Margaret Fay Shaw, M.E.M. Donaldson and Jenny Gilbertson: three women photographers and film-makers of 1930s’ Scottish Highland and Island life
Following being awarded research leave Oct-Dec 2015 from The Glasgow School of Art, this research aims to scope and analyse the photographic and film-making outputs of Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004), Mary Ethel Muir Donaldson (1876-1958) and Jenny Gilbertson (1902-1990). The time period I will concentrate on is the 1930s’ and their documentation of Scottish Highlands and Islands’ life.
The aims of the research are:
- To assess their contribution in terms of film-making and photographic outputs and outline their motivations.
- Analyse their methods and outputs.
- Assess how belonging to and living within the communities and culture they were recording brought an added understanding to their work.
- write an extended essay for publication.
I wish to research their methodology, to argue that their approach to photographing or filming their subjects was different to male contemporaries. Through archive visits I will analyze the formal qualities of images. Are the subjects staged or naturalistic? Each woman was choosing how to create a narrative of the reality of life on the ground. Other archival sources including notebooks will illuminate motivations. Were they ethnographical, political, cultural or aesthetic?
Secondary sources can give biographical information, aiding understanding of their agency. What difficulties did they face as women doing this kind of work? Site visits to Canna, Ardnamurchan and Shetland will assess how belonging to and living within communities brought an added understanding to their work. Shaw lived for six years with two sisters on South Uist; M.E.M. Donaldson built her own house ‘Sanna Bheag’ complete with dark room at Sanna, Ardnamurchan, Argyll; and Gilbertson lived at Virkie, Dunrossness on Shetland.
The research will be a comparative study of three women, rather than focus on one. This original research allows a case to be built that their methodology and outputs are different and unique in comparison to better known male contemporaries. Little research exists on photographic and film outputs of Shaw and M.E.M. Donaldson; most recently they are both included in Martin Padget’s ‘Photographers of the Western Isles’ (2010) Birlinn Limited. The focus on Shaw’s work has predominantly been on her musicologist work ‘Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist’ (1955) or on her network of peers (University of Massachusetts, Boston’s Ann Berthoff, ‘Kindred Spirits: Kathleen Raine and Margaret Fay Shaw’, Sewanee Review, Volume 120, Number 1, Winter 2012, pp. 91-102). There is one biography on Donaldson by John Telfer Dunbar ‘Herself: The Life and Photographs of MEM Donaldson’ (1979). More research on Gilbertson’s work is available, yet covering a later period of her work in the Arctic, in particular through Dr Sarah Neely, University of Stirling (‘My Heart Beat for the Wilderness’: Isobel Wylie Hutchison, Jenny Gilbertson, Margaret Tait and Other Twentieth-Century Scottish Women Filmmakers. In: MacKenzie S, Westerstahl Stenport A (ed.). Films on Ice: Cinema of the Arctic. Traditions in World Cinema, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 299-309).
Please contact me on J.Brownrigg@gsa.ac.uk
‘The event which is in front of her eyes: 1930s’ Scottish Highland and Islands life – the documentary photography and film of M.E.M. Donaldson, Jenny Gilbertson and Margaret Fay Shaw’, Jenny Brownrigg (2016) The Drouth, Winter/Spring 2016 Issue 54 ‘Interstices’, Eds BACOS, N & RUSH, B, p64-82
TALKS / PAPERS
‘Documenting 1920s-40s Scottish Highlands and Islands life: M.E.M. Donaldson, Jenny Gilbertson and Margaret Fay Shaw’, presentation at Communications, Media and Culture Research Seminar series, Dept of Film and Media, University of Stirling (19.10.16)
‘Documenting 1930s’ Scottish Highlands and Islands Life: MEM Donaldson, Jenny Gilbertson and Margaret Fay Shaw’, lunchtime lecture, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery (9.6.16)
‘Alternative Readings of North: Jenny Gilbertson, M.E.M. Donaldson and Margaret Fay Shaw’, paper for ‘True North: Re-Writing History’ conference, Timespan, Helmsdale, Sutherland (17-19 March 2016)
RESEARCH NOTES INDEX
Research Note 1: Jenny Gilbertson – Shetland Research Visit, October 2015
Research Note 2: Margaret Fay Shaw – Canna House Research Visit, November 2015
Research Note 3: M.E.M. Donaldson – Inverness Research Visit, November 2015
Research Note 4: Photographs of Eigg: MEM Donaldson and Violet Banks, November 2016
With thanks to: Inverness Museum & Art Gallery, Shona Main, Joanne Jamieson, Dr Sarah Neely, Fiona MacKenzie (NTS Archivist, Canna House), Magda Sagarzazu (retired NTS Archivist, Canna House), Talitha Kotze (GSA), The Glasgow School of Art, Shetland Museum & Archives, Sally Harrower (National Library of Scotland), Lesley Junor (Inverness Museum & Art Gallery)