16 November 2019

BLACK LIGHT: MARGARET WATKINS AT LAST

Margaret Watkins, Domestic Symphony, 1919. © Joseph Mulholland Collection.

Some people regard their work as a sort of remunerative sideshow to a light and festive existence (I want it to be everything).

– Margaret Watkins

“We can still look through your eyes. Thank you.” The narration is as comely and precise as ever when Mark Cousins rounds off his love letter to the greatest voice in filmmaking in The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018). When Canadian-born photographer Margaret Watkins (1884–1969) needed a promotional portrait of herself during her thriving career in modernist photography (her pictures were exhibited all over the world in the 1920s and 30s) and as a transformer of advertising image-making in New York City, it was evidently a picture that was going to be modelled on time and light and through her own discerning eyes.

Here, Watkins portrayed herself like the Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck would later do in her famous last series of paintings from the Second World War – the bare essence of a female face, pursed lips, head tilted slightly backwards and seen a little from below; unflattering, uncompromising, but in no way without beauty. “Miss Watkins took this portrait of herself by means of an ingeniously devised mechanism,” she typed at the bottom of the prints that went out to the press. Dismayed by a New York newspaper’s refashioning of her portrait into a flapper temptress in a feature of October 1923, headlined “Feminine Photographer Whose Domestic Symphonies Reveal Beauty of Objects Heretofore Considered Most Prosaic”, she extended her message on the back of these prints: “To ye engraver: Don’t clip prune or place this in an oval. Neither retouch or paint to the semblance of a snake-eyed vamp.”

She called herself “fussy” (Watkins’s mind was continually at work) but it was the fussy particulars of her photography – her fastidiousness, resolution and integrity – and every aspect of how she looked at the world and what she did with it which made her photographic work everything. She was tuned-in to this current world where, as Lynn Dumenil argues in The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s, “There was not a new woman, but many new women.” Watkins made no concessions to folly: “I can’t brazen my way through a business deal the way so many do, nor have I the cutely kittenish capacity for vamping the office-bond male, and you would be startled to know how much the supposedly soulless and impersonal world of trade is managed by these two extremes. Yet critical folk are keen on my work, both in craftsmanship and originality, and working with the right people I can turn out a corking good job.”

Alfred Stieglitz’s good friend Charles Henry Caffin wrote as early as 1901 that the photograph as a work of art “will record facts, but not as facts”. The “Domestic Symphonies” addressed in that verbose newspaper caption above refer to a number of household pictures – which are anything but household pictures – that Watkins took in 1919 and which could be regarded as her chef-d’oeuvre. This series alone is a testament to her wonderful understanding of photography’s intrinsic nature, to her sheer modernity and keenness in approaching the medium. Watkins described how “It took hours and infinite patience to create a rhythmic whole in line and tone values.” You hear her singing in the wire in these sonorous compositions. She arrayed and transcended the everydayness of her odds and ends (which could have been sampled from anyone’s Manhattan home in the late 1910s) into pure photography. 

When “Domestic Symphonies” and twelve hundred other photographs of hers resurfaced in Glasgow at the beginning of the 1970s, Watkins’s name had long gone faded into absolute obscurity. Her homebound existence at Westbourne Gardens, where she had gradually tapered off for the last forty years of her life and where she was living the art of selfhood as a recluse with a brilliant mind in a Victorian house full of books, and all of her dusty suitcases packed and ready for an expeditious return to New York City (“home”), was altered by mere coincidence one day when she received a phone call from a friendly neighbour who asked her if he and his family could pay her a visit. Many visits to 41 Westbourne Gardens would follow, with sparkling discussions (BBC’s Third Programme was always in the background) and never a dull moment. But there was never a word about her past.

She took bennies to keep her homesickness and the “curdled despair” in check, and jolted down her tempers and her thoughts on life’s vicissitudes on any available piece of paper: “I miss the artistic crowd most desperately. Collectively they may have every falling under the sun, but, in spite of their sins (or because of them) they have a strange gleam of vision, something worth striving after, something a bit beyond the end of their small human noses,” she wrote. “I want to go hooome and I haven’t got any home! I feel like a lost cat on the roof of the world!”

