a Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities (SGSAH) supported practice-led candidate at University of Stirling and the Glasgow School of Art.

Maya Darrell Hewins is a PhD student at Shetland College UHI, investigating community-led archiving initiatives, with Shetland Film Archive as her primary case study. This volunteer-run community led group collect, manage and make accessible moving image material about Shetland, including amateur film footage.

Caroline Douglas is a PhD candidate at Royal College of Art. Her project ‘Women in Early Scottish Photography’ has researched the women involved in the wider process of making early photography, focusing on those who were assistants and subjects as well as makers.

Isabel Segui (University of St Andrews) has researched filmmaker sisters Ruby Grierson (1904-1940) and Marion Grierson (1907-1998), examining how they are documented in the Grierson Collection University of Stirling Archives. This was funded by SGSAH. Her new website is https://thegriersonwomen.wordpress.com/

Rachel Pronger and Camilla Baier are ‘archive activists’. Their ‘Invisible Women’ project seeks to re-insert forgotten women filmmakers of the 1930s and 1940s back into the story of film. This includes Kay Mander (1915-2013) and Evelyn Spice Cherry (1904-1990).

Sarah Neely (University of Glasgow), as well as her scholarship on Orcadian filmmaker Margaret Tait (1918-1999), has also written on Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889-1982) who travelled to Greenland and the Arctic to make botanical films. Royal Scottish Geographic Society holds Hutchison’s archive.

Fiona J Mackenzie is Canna House National Trust for Scotland archivist. She has been re-interpreting Margaret Fay Shaw’s (1903-2004) images, films and words, telling the story of Shaw’s life and work. She builds on the lifework of retired Canna House archivist Magda Sagarzazu.

I spoke about Edinburgh photographer Violet Banks (1886-1985) and M.E.M. Donaldson (1876-1958). Banks travelled across the Hebrides in the 1920s. Her archive is at Historic Environment Scotland. M.E.M. Donaldson made many walks across the Highlands and Islands, using her photographs for her travel guides. The landscapes part of her archive is held by Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. Read more about these two photographers here. [2]

Rachel Boyd, currently studying MLitt History of Photography at University St Andrews, was the second speaker at #CannaTweet Conference, exploring how Margaret Fay Shaw’s 1930s’ photographs of South Uist linked both to the land and the community, arguing that ‘Shaw’s portraits were faithfully attributed with Gaelic patronymics, situating them in their ancestral heritage, attributed not just by the character of the local landscape enveloping them or their farming implements – but in relation to each other.’

Follow on Twitter: @GaelicSinger, @shonamain @SarahRNeely @RachelPronger @camillabaier @rachelwboyd @isabelgui @caddydouglas @Maya_D_H @BrownriggJenny

Footnotes

[1] #CannaTweet Conference took place 14.5.19. A Tweet conference is a method to present a paper entirely on Twitter, across an agreed number of tweets per speaker.

[2]  Hugh Cheape has written on M.E.M. Donaldson in the excellent article ‘Herself and Green Maria: the photography of M.E.M. Donaldson’, Cheape, H, ‘Studies in Photography’ (2006). Jennifer Morag Henderson is currently writing Donaldson’s biography.

 

Observing Women at Work: Franki Raffles

‘Kvaerner, Govan’, (1988) Franki Raffles, from the exhibition ‘Observing Women at Work: Franki Raffles’, (2017), Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art. Photo: Alan Dimmick

In 2017, I had the privilege to curate an exhibition of Franki Raffles’ (1955-94) work. This project is in partnership with Dr Alistair Scott (Franki Raffles Archive Project, Edinburgh Napier University) and is supported by St Andrews Special Collections.

