Oscar Marzaroli: Photography 1959-1968

5 - 27 November 2010 Edinburgh

From the 19th century Glasgow has been a city of momentous change and expansion.  As the second city of the empire its population grew exponentially following the growth of industry and trade.  As it enlarged the living conditions of the city’s workers shrank. Dire poverty and disease proliferated to the point that the City Improvement Trust took in hand its problems and razed the overcrowded wynds and vennels.  Not before, however, commissioning Thomas Annan in 1867 to record it, albeit a sanitised version for the municipal record.  It was only decades before the slum like conditions reappeared.  The images of Bert Hardy and Bill Brandt from 1930s and 1940s chart Glasgow’s extreme housing conditions and poverty.  Far from recording a community repressed and miserable, it was defiant, optimistic and energetic.  Eventually Glasgow City Council addressed its problems in The Housing Act (Scotland) of 1954 and so from post war austerity came economic prosperity.  The tenements residents were to be re-housed in modern high rise flats. A drastic depopulation which reduced a city of a million plus people to less than 800,000 in twenty years.  In 1958 a plan by Basil Spence proposed the demolition of the Gorbals and the relocation of its people.  It was this that Oscar Marzaroli took as his subject. 


Marzaroli was of Italian birth and arrived in Scotland in 1935, aged 2.  He attended Glasgow School of Art for a short period and undertook an apprenticeship as a photo-journalist in Europe and London before returning to Glasgow in 1959.  His livelihood was making films and alongside this he recorded Glasgow's evolution through the 1960s and 70s.  He took the men of John Brown’s shipyard and Ravenscraig Steelworks, street life and children as his subject all set against a changing architectural backdrop be it the Red Road Flats or the QE2. 


Marzaroli documented the seemingly ordinary and everyday and showed it to be exceptional and often humorous.  However, his ‘eye' was not voyeuristic; he walked amongst his subjects as an equal and an ally, a participant and not a 'privileged tourist'.  Leaping from his prints is resilience, defiance, humour and an understanding of the malleable nature of youth and its changing environment.  It is noted by Tom Normand, (History of Art, University of St. Andrew's), that 'it is difficult to view Marzaroli's ideological position as paternalist, in the manner of Thomas Annan, or even as socially concerned reformism, in the style of the documentary radicals from the 1930s.  Rather, Marzaroli presented a documentary form that offered a non judgemental reportage which nevertheless viewed its subject with respect and something approaching awe.'