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Glean: Early 20th Century Women Filmmakers and Photographers in Scotland

By Susan Mansfield, 08.03.2023
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Margaret Watkins , Untitled – self portrait and shadows, Photograph, (c.1935). Copyright, Joe Mulholland, Hidden Lane Gallery, Glasgow

This pioneering exhibition brings together 14 little known women photographers and filmmakers working in Scotland in the early 20th century. Their works have been carefully researched and ‘gleaned’ from archives all over the country by curator Jenny Brownrigg. Susan Mansfield reviews.

This unusual exhibition is the result of several years’ work by Glasgow School of Art’s Jenny Brownrigg, a labour of love which brings together 14 women photographers and filmmakers active in Scotland in the first half of the 20th century.

Their work, largely unexhibited and, in at least a couple of cases, almost lost altogether, has been “gleaned” from 17 different archives all over the country.

Some of these women were professional photographers; others were tourists or travel writers, or used a camera as an adjunct to their work as folklorists, botanists, craft enthusiasts. Brownrigg’s decision to arrange the show by theme brings out the similarities between them, but it does leave us trying to keep 14 names and practices in our heads until we reach the biographical panels at the end. 

Not all of the women saw themselves as photographers. Margaret Fay Shaw, a New Yorker who came to Scotland in 1929 with the aim of hearing and transcribing traditional Gaelic song, lived with a crofting family in South Uist for six years. In addition to her work on music, she recorded their daily lives and customs in photographs and on film. What she captured is remarkable less for its artistic quality than for the intimacy with which she witnessed a vanishing way of life. Dr Beatrice Garvie did something similar on the Orkney island of North Ronaldsay where she was the community doctor, capturing the geography of the island, its daily routines and the babies she delivered.

Isabell Burton MacKenzie travelled the Highlands and Islands in her work for the Highland Home Industries Board, creating a remarkable record of her travels in writing and with her trusty Vest Pocket Kodak camera. Isabel Frances Grant both took and collected pictures on her quest to found the first Highland Folk Museum. Jenny Gilbertson was a journalist turned filmmaker who documented crofting life on Shetland. At a time when the remotest parts of Scotland held a kind of exotic appeal to travellers, these women worked to preserve records of vanishing traditions, but also to show, unembellish, the hardships of crofting life.

Margaret Watkins was a commercial photographer working in New York who settled in Glasgow in 1928 and, while caring for her elderly aunts, took photographs of the city which came to light only after her death. Hers is some of the most interesting image-making in the show. Violet Banks was an art teacher in Edinburgh who opened her own photography studio in 1935 and specialised in scenic views for picture postcards.

Helen Biggar grew up in a politically engaged family in Glasgow and, as a cine-enthusiast, made films in the 1930s protesting against the arms trade and celebrating the city’s marches against fascism. Marion and Ruby Grierson, two of the sisters of documentary filmmaker John Grierson, were filmmakers themselves. Ruby, while working uncredited on a 1935 film about slum housing, is believed to have pioneered the idea of having subjects tell their stories direct to camera. She died on board the SS City of Benarés on 1940, making a film about evacuees being transported to Canada.

Others were travellers, writers, adventurers. Isobel Wylie Hutchison was a novelist, botanist and plant collector who wrote about her walks in Scotland - Edinburgh to John O’Groats, for example - and went on to travel in Iceland, Norway, and Greenland. M. E. M. Donaldson, another writer and walker, took landscape photographs to accompany her writing and eventually settled with her companion, Isabel Bonus, in Ardnamurchan in 1927. Her picture of Bonus walking on the beach at Laig Bay on Eigg is one of the most beautiful in the show.

The images and films here were made for a variety of different reasons, with differing levels of expertise and equipment. Today, they are important for different reasons, some because of what they record, others because of the skills of the women behind the lens. In the end, bringing them together emphasises their differences as much as their similarities, but it also brings to light 14 remarkable individuals many of which would merit exhibitions - or books, or films, or further studies - of their own.

Glean: Early 20th Century Women Filmmakers and Photographers in Scotland City Art Centre is showing until 12th March