Anna Atkins: Cyanotypes & Margaret Watkins: Advertising Photography
Stills’ new exhibition celebrates the pioneering photographic work of Atkins and Watkins
In the 1960s, a young Glasgow lawyer struck up a friendship with a neighbour, an elderly Canadian-born woman living alone in a large, gloomy house in the west end. Before her death, she gifted him a sealed trunk, which turned out to contain thousands of negatives, the output of a secret earlier life as an acclaimed photographer in the 1920s and 1930s.
Margaret Watkins’ story is in danger of being so remarkable that it trumps her work, and elements of it have already been fictionalised by Andrew O’Hagan in his new novel, ‘The Illuminations’. Fortunately, her work is remarkable too, from grimy, Whistler-esque cityscapes to milky-skinned nudes and sublimely observed still lives.
This show represents just one aspect of it, images created for advertising in New York in the 1920s. As an art photographer, she aimed to make pictures of 'distinction and beauty' beyond their product-driven purpose. And she succeeded. As well as capturing the spirit of the age, from femme fatale to domestic goddess, her thoughtful composition and lustrous textures speak of the presence of a highly skilled eye.
Hands predominate: draping out of a fur cuff, clasping a shiny Christmas bauble, holding an elegant long cigarette holder. Interestingly, they are also a focus in the images which were not for product-led advertising: a portrait of composer Sergei Rachmaninov shows his fingers draped elegantly over the opposite sleeve.
Watkins’ work is shown here next to cyanotypes by Anna Atkins, working 70 years earlier in the first days of the medium, who produced British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the first book to be illustrated by photographs. Her white-on-blue images have a precision and beauty which blends (to our eyes at least) aesthetic appeal and scientific purpose. Though her primary aim was scientific documentation, she, too, was clearly possessed of a masterful eye.