I was very moved by the work of William Gedney as explored by Roger May recently on his blog Walk Your Camera. Roger’s comments and personal insight, and Gedney’s lyrically beautiful work, made me think about my own home, the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, and the photographers who have explored this remarkable area. There are a few whose work has influenced me, but I kept coming back to one in particular, Gus Wylie.
Like Gedney, Wylie was an ‘outsider’, in Wylie’s case from England. But that cultural distance, and I suppose also his perception of the ‘exotic’ nature of the North of Scotland, gives Wylie’s work a certain objectivity. But more than anything, as with Gedney’s work, it is rooted in a respect for the subject. No abrasive intrusion is evident, rather a quieter and more considered observation of the lives and landscape he had chosen to immerse himself within.
I heard a quote attributed to Wylie some years ago, that when asked by a student how he achieved such close access to his subjects and was able to capture such intimate images, Wylie talked about respect and said “when you look through the camera you have to ask yourself ‘do I love this person, really love them’ and if the answer is no then don’t take the photograph”.
I have no idea how accurate that quote is, but I like to think it is correct because Wylie’s work is indeed intimate, but more than that he seems to have managed to fully involve himself with his subjects, gaining their trust in a way few other photographers of the Highlands & Islands managed, and thats no mean feat. I’m a Highlander, with a dash of island blood, and I know this place, and I know that my fellow Highlanders don’t suffer fools gladly. Islanders in particular are good judges of character, and that Wylie was welcomed so warmly says a lot about his approach and attitude.
Journalist Torcuil Crichton, himself a native of Lewis and well qualified to comment on Wylie’s work, paid tribute to him in the Scottish Herald in 2005, reviewing Wylie’s book ‘The Hebrideans: 1974-2004’ saying:
In his garage is the orange VW camper van he used for his tours of the Hebrides. He travelled there in the shadow of Paul Strand, the American photographer whose portraiture caught the dignity of the Hebridean Gaels in the 1950s.
But Strand, whom Wylie met once, was not a primary influence. Deep in his subconscious were the photos taken in the southern states of America during the Roosevelt era by Walker Evans, the folk recordings of Alan Lomax and the American realist paintings of Andrew Wyeth. A chance meeting with Derek Cooper, the venerable broadcaster with strong Skye and Lewis connections, convinced him that there was a cohesive body of work to be done.
“I wanted a situation where I could get lost in a landscape and insinuate myself in a society, ” he (Wylie) says, giving a pretty accurate description of what he actually achieved. “I realised that as an Englishman from 600 miles away I wouldn’t get very far.”
Following Strand’s advice, he found an intermediary who could introduce him to potential photographic subjects. Finlay MacLeod, a Lewis man of letters, became his bridge and his companion on many trips. MacLeod, who has written the introduction to The Hebrideans, describes the pictures as gestalt, a visual representation of the islands that is more than the sum of its part.
Wylie also took the path of befriending post-mistresses, trusted members ofthe community, as a means of working his way into the villages. He recalled the lesson of Bruce Davidson, an American who photographed Spanish Harlem in the 1950s, to respect people’s lives. Wylie took that to heart and is still in touch, 30 years later, with many of his subjects.
But it was hard. The twin qualities of rural modesty and the repressive power of small communities make people who live in villages very hard to photograph. Hebrideans are no exception. The postmistress in Torrin, on Skye, refused to be photographed four times but finally relented on the fifth visit.
“She boiled me an egg before coming out into the snow to call me in, ” recalls Wylie. “I noticed she was wearing her overcoat and ventured, ‘A photograph?'” Her picture features on the book’s front cover.
Little details, cyphers and codes in the landscape let Wylie know he was accepted. Also, he took time – a commodity that economics has since stolen from photographers. He developed a style of going through the ritual of portraiture to alleviate the camera’s intimidating presence. “After that people would talk and show you how they’d painted the wall, or where they’d buried the dog or how they’d converted a lorry into a drying shed, ” he says. Then, sometimes by serendipity, he admits, a picture would come – a man wearing three pullovers, the magical relationship between people and their animals, the Bible resting on a woman’s knees.