Franki Raffles was a feminist social documentary photographer. A new publication accompanies the exhibition ‘Observing Women at Work’ in the Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (4 March – 27 April 2017). The exhibition presents a selection of black and white photographs and material by Franki Raffles namely ‘Women Workers in the USSR’ (1989)’, ‘To Let You Understand…’ (1988) and material from the first ‘Zero Tolerance’ campaign (1992), entitled  ‘Prevalence’Zero Tolerance was developed as a ground-breaking campaign to raise awareness of the issue of men’s violence against women and children. See documentation of the exhibition here.

Installation shot, ‘Observing Women At Work: Franki Raffles‘, Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (2017). Photo: Alan Dimmick

Installation shot, ‘Observing Women at Work: Franki Raffles’, Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (2017). Photo: Alan Dimmick.

My essay is on P33-40 of the new publication ‘OBSERVING WOMEN AT WORK: Franki Raffles’. The book is published by The Glasgow School of Art with support from Franki Raffles Archive Project, Edinburgh Napier University and contains an introduction by Sarah Munro (Director, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art) essays by Jenny Brownrigg (GSA Exhibitions Director, curator of this exhibition) and Dr Alistair Scott (Edinburgh Napier University, The Franki Raffles Archive). The photographs are held by University of St Andrews Library Special Collections Division.

From l to r: ‘Burntons Biscuits, Edinburgh’ / Cleaner EDC, Edinburgh/ ‘Cleaner EDC, Edinburgh’, from ‘To Let You Understand…’, Franki Raffles (1988), ‘Observing Women at Work: Franki Raffles’, Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (2017) Photo: Alan Dimmick

[ESSAY EXTRACT: ‘A local authority canteen worker is quoted in Raffles’ 1988 publication, To Let You Understand…, as follows: “Well privatisation won’t affect me. I’m due to retire soon, but it’s the younger ones I feel sorry for.”

Looking back over the quotations gathered for this City of Edinburgh District Council Women’s Committee commission, they concentrate on high unemployment statistics for school leavers; impending privatisation (at the time the publication was written, this related to British Steel, water and electricity following the sell-off of utilities such as British Telecom and British Gas); low pay; childcare issues, particularly free nursery places; income support; inadequate NHS funding; equal opportunities; and employee protection rights. Fast-forward 29 years to 2017, following Thatcher, New Labour and into the economic uncertainty of BREXIT, Raffles’ work continues to be relevant to present-day working conditions and debates. The destination of many school leavers and graduates continues to be the Job Centre; sections of the NHS are being quietly privatised; the high cost of childcare still impacts greatly on income; and zero hour contracts create often precarious working conditions. Viewing Raffles’ work in black-and-white from our current decade is not in any way a nostalgic activity.

On entering the gallery to see Observing Women at Work, visitors encounter a similar view as the narrators do in Charlotte Gilman’s novel Herland (1915) – a society entirely comprising women. Through the repetition of gender, each of Raffles’ photographs reinforces her feminist agenda. The women are centre-stage. It is only on closer inspection that one can see men in the further recesses of the photographs – having a cigarette out of a lorry window or lingering at the end of a corridor with a co-worker. Even in a sole photograph of doctor and patient (Inside Back Cover, Women Workers, Russia), where the male has equal presence to the female, it is the woman who is wearing the white coat of the doctor, and the man who is the patient. Intriguingly, Raffles resists the device of the close-up, preferring the mid- or long-shot. She predominantly uses the establishing shot, which clearly shows the environment within which the worker operates, whether it is the regulated space of the open plan office, the natural dirt of the state farm or the systematic space of manufacture… EXTRACT ENDS]

Read full essay here.

The book can be purchased from GSA Shop for £7.

ISBN: 9780956764669 Dimensions: 21 x 14.8 cm Materials: paperback Designed by Maeve Redmond, 52 pages, edition 300.

Installation shot, ‘Observing Women at Work: Franki Raffles’, Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (2017). Photo: Alan Dimmick

Franki Raffles, ‘Plasterers, Women Workers, Russia’ (1989), from the exhibition ‘Observing Women At Work: Franki Raffles’, Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (2017). Photo: Alan Dimmick