The List mccts photographer Joseph McKenzrc. now rescued from undeserved obscurity.
For the past twenty years Joseph McKenzie has been an ‘artist in the wilderness‘. lost to the public. His life behind the walls of his house in ’l‘ayport was almost that of a recluse.
L'ntil. that is. his son Frank. one of five children brought up under that roof. decided that it had gone on long enough. that the visual silence his lather had kept must he broken.
An exhibition at 'I'hird Eye Centre and a monograph ofJoseph McKenzie’s photographs published jointly by Third Eye and Polygon Books release the man and his work out into the open again.
McKenzie is a big man with a large face and the gentle but questioning eye of the confessor. It is not surprising to find he is rigorously religious — his conversion to (‘atholicism dovetails with his rejection ofestablishment life. Discovery of soul. his own and others. rates higher in his book than the pursuit ofearthly powers.
‘( ireatness is not found in power.‘ he says. ‘but in how you cope with suffering.‘
For McKenzie an accepted suffering has often been close by — in the loneliness of his work and the tnisunderstanding which has dogged him along the way.
During the Sixties. he tested the water for photography — still quite new as a creative medium in this country. In the early daysofthc 'l'raverse. Richard Demarco invited him to show his portraits of the (iorbals which were applauded by the Herald at the time. But later. a critical study of Northern and Southern Ireland was censored and McKenzie became disillusioned with art establishment practices.
l low could he continue to show his work without exhibitions‘.’ Above all else. he describes himself as a communicator — to function properly be needed a ‘recipient host‘.
One evening. out walking. he and his Dutch wife struck on the idea of having their own gallery which would show his work on his own terms. It was arranged. and for six and a half years it was possible to see
McKenzie‘s work in a large room upstairs. by appointment. But in 1980 it closed and his photographs
have not been seen since.
His teaching career too was troubled. ending in early retirement and no official thanks two years ago. Uncompromising as his nature is. he stuck to his guns. teaching beyond the limitations as far as the structure of the college would allow and can now point out ex-students who are national photographic successes: (‘alum (‘olvin. with his blend of sculpture and photography. Albert Watson. official photographer at the wedding of(‘harles and [)i and (ierry Badger who has written eloquently on McKenzie's work in the exquisitely illustrated monograph.
McKenzie himself is a complex character. Since 1974 he has written over 3000 poems to try to match his own experiences with the life which goes on round about him. Brought up in a London slum. surrounded by the violence and poverty such conditions breed. he has always been conscious ofsevere divides in the human condition. For him. it is a religious matter.
His photographs portray that complexity. that struggle. but in a way which reads with clarity and immediate impact. ('hildren playing amongst the lamp-posts of the (iorbals tenements. a line of tucked-up dolls in a make-believe hospital arranged by his daughters. or a man‘s face resurrected from the page ofa magazine he came across in his compost heap — McKenzie's images are dark and intensely emotional. It is unlikely that this powerful commentator will ever be ignored again.
6'l’he List 10— 23 July