Monday, July 20, 2009

The Great Art Giveaway

Iain McLean is a photographer. In my opinion he is a very good photographer. In the opinion of a lot of residents in Pollokshaws, a suburb of Glasgow, he is probably regarded as a very good photographer.

The evidence for this is that they have taken the entire collection of his photographs from a public exhibition. This is a short account of how they came to do this.

But first some context for the story.

Pollokshaws is one of those rare and strange places. It has a long and noble history as a place in its own right. However, in modern day Glasgow you would not appreciate this because social engineering has changed the trade and makeup of this area. It was developed in the late 1950’s as the second Comprehensive Development Area. The first was Hutchesontown where Sir Basil Spence built his modernist tower block that only had a life span of 30 years before being demolished in 1993 to be replaced with modern flats and houses. The tower blocks in Pollokshaws are going the same way and this is where Iain McLean came to take a particular interest.

Iain is a member of the long established Queens Park Camera Club. This is a creative hub that I remembered when I was a member twenty years ago at a time when digital photography did not exist. No one appears to use film or to develop their own prints now. Iain has been co-ordinating a small group of photographers with a concept of community photography. Trying to help direct folk towards a sense of photography for its own sake and not for competition.

Pollokshaws and its second period of major regeneration in a hundred years meant that there was a danger of another lost community. Iain decided to make a record of this re-development before the community disappeared. Over a period of a year he has been visiting the community and taking lots of photos. He then got a grant to print and mount his pictures and was able to put them on exhibition at Pollokshaws Public Library for a fortnight in June.

The pictures are an interesting record of the community taken from every conceivable angle. Iain also came across a number of interesting characters who lived and worked in the area who were pleased to let him take their portrait. Some of his photographs are astonishing from an art point of view with an abstract angle that is highly original.

Iain had a big idea. He wanted not only to record and display his work, he also wanted the community to have the benefit of owning it. He could have sold it to the residents. He could have donated it the pictures as a permanent collection to the library where they were shown. Instead, Iain wanted to do something in the way that Banksy might have nodded approval to. He chose to display the entire collection from one end of the main through road to the other. On walls, in bus shelters, on shop fronts. And then he wanted to leave a note inviting the public to take a picture if they like it. He called it the Great Art Giveaway – amongst other titles.

And so it was, at the beginning of July on a Friday morning that I linked up with Iain to help him achieve this ambition.

We started at the bus shelter outside the library where we located the first picture. We posted a small poster next to it advising the public why it was there and inviting them to take it if they liked it. We zig zagged across the road and put up a mini exhibition of five photographs. At this point a woman and her grandchild came to catch a bus and asked wht the pictures were being put for. We explained. "But you can’t leave them there, people will take them." That was the whole point Iain said. She took a fancy to one. Take it we said. Perhaps, on my way back, if it’s still there.

Iain had to return across the road and he spoke to an elderly couple who were waiting for the bus. One of them asked what it was about and Iain invited him to help himself to it. "Just you leave it there," said the wife to her husband. "It looks just fine where it is."

Next, to the bridge over the River Cart. A series connected to the block of flats adjacent to it was put up. The activity of doing this was challenging people to come up and ask what we were doing. It created a community discussion about what was happening to the area.

Further down the road Iain called into a sweet shop where he had taken a portrait of the owner. Returning the picture to the person it had a sense of returning to the community what belonged to the community. This took on a different dimension when we arrived at the police station to discover that the community police officer whose portrait Iain had taken, was on duty. He was brought back out to the street and his photograph taken again holding his portrait.

One portrait could not be recognised and Iain had to enquire at the pub whose face it was. It was left there for the owner to collect.

Along the way other photographers known to Iain appeared out of nowhere and joined in with the activity. It became a fun day out for us and an intrigue for the residents. Did Banksy do his work like this we wondered ? Did he have a merry band of supporters who rushed around carrying his boxes of stencils and a set of ladders ? Or as in our case, a box of photographs and block of blu tack.

The task complete I wandered back home along the route we had taken. Slowly but surely, the work was being removed. In one case it was removed and relocated in a case of what one of Iains colleagues described as "community curation".

Shortly after this event, on 11 July, a photographer in Tyneside died. Jimmy Forsyth came to photography late in life when he realised that his own community of Elswick was about to be re- developed and the lives of this thriving community changed for ever. He bought a second hand box camera and his photographs record the people of Elswick before it disappeared. Jimmy was a life long socialist who believed that his work should be publicly available. In his Guardian obituary he is quoted:

"It’s no good burying the pictures, they should be given out to more people, and they should be free. After all, they belong to their subjects, to the people themselves."

As an act of democratic art in the community, Iain’s ‘installation’ went unnoticed by the media. But not unnoticed by the people that mattered.

You can see a photographic record of the event on this Flickr page

1 comment:

Is the Wiz said...

Dear Gnome, this was really interesting and quite thought provoking.Please write more.