The saying ‘every painter paints himself’ was first documented as far back as the early Renaissance period, but it has been discussed or alluded to by artists ever since.
Both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci used it; Michelangelo even inserted himself into his last fresco, The Crucifixion of St Peter, in the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel. Gauguin appeared in his The Little One Is Dreaming in 1881 as a creepy jester’s face (see the yellow circled images below). Yet, despite its significance to the artists themselves, there’s still much exploration to be done by art scholars to determine why artists felt the need to do this. Can the same question also be asked of photographers who insert themselves into their own photography?
In researching the early photography of Pittsburgh-born folklorist and musician Margaret Fay Shaw, who lived on the Isle of Canna for over 60 years with her husband John Lorne Campbell, I’ve noticed the large number of images she took where she inserts herself, knowingly or otherwise, into the scene.
In one of my favourite images below, we can clearly see the shadow of Margaret with her iconic ‘hat’ outline in the bottom left corner. Margaret’s hat in her shadow reflects the hat of her friend. We’ll never know with any certainty whether Margaret was aware of what she was doing, but we can imagine.
If we look at the image at a basic observer’s level, we see a woman looking intently at a large whale bone, possibly a jawbone, on a beach, taken around 1935. Was this a fleeting moment or was it part of a more extended tableau? It seems like it might have been quite a breezy day: the woman’s skirt is blowing to the right and the marram grass (bottom right) is blowing to the right also. If it was windy, it’s likely that Margaret would have had to take her time to compose the image, perhaps to steady her tripod if she was using one. She would undoubtedly have had time to see that her shadow was in the frame and adjust her stance if she wished to avoid that.
The whole impression of the image is that of stillness and reverence. My theory is that the woman Margaret captured is paying homage to the magnificent creature who died on that lonely shore, head bowed in respect, hands clasped in a silent moment of thought. Margaret also wished to be part of that moment and, crucially, have that moment recorded for posterity. But how could she do that if she was behind the lens? One way would be to insert herself in the image, by including her shadow in the corner, making her presence part of the moment and preserved in the photo album.
Similarly, in the image above of Peigi and Mairi Macrae sitting on a wall with their North Glendale neighbours, taken on South Uist, c1931, Margaret’s shadow appears in the bottom right corner again, with her ‘hat outline’. This is a snapshot of her dear friends, obviously captured on a happy relaxed occasion, one of which she wished to be reminded in the future. Her shadow is a way of recording that she was part of that occasion.
Margaret was not able to have her photography developed on South Uist in the early 1930s, due to the peaty nature of the water. Consequently, she did not know what her images contained until they were returned to her. Developing prints was an expensive business, so a photographer needed to be fairly sure of what they wanted to represent and how the composition would finally appear. If Margaret had received several prints that mistakenly included her corner shadow, we can expect that she would have been ultra-accurate about future compositions.
Margaret took this double exposure on the Cockle Strand on Barra on the occasion of the first passenger plane landing on the beach on 7 August 1936. Was it an accident or did she intend the image to look this way? I think the composition and subject matter is too good for it to have been an accidental double exposure. Margaret was in fact using the occasion to present a fascinating dichotomy of two ‘ages’.
If Margaret was creative enough to conceive this notion, then she was certainly creative enough to find a way of making her presence felt in her photography. Indeed, Margaret was a creative person in almost every respect, including painting, music, gardening and cookery. She made her art her own, stamping her personality on her work, the people and the landscapes that surrounded her.
Margaret was one of the first female photographers of the 20th century and she had a deep understanding of the responsibility which this bestowed upon her. She began her photography career because she enjoyed it; she had taken snaps of her friends and sisters from being a teenager at school for a year in Helensburgh, all the way through to her years studying music in New York, Paris and London. The frequency with which her shadow appears even in those early photographs cannot be ignored.
When she finally came to live in the Hebrides in 1929, Margaret experienced a dawning realisation that what she was producing with her Graflex camera would become a body of work never before created. Her photographs offered snapshots of ways of life that were rapidly disappearing, both in Scotland and further afield where she travelled. The images (above) that she took on her tour to the Aran Islands in 1930 are among the most striking and historically significant photographs in her collection. It’s notable just how many of them contain her shadow: sometimes only a head and shoulders, other times her whole outline.
Margaret described her early equipment and the challenges it presented: ‘My camera was a large Graflex in which one loaded metal sheaths with cut film, four by five inches. I would have liked to develop the film myself, but the water was from a stream that was filled with peat particles and I had no way to filter. The camera weighed ten pounds, heavy to lug, especially when I added a 17 inch lens. I had no light meter and for taking my friends by their fireside, I had a problem of making them stay immobile while I guessed that a count of six would be sufficient. The results were usually good which delighted us both. Since they had never had their photographs taken they thought it was a miracle.’
Below is her attempt at persuading the Campbell children of South Lochboisdale to look at her and stay still for the camera. How much she tells us by simply raising her arm!
As Margaret’s confidence with camerawork and composition grew, I believe she began to experiment with what was really an early form of Photoshop! Margaret wanted to move beyond the flat image on the paper, to add artistic, historical and philosophical meaning to an image, as well as creativity. She realised, like many artists before her, that a mere depiction of the exterior world (as it is presented to the viewer) is not what makes a great piece of art. In the masterpieces, the true beauty and value is often what is essentially ‘hidden’. The French artist Delacroix said that ‘the eyes of many people are dull or false; they see objects literally, of the exquisite they see nothing’.
If we look carefully at Margaret’s images, we can imagine what message she was trying to convey through her composition of carefully observed scenes.
And what should we make of those hats?! Hats offer a sense of place and time, and most of the shadows indicate either the same hat or ones of similar styles. Could they be a subtle indication of the theme of constancy? The images or landscapes may change but the artist remains the same, a constant presence.
Of course, this is all conjecture and we will never know for sure. One certainty, however, is that Margaret Fay Shaw had plenty of hats to choose from … and we still have many of them in Canna House today.
First published by the National Trust for Scotland