Margaret Watkins: Leningrad and Moscow 1933

29 November 2017 - 10 February 2018

An exhibition, showcasing photographs from Moscow and Leningrad in 1933, by Margaret Watkins as her first retrospective in London. 

Margaret Watkins (1884-1969) is an outstanding photographer of Canadian Scottish descent who was unknown for most of her lifetime. An acclaimed photographer in New York in the 1910s and 20s, she travelled to the Soviet Union in 1933 where she photographed street life, creating intimate portraits in place of the bombastic propaganda of the time.

After returning to Glasgow from New York in the late 1920s, Watkins fell into obscurity,  until some 40 years after her death when gallerist Joe Mulholland discovered her archive of several thousand negatives.

When she died in 1969, her bags were still packed to return to New York. She was unknown to other than a few acquaintances in Glasgow. Few, if any, knew that she had ever been a photographer. No-one was aware she had achieved fame in New York, as a peer of many who later emerged as pioneers in the development of pictorial and modernist photography. Not just as a peer – as a mentor of several, who were credited with inventing artistic approaches which she had, in fact, taught them.

Since the discovery of her archive over ten years ago, Watkins has been exhibited in Canada and Scotland, but this will be her first exhibition in London. Pushkin House has chosen to focus on Watkins’s trip to the Soviet Union – and showcase her extraordinary pictures from that visit.

She set sail for Leningrad in August 1933: her ship was the Co-Operatzia, sailing out of London from a berth near to Tower Bridge. The Russian State organisation Intourist co-ordinated the itinerary – which was severely monitored in where they could go, what they could see and what photographs they could take. Not just take: all film had to be processed and passed by censors before they left Russia. Miss Watkins noted her film was developed “dearly and badly” but all images were returned to her and she got back to Glasgow with over six hundred negatives.

Monitored all the way, the group was forbidden to photograph railways, bridges, army manoeuvres and principal sites like Red Square and the Kremlin. She got herself into trouble by snapping the OGPU barracks, thinking it was a block of workers' flats. Bundled off to police HQ, she was questioned for hours, before being released– and her film confiscated.

Despite the restrictions, she succeeded in chronicling the USSR at a crucial point in its post-Revolution development. In shop windows she spotted busts of the Leader of the Worlds (Lenin) with a poster of Stalin gazing eerily from the side. Workers at work and toddlers at kindergarten; young people in political marches and at youth rallies; street scenes with ordinary Muscovites and Leningraders about their daily business; more horse drawn than motor traffic; a forbidding but impressive Orthodox priest – and a surprising number of active church or religious images.

A sprinkling of political messages feature throughout: banners at the rallies, quotations from Stalin exhorting “front-line proletarians!” These would have helped Watkins get her images past the censors. Although taken to schools, kindergartens and youth events, Watkins’s pictures never veer into propaganda, rather they sensitively and intensely convey the essence of her subject.

Joe Mulholland, proprietor of the Hidden Lane Gallery, Glasgow, has championed the Margaret Watkins archive since discovering it in 1986, organising her retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada and at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. 

The exhibition is sponsored by The hidden Lane Gallery, Glasgow