Before long the old lady entrusted her new friend with a sealed treasure chest that was only to be opened after her death: “There were palladium prints and silver gelatine prints. And there was a series so unusual that my attention was riveted on each of the images composed around what turned out to be the kitchen sink and bath in her New York apartment in Jane Street, Greenwich Village,” explains Joseph Mulholland in his foreword to Seduced by Modernity: The Photography of Margaret Watkins by Mary O’Connor and Katherine Tweedie. “For hours I stood there looking and looking – enthralled and totally at loss. I had thought I knew Miss Margaret Watkins.”

Miss Watkins came from Hamilton, Ontario, a city on the outskirts of Toronto. She grew up on King Street East with her Scottish mother Marie and her merchant father Frederick in a house that befittingly was the birthplace of the original female photojournalist Jessie Tarbox Beals. Watkins’s home was a place that would warrant her a happy childhood – until her early teens, when the family disintegrated after Margaret’s father was seriously injured in a bicycling accident on a family trip to Europe in 1897. Both of her parents went into different states of aberration. One of Margaret’s aunts arrived from Glasgow to take care of her while the mother was recuperating in the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane and the father was losing his wits in the course of Dr John Harvey Kellogg’s pious brainwashing at the Battle Creek Sanatorium. Eight months after her father reopened his grand dry goods warehouse in the city, he went bankrupt. For the rest of her life, Margaret Watkins discarded anyone’s attempt to interfere with her capacity “to observe and consider my own impressions”.

In November 1908, at the age of twenty-four, Watkins had had enough of both Hamilton and her family situation, and left. “Some people’s thoughts are so nice and orthodox – like woolly toy dogs on wheels, carefully drawn by the string of inherited opinions, in fact unable to move in any other manner,” she wrote. “People are such sheep – let me be a black sheep, just to relieve the monotony.” Her first station towards excellence was an industrial Utopia in the village of East Aurora (near Hamilton, on the US side of Lake Ontario) where she stayed for a year and a half, both as a housemaid and as a student of book design. 

The Roycroft Arts and Crafts community is described by Marie Via and Marjorie Searl in Head, Heart, and Hand: Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters: “What began as a modest printing establishment in 1895 soon evolved into a community of five hundred artists, craftsmen and other workers who were drawn together by Hubbard’s charisma, by the congenial atmosphere, and by a loose allegiance to the social and artistic ideals of the English reformers John Ruskin and William Morris. Once fully developed, the Roycroft flourished for about a dozen years on the strength of Hubbard’s energetic leadership, his wealth, and his ability to attract people of talent to the enterprise.”

The ensuing Utopia was the Sidney Lanier Camp (in Eliot, Maine), a sanctuary for people of all ages who wanted to learn “the art of living”. Watkins stayed there for the next three years, even though her initial judgement was that they were “all mad”, doing the camp’s administrative work and discovering the possibilities of photography. Later, when Watkins had moved to Boston in 1913 to train in a photo studio for a few years, she returned as the official photographer and designer of the community’s outdoor performances of biblical parables. It is some kind of irony that one of modernism’s finest photographers who has ever been recovered from oblivion worked for the clearly antimodernist Sidney Lanier Camp, taking pictures much influenced by the pictorialism of the day.

Pictorialism took a backward stance on life. The pictorialists’ outlandish idea for making photography valuable for upper-class appetites in a time when cameras had become an everyday article was to photograph the daughters of dawn singing the praise of Pan in painterly forests drawn on a fairy-tale past, and so on and so forth.

In her book Clarence H White and His World: The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895–1925, Anne McCauley delineates how “the extent of participation and the increase in institutional structures such as regional and international exhibitions, journals directed to the amateur market, and clubs that took place after the commercialisation of the gelatine dry plate (which simplified the preparation of negatives) signal a watershed change even prior to the development of the Kodak camera in 1888. Like today’s Snapchatters, everyone by the 1890s seemed to be making pictures, but they were doing so in groups – shooting on excursions, comparing works in exhibitions, meeting monthly to hear lectures, and gathering in club darkrooms to share processing tips.”

Margaret Watkins paid one hundred and fifty dollars in 1914 for the first of a string of summer camps organised by the Clarence H White School of Photography, where she eventually would become a demanding but popular and highly estimated teacher herself. The summer schools were based on White’s more modern take on pictorialism, inspired by compositional geometry. The communal spirit of the Arts and Crafts-y gatherings under the trees were not about pre-industrial innocence but rather part of the great teaching from some of the best instructors in the United States (the painter Max Weber was one of the lecturers in 1914). It was with White that Watkins found her true calling in photography. He became her tutor, friend and possibly, at one point or another, her lover.