(Text © Torcuil Crichton)
Wylie’s work emerged just prior to the gaelic renaissance that occurred in the mid 1970’s. This resurgence in interest in the gaelic culture in the highlands came after many decades of decline and deliberate proscription of the language. Wylie’s work was timely, and one of his images, of Donna Ferguson from Laxay on Lewis, appeared on the cover of the influential gaelic rock band Runrig’s album ‘Heartland’ and it would be fair to say in doing so firmly embedded itself in the visual culture of the highlands. Runrig’s music was born of the landscape and rich cultural heritage of the people of the highlands, their songs exploring issues of land ownership, politics and history, and it was entirely appropriate that Wylie’s work should feature on their album cover.
Its worth noting the image selection and layout of ‘Pattern of the Hebrides’. I have no idea if it was Wylie’s or the graphic designer’s choice, but there’s ‘poetry’ in the way the images lead you through the pages: an ammonite fossil on the left page on a slanting rock is ‘balanced’ on the facing page by a perfectly tilted monolith, the MacLeod Stone, surrounded by sheep, the curl of the ammonite echoing the curl of sheep horn, but the message seems to be ‘this may be an old landscape, with aspects of its past ‘fixed’ in stone and forever immutable, and like sheep we are destined to follow each other by our births in this place, but not blindly so, because we can make our marks in various unique ways’.
The next page shows a curve of beach, a natural line wrought by the ocean against land, but on the facing page a perfect echo of this in a curve of stone, a lobster pond that marks man’s impact on this place, but clearly stating ‘there is no accident in this design’, the beautiful elegance of the functional structure hinting that such endeavours must of necessity respect the landscape, echo their shapes and ‘fit’ this harsh place and not ever fight against it.
I learned a huge amount about ‘visual narratives’ from this little book, about how subtle and seemingly disparate images, when placed with others, can by some strange alchemical process form some whole that has an impact way beyond their deceptively simple content. Within the first half dozen pairs of images you are gently informed that this is a harsh landscape, but one that will support you if you work with it.
And then there’s the human face, and there’s a wonderful juxtaposition of images in ‘Pattern of the Hebrides’, that reflects the increasing modernisation of the Highlands & Islands, hinting at the tension between a traditional rural way of living with its subsistence farming and deeply held religious faith, and the creeping ‘decadence’ of popular culture and ‘progress’. A Led Zeppelin fan walks along Stornoway Main street, an imported Japanese motorcycle sits in front of lone house, a young man polishes his car.
Wylie added a footnote to the caption of ‘Evening, Staffin, Isle of Skye’. He noted “I have a tremendous affinity for the work of Andrew Wyeth and the American realist painters, and this photograph evokes the same curious melancholy in the landscape. The contrast between the loneliness and vastness of the landscape and the Japanese motorcycle suggests for me the vast hidden changes taking place here.” And he was right, he’d realised that this special place was changing rapidly, and this makes his images from this period all the more valuable.
Unfortunately Wylie’s remarkable body of beautiful work, spanning more than thirty years, is not well represented by his apparently half-completed website which contains only a few images, and hardly any of his best work. But it’s possible to pick up copies of his books new or secondhand via Amazon and other vendors, but his best-known works are becoming harder to locate. However Birlinn Books (Edinburgh) are republishing the excellent The ‘Hebrideans 1974-2004’ but its printing has been delayed, although the publishers assure me it will be out by the end of the year.
Wylie’s work made me reappraise the place I live, and I think also made me realise that we are special, in that curious way that any community is that exists in a marginal area, remote from the centres of political and financial power, and in a ‘tough’ physical environment. It instilled in me a sense of pride at being a part of all of this. And the fact that some of the faces in Wylie’s book were people I’d encountered on my own wanderings around the Highlands and Islands only underlined that sense of connection and belonging. There is no doubt at all in my mind that Gus Wylie’s work has been hugely significant in shaping many people’s view of the Highlands and Islands, offering valuable insight for those unfamiliar with the place, but also reinforcing the sense of belonging felt by those who are a part of it.