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Margaret Watkins, photographer: seduced by the modern.

WE HAVE long been captivated by the life of Margaret Watkins. She came to adulthood at the turn of the century, growing up reading Henrik Ibsen as well as Edith Wharton. Intelligent and hardworking, she became independent, making a life of her own as a successful artist and commercial photographer in Greenwich Village.

That is one story--the self-made modern woman succeeding, as men had done before her, in a masculine feat of individual heroism and a rejection of family and traditional mores. Her photography's innovation is tied to this modern resistance to tradition. Her not marrying, her working for a living, the eroticism in her writing and her art, the pacifism and feminism of her poetry, her rejection of institutional religion, her reading Radclyffe Hall and owning a first edition of A Room of One's Own are all traces of her rebellion and modernity.

Another story is a self-imposed exile that led to the loss of her commercial and critical success when she left New York in 1928 for a holiday in Europe and became mired in the chore of tending to aging aunts in Glasgow. At intervals she fought against the domestic stranglehold and reclaimed her career. She made memorable and historically relevant photographs in Germany, France, and the USSR, as well as in Glasgow, but she never again made a living from her art or disseminated it beyond a few exhibitions.

DESPITE the near gothic scenario of her secluded final years, Watkins' life both in New York and in Europe was seduced by the modern. It resonates with the major cultural movements of the early twentieth century: feminism, photography, and advertising.


Today, Watkins remains exemplary as a single woman finding her way in the metropolis and creating a career for herself despite the written script for women to marry and have children in order to be fulfilled.

She was radical in her crossing of boundaries. She confounded the art world by assuming that the domestic was suitable art material. She entered the masculine commercial world of advertising, and she photographed in the male domain of shipbuilding. She confused gender lines: she did her own carpentry, fixed leaking pipes; she espoused feminism, fell in love with powerful, charismatic men, and cared for family members on their death beds. Her life is complex and contradictory. As she wrote: "Living is a most vital and untidy business...I don't want it all slicked up and streamlined and illuminated like a specimen room at a Housing and Home exhibition."

A number of Watkins' photographs, taken of windows around 1919, explore a threshold space between inside and outside, and often a turning back into the interior.


Cabin Window, 1922 (above), offers a portrait of a living space that is used for both work and domestic needs. In this case Watkins' "work," or avocation, is signalled through the icon of the typewriter as "writing."

In Paris, Watkins circled the Eiffel Tower making images of its place and her place within the city, never allowing it to dominate the scene. She chose instead to highlight the more commonplace modern structures of the bridge, fountain, and street lamp and their relationship to the tower.


Watkins saw another Parisian symbol, the Seine, as the site of myriad activities rather than the site of romantic love. It was a river with traffic and trade and often a roofless shelter for the poor. Watkins was the artist and the female flaneuse who took in everything, even other flaneurs. She was fascinated by the heterogeneity that the city offers.


In the heat of the Depression in the United States and Europe, businessmen, workers, and artists made pilgrimages to the USSR to pay tribute to Stalinist economic and cultural success. Watkins travelled to the Soviet Union, following in the footsteps of Margaret Bourke-White, Upton Sinclair, Andre Gide, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. The first stop on her journey was Leningrad. Unlike Bourke-White-who was supplied with a personal translator and privileged transportation-Watkins had to create her own opportunities to photograph. In Watkins' photograph, the figure of Peter the Great is seen rising above the tree-line while two young boys bend to pick up objects from a puddle, their reflections echoing the heroic figure of the czar.


On a visit to an Octobrist camp, a summer colony for children, she took a photograph of children playing a Russian version of "pin the tail on the donkey." What distinguishes this picture is Watkins' own blindfolding of certain parts of the image. On the negative she has pencilled out a child in the background and a torso behind the head of the boy in order to give primacy to the foreground scene, thereby focusing on the moment of intimacy between the care worker and the children.


Watkins' photographs of the Glasgow waterfront are blatant documents of the immensity and power of heavy industry and the physical strength of labour.


At fifty-plus, when women are less visible than their youthful counterparts, Watkins must have been out of sight as she climbed the exposed staircase of the Finnieston crane to find an aerial view. She went up the 195-foot tower-no mean feat for a women of her age- and photographed down. "There is a shot from the giant at Finnieston, 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."


Central Glasgow did not have the massive architecture of the waterfront, yet references to technology hover in Watkins' photographs. A solitary policeman stands in the middle of a tramway line on the ground, with cable criss-crossing above him. No tram is in sight. In anther image two men work on a tangled frame of scaffolding while others mingle below in the same chaotic structure-construction site as chaotic labyrinth.


MARY O'CONNOR is the Chair of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University.

KATHERINE TWEEDIE is Professor Emeritus of Studio Arts at Concordia University. This article is extracted from Seduced by Modernity: The Photography of Margaret Watkins (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007). All photographs published by permission of the copyright owner, Joseph Mulholland, Glasgow, Scotland.
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Author:O' Connor, Mary; Tweedie, Katherine
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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