“Modernist photography developed somewhat differently in Europe,” says Gerry Badger in The Genius of Photography, “but for American modernists the purity of the medium was paramount. Image sharpness and tonal quality were also important, and there was almost a fetish about obtaining the ‘fine’ print, one in which tonal values shone like a jewel.” Watkins cultivated her fetish for making the best possible prints already when she was toiling away in the darkroom of Arthur Jamieson’s portrait studio in Boston. At the White School she became an expert in what different soups and techniques would do to the negatives in the developing process. 

It was also at the White School that Watkins became a quality modernist. As O’Connor and Tweedie write in their book, “Somehow White was able to instil the idea that the design of the image must be structurally sound no matter how common the subject.” Watkins’s early masterpiece Opus I (1914) is a triangular symphony with a trinity of fishing skiffs. One of the two fishermen at the top is simply cut in half (he is not necessary for the composition), and despite the fact that the photographer has employed a slight pictorialist dim to this picture it still shines with the pure light of modernist perception. This is not a photograph of a seaside reality but a glimpse into the actualities of photography.

Her portraits of women, until the early 1920s, were drawn on Renaissance portraiture without further regard to pictorialism’s mimicry of painterly modes. Watkins was an instinctive advocate for womanism and revered the sisterhood of the day. And she celebrated the French 19th-century animalier Rosa Bonheur who rambled the Parisian livestock markets, slaughterhouses and similar areas, off limits for women, in the guise of a gentleman in order to gather fresh imprints for her art: “At a period when all genteel and delicately-reared young females were swooning at mice or embroidering weird beasts with beads and wool work, Rosa Bonheur, in peasants’ blouse and trousers, her hair cut short and neatly parted, was studying first-hand, the cattle and horses in the markets of Paris. Not pretty work, not ladylike, but it made her a master among animal painters.”

The move to Manhattan took place in mid-October 1915. After inheriting a reasonable sum of money in 1917 she was able to move into her personal space at 46 Jane Street in Greenwich Village. From her crestfallen exile in Glasgow only twelve years later she relished the times of yore: “‘Home sweet home’ was not even thus to me, and for the first ten years on my own I perched in rented hall bedrooms or odd corners of other people’s homes. So that it was a joy and delight to have bedroom, bath and living-room (with a discreet ‘kitchen corner’) and an extra room for renting or guests; to haunt junk shops in cellars and old furniture shops in lofts, to pick up fascinating if slightly decrepit odds and ends and to pull the whole thing together and flavour it with a few choice bits from home – well, I had the time of my life.”

That Watkins had the time of her life is evident from the photographs she created in this period. It must be underlined that the decade on Jane Street was the only time in Watkins’s life that she was free to roam in a place that was entirely her own. Modern life is ravishing in The Kitchen Sink from 1919. (“The ‘objects’ are not supposed to have any interest in themselves – merely contributing to the design,” she explained.) Surely, this was the ripper that Walker Evans so much desired in art photography – “the defining of observation full and felt” – a visual chord in the mind.

“Domestic Symphonies” resounded very well with what the Imagists were achieving in their poetry of the 1910s. “An ‘Image’,” Ezra Pound suggested, “is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” They summarised their endeavours in six points (here slightly abbreviated): 1. “To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.” 2. “To create new rhythms.” 3. “To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject.” 4. “To present an image.” 5. “To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.” 6. “Finally, most of us believe that concentration is the very essence of poetry.”

“Domestic Symphonies” are embodiments of female ingenuity. They are also made with reference to Watkins’s obsessive darkroom chores (which often continued through the nights) at a point in her life when she had just finished four years in a studio on East 23rd Street owned by the successful portrait photographer Alice Boughton. Watkins addressed this special kind of labour in her “How Art Enriches My Life” speech to the Newark Camera Club when she talked about photography’s “mean, messy, technical side calling for patience, perseverance and a very nice precision. Long before signing a masterpiece you roll up your sleeves, play about in poison – keeping the cyanide out of the soup – and work in icy water till the hand hangs dead on the wrist.”

