Joseph McKenzie (London 19 March, 1929 – 5 July, 2015 Dundee).

A Personal Obituary by Andrew McKenzie

“The Father of Modern Scottish Photography who chronicled the lives of ordinary people”

The internationally acclaimed photographer, Joseph McKenzie, sadly died in 2015 at the age of 86. Widely described as “the father of modern Scottish photography” (in his two-page obituary in The Times, amongst others), Joseph McKenzie is regarded as one of the most ambitious and prolific post-war photographers. His ambition for the status of his medium was visionary, anticipating the way it has now come to be elevated to the very front rank of the arts. He combined a passion for a meticulous technique that he developed with a profoundly held belief in photography as a major vehicle for social commentary committed to the good of mankind.

Born in London in 1929, Joseph McKenzie was educated in Hoxton, and at Wimborne St. Giles in Dorset, where he was evacuated during the Second World War. After conscription, and regular service in the R.A.F. as a photographer (1947- 1952), he studied photography at The London College of Printing from 1952-1954. He was invited to teach photography full time at St. Martin’s School of Art, London, in 1954, and later established the Photography Department at The Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee, where he enjoyed the post of lecturer until his retirement in 1986. He was elected an Associate of The Royal Photographic Society in 1954 (resigned 1973), as well as becoming the first living photographer to be awarded a grant by the Scottish Arts Council. 

His being my father’s elder brother I knew Joe first and foremost from the striking record he made of my own family: the often A4 black and white portraits, frequently so close-up that they barely contain the whole face and whose sharp quality reveals every pore and freckle. In the words of Gerry Badger who wrote the introduction to his 1987 retrospective exhibition, Pages of Experience, portraiture was “a particular glory of his work”. Outstanding in my view has always been his portrait of his father (known to the family as Pop), which Badger describes as “remarkably dispassionate and lucid. Nothing is shirked, not even the large surgical boot on the right foot, yet –as always in a McKenzie portrait  – there is much dignity.” As Badger writes, “the work he carried out within the bosom of his family is quite as important as his social studies. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, if there is the hope – albeit forlorn – of redemption in McKenzie’s work, it would be that the effort and caring, the conciliation we invest in loving family relationships might serve as the model for society.” His subjects ranged from landscape, streetscape to social documentary, as well as incorporating those personal family snap-shots so familiar to me. It has been said that his work “represents not just a documentary view of British society, but something more, a record of the artist’s experience, a passionate commentary upon human existence.” 

The timeless quality of Joe’s photographs has been remarked upon, disguising the fact that much of his best known work was produced in the ‘50s and ‘60s. My father was present when Uncle Joe took this photograph of Liverpool Street Station 

Although geographically distant for much of my life, Uncle Joe was and remains a formidable presence in the stories told by my father, particularly about their remarkable shared childhood and youth. Joseph and John were the sons of Julia Alice Blayney and Joseph McKenzie, a successful and innovative London clockmaker, whose firm, McKenzie & Co. at its height supplied quality state-of-the-art clocks to railway stations and the Navy as far afield as India, Burma and Japan. However, by the time of the Great Depression and his children’s births he had become the victim of competing mass-production from abroad. The quite remarkable experiences of these two brothers, together with their much-loved sister, Dorothy, during their upbringing in the extreme poverty of Hoxton in the 1930s and then the extraordinary abuse they suffered when the three siblings were evacuated to the remote village of Hinton Martell in  Dorset during World War II seems like a world away from the comforts their fortunate children and grandchildren now benefit from and are subjects that my brothers and my cousins wish in due course to put on record for posterity. Their insistence on shielding their own children from a similar upbringing was instrumental in their determination to achieve success and was in Joe’s case a driving force behind the ethics and politics of his art.

The 1964-5 exhibition, Gorbals Children, was described in a retrospective television documentary as “coffee table poverty” but unlike many photographers he was not content to find beauty in poverty but sought to reveal what should be confronted and condemned.  

