At the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the city of Glasgow is exposed in a joyous and sensitiveway. The amateur Glaswegian photographer Eric Watt was nearly unknown before this exhibition and its companion book, Coming Into View: Eric Watt’s Photographs of Glasgow, written by Isobel McDonald and Alison Brown. The exhibition displays a selection of about one hundred of Eric Watt’s thousands of photographs taken from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Spanning over forty years, Eric Watt’s photography documents Glasgow’s different facets. His pictures are grouped together in a variety of categories: leisure, work, childhood, faith, transport, etc., making the point of view clearly that of a local, who experiences the city in many ways. Watt’s photographs are laid out in such a way as to show the massive changes that the city of Glasgow went through during that period, highlighting the process of buildings being erected with many pictures of construction sites. Nearly half a century compressed into one room has a striking effect. Children freely roaming in urban settings seem strange to us, transportation methods of yesterday and today are set side by side. This emphasis on contrasts reveals the impermanence of urban structure and the potential for its own destruction that it already holds.
What makes Eric Watt an interesting photographer (amateur or not) is his eye for atypical sights, like a sea of bin bags from a garbage collection strike or children playing in a burning car. He found splashes of colour in the greys and browns of the city, noticing murals, autumnal trees, a red lorry, a yellow sweet shop, and a pink record store. Watt saw Glasgow teem with life: insolent children, smiling faces looking straight at the camera, stolen moments of joy in the workplace.
But it sometimes feels like the human subject acts only as a pretext to represent the city. Take this picture of children huddled on a doorstep, surrounded by the vertical lines of shops and doors and 1970s signs that reappear, blurred, on the wet street. Or the sense of complicity between the little girl sticking her tongue out and the wall covered in chalk marks behind her. This city is alive. I was particularly taken with images of picturesque shops and markets from the 1960s and 1970s: a personal highlight is the photograph of a record store, its superposed LP covers and two women turning their backs to the camera, hair blown by the wind, checking them out. This exhibition invites us to look at the city differently, even as we exclaim suddenly that we recognise this place, or that, as it was captured sixty years ago.
Watt’s other important focus was work: construction work, workplaces – his and others’. Thinking about work also entails paying attention to politics as they existed in post-war Glasgow streets. Watt photographed peaceful protests of various persuasions, though I found the section devoted to this a bit meagre: faced with no more than five pictures, one wonders why, while Eric Watt photographed Glasgow when it was one of the most disenfranchised cities in the UK, the political aspect of his photography isn’t more developed, seemingly reduced to mere people-watching interest.
Coming Into View: Eric Watt’s Photographs of Glasgow is on at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum from the 4th of March 2022 to the 4th of March 2023.
Image Credits: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collections