Alice Boughton was an untidy woman who was annoyingly careless about the technical facets of photography. However, she and Watkins were united in their efforts to create business alliances between female entrepreneurs in the city, and Boughton introduced her acolyte to a host of conspicuous individuals (some of whom she would later portray). One of them was Nina Broderick Price whom Watkins photographed in the publisher’s flourishing art deco home. The picture that is called Portrait of Nina B Price (1925) is in fact void of the sitter. Watkins included a print of this cerebral portrait at the back of Katherine Dreier’s book Modern Art, which was published at the occasion of a show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926, and her portrait of Katherine Dreier at Home (1926) at the front. Dreier was famous for her participation in the American avant-garde movement and for originating the Société anonyme together with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp in New Jersey in 1920, yet something drove Watkins to add an ambiguous line on the print: “Does this suggest the habitat of a ‘modern’ artist?”

The American 1920s were roaring with traditional values. “The Progressive reform era (1900–14) that had proceeded World War I gave way in the 1920s to a period of conservatism in which politicians and pundits alike celebrated Big Business as the saviour of American democracy and enterprise,” writes Lynn Dumenil in The Modern Temper. Watkins had her own jeering name for her portrait of the stern-faced H E Vance (1926) – “Babbitt” – one of the pictures she used to send to exhibitions. “The intellectuals had only to read [Sinclair] Lewis’s books [Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922)] to realise that the qualities in American life which they most despised and feared were precisely the ones which he put under the microscope for cold-blooded examination. It was George F Babbitt who was the archenemy of the enlightened, and it was the Main Street state of mind which stood in the way of American civilisation,” argued Fredrick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s which came out in 1931.

Despite Watkins’s long-serving occupation at the Clarence H White School, when the post as the head teacher in New York became vacant in 1924 it went not to her but to an undergraduate at the school, Paul Outerbridge. For her remaining years in the city, Watkins continued to stay in the thick of things by turning to advertising photography, and she did it with the same level of artistic fervour and finesse as in her other pictures – she sure applied to what advertiser Earnest Elmo Calkins pronounced in 1928: “The men who produce advertising art are the men represented in the art exhibitions. There is no longer any distinction, and no stigma attaches to art used for business. Artists realise that advertising offers them an opportunity as great as any in the world today, not merely to be well paid for their work, but also to realise their artistic ambitions without sacrifice of their standards or their ideals.”

One of the strongest admirers of her work, particularly the pictures with the immaculate geometry of her surfaces where she isolated groups of singular objects and fragmented them for a whole new vision, was Condé Nast’s Art Director Heyworth Campbell. Between 1924 and 1928, Watkins’s commercial work was seen in magazines all over the United States. “Even the plain businessman, suspicious of ‘art stuff’, perceives that his product is enhanced by fine tone-spacing and the beauty of contrasting textures,” Watkins suggested in her 1926 text “Advertising and Photography”:

“With Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, came a new approach. Soulfulness was taboo, romance derided, anecdote scorned; beauty of subject was superseded by beauty of design, and the relation of ideas gave place to the relation of forms. Weird and surprising things were put upon canvas; stark mechanical objects revealed an unguessed dignity; commonplace articles showed curves and angles which could be repeated with the varying pattern of a fugue. The comprehending photographer saw, paused, and seized his camera! And while the more conservative workers still exhibited photographs beautiful in the accepted sense, strange offerings startled the juries; prints original perhaps, but hardly pretty, and showing an apparent queerness of choice most painful to the orthodox.”

Superb pieces like Design – Curves and Design – Angles (both 1919) were reframed in Watkins’s commercial work. Woodbury’s Facial Soap and Phenix Cheese, or her Untitled (Still Life, Glasses and Pitcher) for the Fostoria Glass Company in 1924, in which she magnified the presence of the glassware with her passion for the intangibility of the shadows (an idea copied by the Neue Sachlichkeit photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch two years later), are all early examples of forward-thinking advertising photography. O’Connor and Tweedie are correct in claiming that “Watkins modernised her form without giving over to the cleanliness of modernity.”

In his reflection on the American 1920s, Fredrick Lewis Allen described how the intellects of a younger generation “looked at Victorianism as half indecent and half funny […] Some of them, in fact, seemed to be persuaded that all periods prior to the coming of modernity had been ridiculous – with the exception of Greek civilisation, Italy at the time of Casanova, France at the time of the great courtesans, and 18th-century England.” Watkins’s nudes and portraits and outdoor pictures with people did grasp these periods. And she made fun of the prissy mannerisms of young Victorian ladies in the jocular Untitled (Verna Skelton Posing for Cutex Advertisement), a great shot from 1924 that sold nail polish. (There is also a very beautiful study for Cutex with a close-up of a missy hand swirling a pearl necklace.) Her commercial photography influenced further personal works, such as her splendid Head and Hand (c 1925) with a woman’s curved hand and a small female head asleep in its tender hold.

