Iimpses ofthe ghetto
Elusive Sara Villiers goes in search of the reclusive Joseph McKenzie, forgotten photographer of Dear Dreich Place.
Joseph McKenzie was lost but now he is found.
Lost: the self-styled black sheep of Scottish photography abandoned public exposure of his work in 1968 following gallery censorship of the text (displaying strong Republican sympathies) which accompanied ‘Hibernian Images‘. his study of the Irish conflicts.
Found: through the determination of his agent, his devoted son Frank, who set about securing for his father the recognition he felt was owed to him by organising a publication and mini-retrospective, ‘Pages of Experience’, which toured the country in 1987.
The McKenzie revival is further consolidated this month with the publication of Gorbals Children, a book containing 130 photographs from the epic year-long study McKenzie made of the area in
1964-65, and an exhibition of the same name at the Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. In 1965 the exhibition was a popular success around Scotland, but ironically, then, as now, was not shown in the city of its conception.
McKenzie has long been a
troublesome figure in the Scottish art world, battling against the scant regard accorded photography in the 19605, bitterly disappointed by the response to ‘Hibernian Images’ (and reacting in a volatile way to its rejection), and so frustrated by his experience within the education system as a lecturer at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee that he finally opted for early retirement in 1986.
Declaring himself a recluse, he retreated to his grand and beautiful house in Tayport, overlooking the Tay estuary. His home is his castle , where he conducted private exhibitions throughout the 19703 in an upstairs room converted into a gallery, where he continues to beaver away on new projects, and where he relates his life story, eloquently but with a touch of melodrama. It is the story of a ‘victim’, the story of a misunderstood genius, the story of trials and tribulations which one cannot help but conclude he partly brought upon himself. He wraps himself in the cloak of the martyr, as he scotches the rumours of his renowned ‘difficultness’ , but seems to delight in them nonetheless.
‘I’m no ogre’, he smiles, almost in query, as he welcomes me warmly into his home. That much is true, but as the interview progresses and he launches into inﬂamed, passionate monologues, l have to conclude that he is a formidable and often vexing presence.
The Gorbals study was undertaken after he attended a Joan Eardley exhibition. ‘1 must go and look for myself, I thought, and then I responded to what I saw and decided we must have a record of it.’ He likens himself to Eardley as a misunderstood artist; he also compares himself to Vincent Van Gogh, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy and St. Paul, and talks of his ‘years in the wilderness‘.
‘I guess that I have to accept oblivion‘. he says. ‘I think that ifan art form is to be worthwhile then it will probably not be rcognised within the artist‘s lifetime. We live in an age of communication, but sometimes our communication is very fraught — especially with the generation gap.‘
Our conversation palpany demonstrates that point, as I grow increasingly irked at being addressed as ‘child‘, as my queries are either answered vaguely or ignored, as tentative criticisms are deliberately misinterpreted, and as the talk continually veers off a discussion of his work and plunges down moral alleyways. The one factor that surmounts all other considerations about McKenzie‘s work is his faith: he converted to Catholicism after meeting his wife at the age of 22, and remains devout.
‘The most important thing in life just now is the crisis of relationship which is present in everything’, he says (this is the basis of his present photographic study). ‘You‘ve got to get the context for love right - and
you mustn’t precipitate the sex act. A lot is foregone by that act - when the girl sacrifices the mystery of her body to someone who seduced her. Ofcourse, it’s more difficult for men because they’re much more erotic.’ He waves aside my adamant protestations. ‘No, no, that is absolutely true’, he says stubbornly.
Quixotic as ever, he suddenly launches into a diatribe about frustration. ‘I can understand the IRA, for instance; ifone has a morally justifiable cause and no-one listens, then you can understand how one turns to violence’, he says earnestly.
‘He doesn’t condone the IRA’s actions’, Mrs McKenzie hastily interjects.
‘No, I don’t agree with violence, but I can understand the frustration.’ Trying to coax information about
the photographic commitments in McKenzie’s life, I can suddenly comprehend the emotion of frustration in a way I have never done before. Yet, despite his suspicion of the media — ‘they are the manipulators, they have power but they don’t enhance the quality of life‘ — he is remarkably open. His statements leap out with absolute honesty and conviction — with the air, perhaps, of one who perceives the world in black and white, both metaphorically and through the camera lens, which he claims has ‘an integrity — the camera never lies’. He sees it as an agency for posterity, that it can record and preserve the past and thus inform the present, and with an eye on legacy he always works with archival techniques. His work is increasingly concerned with matters spiritual, and he claims his ambition is ‘for the higher things’.
It may seem unjust to concentrate on the religious conviction in McKenzie’s life, but it is the aspect he continually promotes. and one which he objects to being suppressed. His faith is present in all his work. ‘Photographing the Gorbals children was a demonstrable act oflove‘, he says. ‘I could react instinctively to them — my own children were that age at the time. The physical aspect of the Gorbals was of old bug and rat-infested buildings, but the children shone through. Procreation is the most important thing in life, children are the gift ofour future, they symbolise hope.‘
He claims Glasgow has always felt uncomfortable with images of the Gorbals. With the passage of time, the scenes in Gorbals Children will now perhaps provoke not discomfort, but a bittersweet nostalgia.
‘The study was almost commonplace at the time‘, McKenzie concludes. ‘It needed space and time to give it dignity.‘
Gorbals Children: A Study in Photographs is published by Richard Drew Publishing on 29 Mar at
£1 1.95. Twenty copies of the book can be won on page 91.
84 The List 23 March - 5 April 1990