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Stenlake Publishing - Glasgow at the crossroads

at the crossroads

Author : Alan Knight
ISBN : 9781840334968
Cover : hardback
Price : £16.00

A beautiful and sensitive photographic portrait of the city and its folk as it sought to re-define itself in the second half of the twentieth century. Alan Knight’s dramatic black and white photography highlights the reality of the community’s struggle to adapt to a post industrial world. Raw, emotive and beautiful.

at the crossroads
1 reviews for this book
Review by David Hoyle : 2017-03-31
Alan Knight is a photographer and film-maker from Glasgow, having been brought up on Byres Road in the West End. In his Foreword to the book he tells how he took these documentary photographs between 1976 and 1985 during visits when he was living away from Scotland. He roamed around many parts of the city but found himself gravitating to the more run-down areas where he had memories of playing football as a child and youth, and admits that he was drawn to images of dereliction and decay. With his 35mm Pentax SLR and different film stocks and occasionally experimenting with increasing the film speeds, he worked in unpredictable and changeable light and weather conditions which posed challenges for which new solutions were needed. The selected result is this landscape-format book of rich black-and-white photographic prints 36 by 21 cms. on sturdy satin-sheen paper, divided into chapters according to location.

A variety of photos taken in The City Centre open the book. An elderly women on a wooden bench, bag on her knee, looks down; a blind man sings with his accordion; a group of policemen confer, one looking grimly across at the camera. With a Buchanan Bus Station shot, the eye is carried to the left edge by a row of receding silvered windows, almost missing the solitary man at a clear window - the first of four ‘people at windows’ in the book. Here the glass also reflects a tower block whilst framing the fluorescent strip-lights above him. He leans on his hand, the exterior wall an impenetrable tessellation of white-pointed brickwork… In another, a kilt-wearer with grimy socks is bending behind a street post, face hidden by a mounted litter bin. Again, there is just a hint of a narrative: the man appears to be rummaging with small bags and newspaper on the ground, stains trickle away from the post…

East of the City Centre features the celebrated Necropolis, black obelisks and tombstones with urns in great curves jutting out of the snow, a few leafless trees and on the horizon of five-storey tenements; a sooty angel with frost-laden wings bows his head. Then comes a forlorn glimpse of Paddy’s Market and the desolation of Calton (Morris Place) and Bridgeton with ragged buildings and glassless windows, though Carmichael’s Fruit Store, sacks bulging with produce and a pram parked outside, is thriving (yet since vanished).

Rare close-ups and mid-shots of salesmen - the‘spielers’ - and canny customers constitute a sequence at The Barras markets, which is a reminder of Knight’s Voices from the Barras documentary (viewable on Vimeo). The Barras was famed for its theatrical atmosphere, its spirit, patter and banter. Apart from the lace curtain vendor in full performance mode these are chamber pieces, though, and the stalls are depicted as shadowy treasure-troves lit by bare bulbs as context for various expressive portraits.

The earlier dereliction is resumed and intensified in the pictures of Blackhill (e.g. Queenslie Street) and the once industrially-thriving Dalmarnock: bricked-up windows, demolished houses, unmetalled roads, an old gas works, encroaching high-rise towerblocks and waterlogged wasteground. These are bleak and dispassionate views though they have a certain compositional formality, and the focal point of the last one is sunshine pouring across the top halves of houses and a church, whose acute gabling and arched windows provide novel shapes in these landscapes. These areas are completely transformed today, with Dalmarnock having become home to the Glagow Commonwealth Games in 2014: a shiny new velodrome and new station has appeared, and the Athletes’ Village was subsequently converted into 300 private houses and so forth. As such, the photographs are testaments to a very different and easily-forgotten time.

South of the River Clyde consists of just nine photos, the rectilineal geometries of high-rise living blocks filling one frame, and there are the Gorbals, an unrecognisable Moffat Street (Hutchesontown) the Southern Necropolis and Castlemilk. At the start is a late 70s shot of two middle-aged women wearing coats snazzy with their own geometric patterns. They appear content with their Mount Florida shopping expedition and one smiles at the camera. Conversely, a Kings Park image concludes the section with a well-heeled but serious-looking couple, one of whom looks uncertainly at the camera.

West of the City Centre includes people shots whether as subjects or incidental in the Botanic Gardens and West End cafés. Coats, macks, hats and headscarves are all of their time. A peak-capped Gardens official, face obscured, leans awkwardly under the arabesques of a wrought-iron bench; a women lights her cigarette in a café, another sinks her spoon into the sugarbowl, ready to sweeten her tea in a glass cup and saucer. To her left, a face turns to peer through an etched internal window, the camera catching her surprise. Perhaps one of the most characterful faces in the book is that of an elderly ‘lollipop man’ who is clutching his ‘Stop/Children’ sign and turning with a seen-it-all yet benign smile in Hyndland. On Chancellor Street in Partick a youth mocks the camera with a military salute, and three young lads pose against a chalked wall attempting - and succeeding - in looking more grown-up than they really are.

20+ pages are devoted to the Govan Shipyards with their ‘organised chaos and giant metal monsters’ as Knight describes them in the introduction: there are cranes, looming hulls, the car ferry terminus at Lancefield Quay and the massive grainstore at Granary Wharf with water a recurring theme to a lesser or greater extent; the men go about their business in the sheds and out of doors, welding, tempering, aiming hoses or are proud to pose, such as the smiling six-member crew of The Flying Spray tugboat. In another there is crowd, not of humans but of six-foot acetylene cylinders. Knight had access to nearly all these areas in a way that would be unthinkable today with its insistence on heightened security, but talks of the friendliness and co-operation of the employees and of feeling privileged to witness and record this ‘vast workshop of industrial activity’.

A shot of Stebcross Quay approaches a kind of industrial impressionism - stone, weeds and steps, solidly black in the foreground, a big gantry reflecting in the dimpled water further away, and the far shore characterised by a rotunda in the midst of a haze of architecture. The majority of these dockside photos are less fanciful, though, grittily realistic in mode, usually unplanned and spur of the moment, fortuitous in their unique combinations of subject matter and composition.

Knight alludes to a deserted Queen’s Dock in his Foreword and has to conclude he was ‘observing the slow, painful end of an era’. Govan is a lot smaller now, a couple of the docks are still operating, the north rotunda contains smart Italian and Chinese restaurants and the Queen's Dock houses the enormous and international SSE Hydro entertainment arena which opened in 2013. While urban blight may have decreased and the Garden Festival and City of Culture status have raised Glasgow’s cultural profile, assuredly not all parts of the city have benefitted from renewal with further negatives being dispersal of communities and regeneration not always leading to improved lives; the solitary figures depicted in the book, pensive or hard-pressed, have their successors in the city today.

Ultimately, this is a book for many audiences. There is architecture, an array of local faces, the psychology of being photographed; it's a record of long since-transformed roads and districts, a study in documentary realism underlaid with unobtrusive symbolism. From a purist standpoint the photographs explore perspective and the mechanical means with which to record this, while for those familiar with Glasgow and its changes or who wish to know more, or be reminded of its past, they can form an absorbing compendium of the coffee-table type at its most astringent.

The Foreword expresses the hope that it ‘rings to viewers some of the atmosphere and characteristics of the city as it journeyed - for better or worse - from the old era into the new’. In this regard, and in its personal and subtly powerful way, it has been eminently successful.