The untold story of pioneering Scottish women photographers

An Orcadian doctor, a girl whose work was discovered in the underside drawer of a dresser and two sisters who pioneered documentary filmmaking in Scotland before their careers were cut short are among the many ground-breaking female photographers celebrated in a recent exhibition this month.

Glean is on the City Art Centre in Edinburgh and is curated by Glasgow School of Art Exhibitions Director Jenny Brownrigg. Promising to inform the untold story inside the history of Scottish photography, it features 125 photographs and eight movies by 14 women who within the early twentieth century took their cameras into rural and concrete communities throughout Scotland and reflected in a recent way the lives of the individuals who lived there. Some are known, others not, nevertheless it’s the primary time their work has been presented in a single exhibition.

“That’s what makes it a primary. There hasn’t been this concentrate on bringing together these women from this era,” said Ms Brownrigg. “What makes the story different is that male contemporaries of the time were still giving quite a romantic ideal of Scotland whereas these women they were showing this variation in Scotland from a conventional to a contemporary lifestyle.”

Among the many photographers whose work is on display are sisters Ruby and Marion Grierson, two of eight children born to teachers and political activists Jane Anthony and Robert Grierson in a Stirlingshire mill town within the early 1900s. Their elder brother John, who made seminal 1929 film Drifters in regards to the North Sea herring industry, is usually described as the daddy of documentary film. He’s even credited with inventing the word, in his 1926 review of Robert Flaherty’s silent film Moana.

But even though it was largely through their brother’s work with the state-funded Empire Marketing Board within the late Nineteen Twenties that the sisters received their first opportunities in filmmaking, their individual output is increasingly coming to be viewed as comparable to his. Ruby Grierson cut her teeth working with the celebrated General Post Office (GPO) film unit and, although she was an uncredited assistant on its 1935 film Housing Problems, she pioneered the use in it of direct-to-camera interviews. Due to that the film was considered revolutionary for the best way it tackled pressing social issues. Marion worked on the identical film and, like her sister, made a string of short documentary movies throughout the Thirties combining extreme innovation with unflinching realism – and, within the case of 1933’s So This Is London, with a commentary by poet WH Auden.

Tragedy and circumstance cut short each women’s careers, nonetheless. Marion Grierson effectively stopped making movies after she married and had children. Her sister died on September 17, 1940 when the SS City Of Benares was sunk by a German U-boat 250 miles west of Rockall within the North Atlantic.

The ship had sailed from Liverpool 4 days earlier carrying 406 people, lots of them children emigrating to Canada. Grierson was on board to make a movie in regards to the children and the passage. Only 148 people survived, many saved only after days adrift in lifeboats. The U-boat commander, Heinrich Bleichrodt, was later tried and acquitted for war crimes. Grierson was 36 when she died.

Ms Brownrigg got here across the work of Violet Banks when she saw a photocopy of one in every of her images in a primary school in Eigg. Other photographs got here to light when an eagle-eyed antiques dealer brought a group of her albums to a curator at Historic Environment Scotland. He had found them in the underside drawer of an old dresser he was attempting to sell. “It shows you ways precarious things are,” said Ms Brownrigg. “Luckily he saw the worth within the albums.”


One other source of Banks’s work got here from a photographic archive in Edinburgh Central Library originally collected by ethnographer Isabel Frances Grant, who amongst other accomplishments established the Highland Folk Museum. She had bought photographs from Banks and one other photographer featured within the show, Margaret Fay Shaw, an American who lived for five years on South Uist where she photographed sisters Mairi and Peigi MacRae.

Dr Beatrice Garvey, meanwhile, was a physician in North Ronaldsay, the northernmost island within the Orkneys. Over her 15 years there she photographed the community, specialising in children and babies. “It’s probably the one case where the photographer also brought the babies she’s photographing into the world.”

Other notable women within the exhibition include Glasgow-born Jenny Gilbertson, who spent a 12 months embedded in a community in Shetland filming its rhythms and whose work greatly impressed John Grierson, and Johanna Kissling, mother of noted German émigré and photographic pioneer Werner Kissling. She photographed life in St Kilda in 1905, 20 years before her son travelled to the Western Isles to pursue his own interest in life there.


Ms Brownrigg’s hope is that curators working across all of Scotland’s archives can draw inspiration from the exhibition and examine their very own collections more closely for more work by these female photographers and the various others whose stories have yet to be told. “It’s not about doing a definitive exhibition, it’s about opening up in order that other people can see the worth of this work,” she said. “It needs a hive mind approach to working with the legacies of those amazing women.”

Glean: Early twentieth Century Women Filmmakers And Photographers In Scotland opens on November 12 on the City Art Centre, Edinburgh


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