In the 1960s, Joseph’s most productive decade, Gerry Badger described him as “a lone voice for Scottish photography – a lone wolf howling at the establishment, some might say”. As Alan Taylor wrote in The National last June, “during that period McKenzie had one exhibition after another: of children in the Gorbals, of Dundee as it wrestled with post-industrial deprivation, of Northern Ireland embroiled in sectarianism and it was on his own doorstep, in the Hawkhill area of Dundee, that he found what may have been his best subject. Using his lunch hours, he wandered the cobbled streets of a ‘city in transition’. In Taylor’s words, many of his photographs of the 1960s ‘have the air of an image from a time almost beyond memory. McKenzie took photographs to immortalise such ‘ordinary’ folk. A photograph, he once wrote, was like a living epitaph. As for himself, he was an outsider, a role which he both embraced and wore like a hairshirt. Unappreciated even by those with whom he worked at Duncan of Jordanstone, he persevered regardless, unable or unwilling to compromise or kow-tow to those who might have helped his career, confident that one day his as yet unexplored archive would set his reputation right.”

“His images” Taylor continues, “were haunting, unsentimental, depressing, brutal, empathetic, indelible, a testimony to human indomitability and harsh existence. They were also, acknowledged Badger …‘grudgingly received north of the Border, and wholly disregarded south of it’. As a consequence, in his article (“Belated praise for Joseph McKenzie – a neglected pioneer of Scottish photography”), Taylor commented on the irony of the acclaim this artist was subject to on his death. “While his obituarists routinely described him as ‘internationally acclaimed’, ‘one of the most ambitious and prolific post-war photographers’, and ‘the father of modern Scottish photography’, no one would have enjoyed the irony of these posthumous hurrahs more than McKenzie himself, for he had long since stopped exhibiting publicly and had just cause to believe he was suffering from that terrible disease that can afflict even a towering talent, namely neglect.”

I am only too aware from both my own and from my father’s private conversations with him that Uncle Joe’s disillusionment with the reception of some of his work was profound and long-lasting. In particular, he was angered by the reaction in certain quarters to his exhibition, Hibernian Images (1967-69), in which this Roman Catholic convert controversially juxtaposed idyllic rural Southern Irish images with those of a bleak and troubled North and which provoked fierce hostility and an attempt to censor his catalogue statement which led him to withdraw from public exhibitions of his work for many years. His absolute dedication, however, ensured an almost unprecedented outpouring of substantial bodies of work between the years 1964 and 1971.

Showing no interest in being at the “cutting edge” of contemporary photography, a further reason for Joe’s position as an outsider was that unlike those contemporaries who achieved greater success amid the glamour of the photographic art market, the required recognisable pre-calculated style was not nearly as important to him as his immediate response to his subjects. In Badger’s words, “In his oeuvre, romantic humanist meets precisionist formalist, classical reportage meets monumental portrait, picaresque landscape and gloomy still life – without any obvious resolution.” But if the wider world was unaware of his achievement, as we have seen he wasn’t short of admirers among his fellow professionals. The Scottish artist Calum Colvin whom I met at Joe’s funeral, said of him: “His technical skill was profound and the quality of his printing was stunning. As a student of his I remember him speaking little about the history of photography but his attention to the poetic voice of the print was immense.” Ina further statement he remarked: “A brilliant photographer and a generous teacher, he taught me a huge amount and helped me establish my career as a photographer (along with countless others including the massively famous Albert Watson).” Watson, who is fêted by A-list celebrities for his portraits and whose work has often graced the covers of Vogue and Rolling Stone, wrote of his mentor: “Joe was a wonderful teacher, passionate and intense. From the minute I picked up a camera I felt the same.” 

