March 19,1998

Work by little-known Canadian photographer discovered in Scotland Archives provides expertise for project

by Barbara Black

A chance meeting at a dépanneur last fall led to a happy collaboration between a group of academic researchers and Concordia's own Archives Department. When Photography Professor Katherine Tweedie ran into Archives Director Nancy Marrelli last fall, the two women started talking about Tweedie's summer trip to Scotland. She and two colleagues had been looking at and scanning about 1,000 vintage prints by a neglected Canadian photographer, Margaret Watkins, when a collector showed them 3,500 negatives and contact prints. Trying to scan every one of them onto her laptop in only three weeks was a hopeless task. Fortunately, the collector generously allowed Tweedie to bring the negatives and contact prints back to Canada to finish the job. Marrelli's professional instincts were aroused. She offered to provide the researchers with storage space, a place for student assistants to work, and guidance on organizing and preserving the material. Watkins' life followed the somewhat melancholy trajectory of many middle-class women of her time. She was born in 1884 in Hamilton, where her Scottish-immigrant father ran a dry-goods store. Around the age of 30, Watkins studied photography at the Clarence H. White School. Later in New York, she taught at the school and had a career as an established photographer, exhibiting in many artistic venues. To augment her teaching salary, she worked in the top ranks of advertising. Her work from this period, remarkable for its modernity, is increasingly being shown in galleries. In 1929, Watkins moved to Glasgow and dropped out of the stimulating relationship she had between the art world and industry. She travelled widely at first, notably to Germany, France and Russia, and took many photographs there and down at the Glasgow docks. The war of 1939-1945 prevented her from returning to Canada, and she retreated into quiet seclusion. She died in 1969. Tweedie and her colleagues, Mary O'Connor of McMaster University, and Lori Pauli, assistant curator of photography at the National Gallery of Canada succeeded in obtaining a SSHRC grant to produce a book with a CD-ROM on the cultural significance of Margaret Watkins' life and work. "She was an amateur archivist herself," Tweedie said admiringly, as she fingered Watkins' little envelopes, many bearing the photographer's own notes. "She annotated everything." Tweedie is delighted to have Archives' help, and considers it highly appropriate that the University's technical expertise is being putto scholarly use. While she and Nancy Marrelli supervise the work of four student and external volunteers on the storage of the negatives, her colleagues are dealing with Watkins' manuscripts and letters. They hope to produce the results of their research by the year 2000.

Copyright 1998 Thursday Report
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