Opening of a new photography exhibition at the City Art Center

A new exhibition opening in November at the City Art Center will feature 125 photographs, eight films and 35 related artefacts by 14 women who worked in Scotland at the start of the 20th century.

The work constituting the exhibition entitled Glean is drawn from 17 mainly Scottish archives, from Galloway to Shetland. The exhibition will show how women have responded with their cameras recording life in rural communities, towns and beyond in Scotland. This is the first time their work will be seen together, and it unveils an untold story in the history of Scottish photography and cinema from this period. These women present different narratives of Scotland, spanning both rural and urban locations and communities. The exhibition will show the extent of their photography and cinema, offering a critical analysis of their work.

The work is grouped under the themes of nature, landscape and travel and examines how women have carefully observed nature and landscape, including working the land. Capture Scotland shows how women have captured the transition from traditional to modern life in urban and rural contexts. Recording community looks at the works of two of the women in particular, Margaret Fay Shaw and Dr Beatrice Garvie, who lived for long periods in the communities they were recording. Women and society examines how, as photographers and filmmakers, they portrayed the role of women in rural and urban societies.

Violet Banks wool drying factory © Historic Environment Scotland

From rural Scotland we see a portrait of Shetland by Jenny Gilbertson, Margaret Fay Shaw’s portraits of sisters Màiri and Peigi MacRae and their life in the small village of North Glendale, South Uist, to MEM Donaldson’s wanderings in his walks with his camera through the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. At a time when islanders and mountain people were portrayed only as “guys”, the work of these women portrays them as real people and equals, an intimacy afforded by living in their communities over a long period of time.

Through their lenses, we can also glimpse the issues of the time, from the recording of protest marches by Helen Biggar and Christina Broom, to the housing conditions of the working classes, through Ruby Grierson and the in-between- wars in Marion Grierson’s films. Rural and urban labour, industry and commerce are notably represented by Violet Banks, Margaret Watkins, Margaret Fay Shaw and Jenny Gilbertson. Isabell Burton MacKenzie was a traveling organizer of The Highlands Home Industry from 1911-14. Using a Kodak Vest Pocket camera as a memory aid, she visited the homes of Islanders involved in crafts, encouraging them to sell their work directly through through exhibitions on the continent thanks to the initiatives of The Highlands Home Industry. Dr Beatrice Garvie, who was a doctor in North Roaldsay, Orkney, for 15 years, has recorded important community work and events on the island.

The exhibition alludes to the different contexts in which the women worked. Some were independent of those working in or with the industry. This was, of course, at a time when only a few women over the age of 30 had the right to vote from 1918, with all women over the age of 21 gaining the right to vote in 1928. The first women photographers and filmmakers were blazing a different trail than expected of their gender. Banks and Broom maintained their own commercial photography studios, while the Grierson sisters worked through their brother, documentary filmmaker John Grierson’s national government and industry-funded film initiatives.

Shadow on the stairs Margaret Watkins circa 1935 ©Joe Mulholland Hidden Lane Gallery Glasgow

The exhibition curated by Jenny Brownrigg, Exhibitions Director at Glasgow School of Art, is a partnership project with the City Art Centre. A program of events accompanies the exhibition which brings together other researchers, gallery owners and archivists who have defended the work of these women.

Culture and Communities Convener Cllr Val Walker said: “Glean promises to be a thought-provoking exhibition that looks back at the wonderful work of women photographers and early filmmakers who were creating an important legacy in a male-dominated field. The women featured have played a huge role in the history of photography in Scotland and Glean invites viewers to learn more about these inspiring women and it is fantastic to see the achievements of these amazing practitioners.

City Art Center curator David Patterson said: “The City Art Center is delighted to be organizing this exhibition in partnership with Glasgow School of Art Exhibitions Director Jenny Brownrigg. We were really intrigued by Jenny’s original proposal to tell the stories of these pioneering women and bring their work to a wider audience. The proposal also fit so well with other photography exhibitions being held at the same time, providing a national and historical context to the other two exhibitions which definitely focused on Edinburgh. We are confident that visitors will find the exhibition of real interest, as well as the accompanying program of events which allows for a deeper exploration of the work of certain artists.

Jenny Brownrigg, curator of ‘Glean’, said: “I am delighted to work with the City Art Center on this exhibition and am grateful to all the lenders. I hope the exhibition will show the different motivations of women to do their work. Seen together, their photographs and films show different stories about Scotland.

Glean: Women Filmmakers and Photographers in Early 20th Century Scotland
12 November 2022 – 12 March 2023 City Art Center 2 Market Street EH1 1DE

Jenny Gilbertson with Cuthbert Cayley 1938 or 1949 Courtesy of Shetland Museum & Archives
Johanna Kissling Image taken in St Kilda in 1905 Courtesy of David Lockwood Dumfries Museum Collection

Tracey L. Sweeney