My first stay with Joe at Tayport was an experience I shall always remember. In this initiation into his company I encountered the famous treatment that my cousins tell me was so often inflicted on students and daughters’ boyfriends – known as “the talk”, an in-depth analysis of the trials and tribulations of the world, which I gather left many of his victims shell-shocked and speechless. Fortunately we shared a family interest in history and art. Joe lived most of his life in an historic house that looked across the Tay. This had once been the inn that marked the crossing point of the River and in the grounds of Victoria House can be made out the foundations of the Castle that had once stood there and according to tradition had hosted Mary Queen of Scots, being a natural stopping point during one of her progresses to the Highlands (although not exactly “Mackenzie Country” and unbeknown to Joe, it is a neat coincidence that another castle, immediately north of the Tay, and similarly purported to be a staging post for the tragic 16th century monarch, is Pitkerro, which belonged to George McKenzie, a younger son of our family’s prominent 17th century ancestor, Murdoch, Bishop of Moray and subsequently of Orkney).

But also highly typical of Joe’s intense character was the way in which our conversation on that first real encounter, which lasted long into the night, extended from art and history to religion, human relationships and indeed, “the meaning of life and everything.” Undoubtedly hardened by his harsh upbringing his profound view was that there was an overwhelming need to build relationships in a world he perceived as lacking in care and sympathy. Less known was that his prolific photographs were accompanied by an autobiography that was not intended to be published in his lifetime and his daily essays and poetry on what he called “The Crisis of Relationship”. It was very notably a piece of immense fortune that when in the RAF, hitch-hiking through Holland back to his barracks he met and fell in love with Jacqueline (Shelley) van der Eerden, who as his wife was to provide him with much-needed support throughout his life. They went on to have five children, Frank, Josephine, Catherine, Winifred and Howard, and subsequently 16 grandchildren to whom he was strongly committed – and just recently one great-grandchild.  

During his publicly active years, Joseph McKenzie produced a substantial body of work, primarily in the form of five major exhibitions, each of a minimum of 200 prints. In its obituary, The Scotsman described him as having “the eye of a true poet. The tonal brilliance of his prints … marks the excellence of his craftsmanship, but their compositional arrangements brim with a superb variety of exciting balances, patterns and textures, and are stamped with an inventive interpretation that is most remarkable.” His work will live on in the immense and extraordinary archive that he has left as his legacy. “Founded upon the solid basis of a quite superlative technique” it can be regarded as “one of the most outstanding of any British photographer, living or dead.”

Since the writing of this obituary, a charming story about Joe came to light in the aftermath of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death in April 2021. Joe was commissioned to take Prince Phillip’s official portrait on two occasions and for the photograph he took for Aberdeen University he turned up at Holyroodhouse first thing in the morning to find that the Duke had started on a bottle of whisky. While from very different backgrounds and they might therefore be thought to have been unlikely drinking companions, these two men of forthright opinions with a taste for a good single malt seemingly got on like a house on fire and finished the bottle by the end of the session.

And then, in 2022, sadly something neither my father nor Joe were able to know about by that date, as part of the celebration to mark Dunfermline’s promotion to the status of city during the Diamond Jubilee the previous year, an exhibition of Joe’s photographs was put on at Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries.

‘Father of modern Scottish photography’ display to mark Dunfermline city status

Captivating images taken in the 1960s by a photographer dubbed “the father of modern Scottish photography” are to feature in an exhibition marking Dunfermline’s newly-acquired city status.

By Katharine Hay

11th Oct 2022, 8:04am

Carnegie Library and Galleries of Joseph McKenzie’s photo of a young boy in Dunfermline in the 1960s

Some 47 black and white pictures snapped by Joseph McKenzie, who trained as a photographer while in the RAF, will go on show at Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries next month.

Mr McKenzie, who died in 2015 aged 86, became a prolific photographer through the 1960s, documenting post-war Scotland at a time of momentous change.

All of the photos in the exhibition, titled Dunfermline And Its People, which was originally shown in nearby Pittencrieff House Museum in 1968, were taken during 1967 and 1968, an eventful time period for the former Royal Burgh.