In Mexico City in the summer of 1925, on a school field trip with a group of students, Clarence White suffered a heart attack and died at the age of fifty-four. He and Watkins had been working intensely together in creating a portfolio of White’s finest prints for what they hoped in due time would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Meanwhile, White and Watkins made an agreement that she would buy the forty-four prints for the symbolic sum of ten dollars – partly because the school was in financial trouble, and Watkins had not been salaried for a long time for her teaching there, and partly because she was the one person whose expertise and authority White firmly believed in.

The portfolio was still at the White School at the time of his passing. When these prints resurfaced at the Pictorial Photographers of America’s commemorative exhibition at the Art Center in New York the following year, they had been sold to the Library of Congress by White’s suspicious wife. Once the show ended on May 1, Watkins had the walls stripped of the prints that she considered were in her custody. She lost them in the resulting lawsuit, and she lost her associates and her standing at the Art Center that she had been closely linked to for years and where she had her only solo show in 1923.

In August 1928, Margaret Watkins embarked on a journey for a trimester-long vacation in Glasgow. But never again would she return from her “rest cure” in a Victorian house full of dying aunts and leaking pipes.

Aunt Anna kicked the bucket within a week after Watkins’s arrival at 41 Westbourne Gardens. In a letter to a friend two years later she described the remnants of her mother’s childhood home: “The youngest [Grace] (!) is seventy-seven and has been in bed for five or six years; the next [Jane], eighty, valiant but very tottery and subject to the most shocking insurrections in the interior; the eldest [Louisa/Louie] eighty-six, a human dynamo, loves the movies, tries to manage the whole solar system and is furiously indignant if I suggest that she is perhaps not quite so strong as she was in the good old days.” Watkins realised that she was “the only available detached female relative who could take the job of keeping an eye on them. And a hectic job it has been, much more than I could have foreseen; and I am not just exactly suited by temperament, or temper, to be the honorary curator of an old Ladies’ home! But here you are – needs must!”

There were three escapes from the “aunthill” until all of them were gone. In the fall of 1928, Watkins took her Graflex camera to the humongous Pressa in Cologne, an international fair on recent advancements in graphic design, printing, publishing and advertising which occupied three exhibition halls and forty-two other buildings on a three-kilometre-long stretch by the Rhine. El Lissitzky (who was living in Germany at the time) curated the engrossing interiors for the Soviet Pavilion, which featured a mural photomontage – The Task of the Press is the Education of the Masses – by some avant-garde artists who were still permitted to shine because Stalin wanted to convince the West about the superiority of his first five-year plan. Watkins revelled in the experience, she loved when miracles popped out of ordinary hats.

When she came back to the Westbourne Gardens “sarcophagus” at the beginning of the new year, after a two-month stay in London following Pressa, she was broke and in an ill state of health. What worsened her condition was that her friend Polly had to clear out her true and only home that summer since the building in the Village would soon be dismantled. “All of my connections are broken in New York,” she wrote at the age of forty-six. “It’s the most disheartening problem I’ve ever been up against, and now that Jane St is gone I have no foundations left, how in heaven’s name I’ll ever make a fresh start in NY, I don’t know.” Watkins set up a minimal darkroom on the top floor of the “aunthill” just to keep herself connected to photography and the craft of playing about in poison. She became an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society in London and, locally, a member of the Glasgow and West Scotland Photographic Association, where she was known as an outsider due to her great style of dressing and her strange offerings in photography.

“Have made a good many mistakes, double exposures, forgetting to fix the time, etcetera but the lot that came from the shop today are quite hopeful. It is wiser to do one’s own developing when possible as you can vary the treatment to suit the subject, but I had to know whether I was getting anything or not and have done several things over again to improve composition or to get a better light. I would have had plenty of cash to get home on if I hadn’t spent it on films and developing but having been nearly twenty years at the game it seemed rather foolish to let the whole business slide and when the interest was revived, I decided to go at it for all I was worth and have something to work on during the winter,” Watkins told her aunt Jane in a letter from Paris on September 18, 1931.

She had returned to the Continent that summer to participate in the eighth International Congress of Scientific and Applied Photography in Dresden during the first week of August. Watkins spent some time in the German capital, which the filmmaker Walther Ruttmann had just portrayed in his modern, mechanical and rhythmic Weimar masterpiece Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1928). However, it was at the Paris Colonial Exposition, which filled up the whole Bois de Vincennes, that Watkins began to photograph for real again. France had culled a huge number of indigenes from its twenty-six territories and so had the other “empires”. These people were treated like animals in a zoo, but for Watkins this spectacle was “literally a trip around the world in a day!”

She loved the vivacity around the Seine. She wrote to aunt Jane that the river “keeps me fascinated and I’ve made a whole series of pictures of the life there. There are huge barges for washhouses for the poor; piers with fussy little steamers arriving and departing with holidaymakers: long low coal barges via canal from the Rhine; fishermen in tippy little boats, other fishers hanging over the copings and stone stairs which run right into the water; artists sitting in every likely and unlikely place where they can plant themselves and an easel; a man teasing out the innards of a mattress with a sort of rocker, while his wife puts it all back into the tick; a couple of terriers being scrubbed by their missus; cranes and steam shovels and huge piles of stone and sand for the new docks; half an acre of wine casks rolled together; beggars cooking meals in odd corners, others washing their clothes and most of themselves, and all along the parapets of the bridges, a black beading of heads and shoulders belonging to the gentlemen who are ‘doing nothing, and doing it very well’.”

In Paris she photographed posters, shop windows, tradesfolk in Les Halles, bits and fragments of buildings and the Eiffel Tower from indirect positions, not all that special. She returned to modernity in her Self-Portrait with the Vendôme Column in the background and the photographer hiding behind her big camera while a policeman joins in to complete the deformed picture, which is fully mirrored in the bulbous chromium alloy of a parked car’s headlight.

When Margaret Watkins photographed The Bathroom Window in the comfort of her home in 1923, the windows were closed and the curtains drawn because this world in the Greenwich Village was enough. The windows in the “window scenes” that she photographed in the fall of 1931 during her stay in London are all opened by the photographer to facilitate the possibility to take off and just leave.

In London she used the same kind of template for her photography as in Paris. But these pictures are so much stronger and resolved, and this is the point where Watkins is reimagining herself in her profession as a photographer. She met her colleagues at the Royal Photographic Society and saw an exhibition there on colour photography (colour photography was something that had spurred her interest for some time), and she went to The Annual London Salon of Photography, themed Invention in Design, where a certain number of her North American pictures were included. Her London “street photography” is void of people – a sign of the dispossessed state that she was in – but full of Watkins’s delicious way of looking at things, despite the gloom and a Stairway to Where?

The last trip went on a freighter from London Bridge to Leningrad via the Kiel Canal in August 1933. Watkins was eager to learn more about Soviet avant-garde art and how Stalinism, in relation to the recent market crashes in the United States and in Europe, was carried into effect. Before the train left for Moscow, Watkins sneaked out of her Leningrad company (including the Secretary of the Royal Society of Arts, Peter Le Neve Foster) and “took my first photograph – of statue of Peter the Great on horseback – while the rest of party stayed at hotel for a second huge meal”. 

“In general, the visual and performing arts, with their radical form and content, stunned Watkins, but she was also on the cusp of a fundamental shift in the Soviet art world. In Moscow, she visited the retrospective exhibition Artists of the Russian Federation over Fifteen Years [1917–32], which she ‘assiduously prowled for two half days [and] appreciated to the limit’. The fight against formalism was a subtext of the exhibition. The show had originated in Leningrad a year earlier, and by the time it got to Moscow it had been severely edited. The major emission was the abstract paintings of Malevich, who had an entire room devoted to his work in Leningrad. This was part of Stalin’s dictated shift from constructivism to social realism. In this transitional moment of 1933, photography, too, was in the midst of change from the avant-garde formalism and fragmentation, acute angles, and extreme close-ups,” explain Mary O’Connor and Katherine Tweedie in their biography. “By stripping away individualist markings, the door was opened to selling myths about the new Soviet society.”

Watkins was not anywhere near as gullible as her student Margaret Bourke-White who swallowed the Stalinist propaganda straight off. Watkins returned from the Soviet Union with six hundred pictures which capacity and August Sander-like social critique went over the heads of the censors. One such picture was Street Photographer, Moscow, depicting a poor, knitting woman (looking much older than she probably was), with a camera on a tripod pointing towards a pathetic backdrop that would place the sitter in a world far, far away from the USSR.

In the beginning of her Glasgow days she photographed the west corner of Westbourne Gardens. Park is a wintry, semiabstract picture with a bird’s-eye view from the house that would ground her for the rest of her life. In a letter never posted she confessed that “It would be hopeless to try and sell 41 at present as there is no demand whatever for such houses and I’m told the demand for flats has slackened. I think I ought to keep up my work. If I survive the aunts it means picking up a connection somewhere and piecing out a living with what funds I have and I must retain my health and what wits I have.” Watkins began to wander the Glasgow harbour area – where she really wasn’t welcome – like an undisguised Rosa Bonheur, “to see man in his true perspective as a very small creature, creeping and scurrying about the earth” (another metaphor for her own condition). Among the harbour’s “prehistoric monsters” she especially fancied the Finnieston Crane situated on the Queen’s Dock – from the heights of her pet crane Watkins was “hanging over the rail in a stiff breeze, looking straight down on the squat dome of the tunnel entrance, with little trucks and figures making a quick beetle pattern of light and dark”. The River Clyde became her mental escape route.

“Heaven forbid that I should slump into a fussy old maid stewing about her symptoms,” she wrote. In 1937, when Watkins was living alone in the sixteen-room house, her main project was to find textile and carpet producers for the kaleidoscopic designs that she had generated from her most abstract photographs. When that wasn’t realised, Watkins started an antiques business together with a far-off friend. She had a talent for discovering the greatest paraphernalia at the Barrow’s Market across town and had her bargains shipped to Toronto until the outbreak of the World War II. During the war years, Watkins did something that other Glaswegians were not so keen to do, she opened her home to refugees. For several years after 1945, she had Walter Süsskind (the conductor of the Scottish Orchestra at the time) and other tenants living in the house.

By the mid-1950s, Watkins did not even dare to venture out to her film club any longer, and she loved film. She had become an agoraphobe and the children looked at her building as if it were a ghost house. She lived in a creative torpor together with her many books, one of her few remaining enticements, and spent her days filling diaries and catalogues with memories and notes. The authors of Seduced by Modernity explain that “the multiple revisiting of her past – conducted in annotations on her parents’ letters, in the margins of the books and exhibition catalogues she had bought, and on scraps of newspapers she kept – all indicate a project to make meaning, and to leave an inheritance. At times, we have understood this to mean that she was waiting for biographers to do a further annotation – to write her life and understand her photographs.”

Watkins’s neighbour Joseph Mulholland argues in his foreword to their book how “Margaret Watkins had achieved what I believed she had set out to do. By creating a mystery, she had left me with a legacy and a duty. That duty was to find out as much as I could about her – and see that she was not forgotten. I had started off with a little more than the labels on the backs of these glorious pictures, a birth date and a death date, a lady with a slight North American accent, and a home where room after room was cluttered with an accumulation of some two hundred years of family clothes, papers, and furnishings. During my search, I found reviews of exhibitions where her photographs had won praise and prizes, and I gradually pieced together the bones of her story.”

The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow presented the first Margaret Watkins retrospective in 1981. When the pioneering New York photo space Light Gallery showed Watkins in 1984, she finally began to receive some recognition in the UK as well. She was called “the show’s greatest discovery” when an exhibition produced by the Detroit Institute of Arts – Pictorialism into Modernism – travelled the world between 1996 and 1998. Another book on Margaret Watkins came out in the autumn of 2012 when the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa presented her art for the Canadian public with their Domestic Symphonies show.

In All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman gives such a beautiful description of modernism’s vacillating nature: “To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organisations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and to make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts.”

In spite of everything melting away in her life, Watkins penned down these words in the summer of 1962: “In 1908, November, I left home to build a life and make a living. (The Quest continues.)” In 1919 she photographed Untitled (Woman Holding Photographic Print), a picture so dynamic that it could have been a clever painting from today of a woman with the looks of former times and a smartphone in her hands. In the mid-1930s she photographed herself climbing a flight of stairs as a shadowy figure crowned with a hat in Untitled (Self-Portrait and Shadows). What looks like an early work by the secretive Vivian Maier – whose photography was unboxed in 2007 – also very much conveys the sorrow of being the last picture Watkins ever took.

To the lost cat on the roof of the world: We can still look through your eyes. Thank you.

Margaret Watkins, Head and Hand, c 1925. © Joseph Mulholland Collection.

This essay is from the forthcoming exhibition catalogue Margaret Watkins: Black Light and is pre-published here courtesy of diChroma Photography in Madrid.