Oscar Marzaroli (1933 – August 26, 1988), a renowned Scottish documentary photographer, showed us urban Glasgow on the brink of social change. He photographed children playing on demolition sites just as Victorian tenements were pulled down and new multi-story social housed was rising, the elderly lamp man manually lighting a gas street lamp just as the electric street lighting was to be introduced, women socialising at the local steamie just as the flats with modern washing machines were being built.
One Sunday afternoon John and I strolled to the nearby Street Level Photoworks gallery in Trongate to experience Marzaroli’s exhibition in person.
Not to visit, but to experience, that’s right.
My heartstrings were pulled as I smiled at the three little boys playing in the street while wearing their mothers’ high heel shows. I empathised with the funeral party waiting for the hearse outside the printer shop. I had a pang of nostalgia at the sight of the back-lit St Enoch’s Square and the bridge over the Rover Clyde.
I regretted that the innocence of documenting kids in public space has been lost nowadays and envied Marzaroli’s authenticity.
As Peter Ross wrote in his essay Oscar’s Family of Man,
These photos feel alive. You may not know the names of the people in the pictures, but you can always hear their heartbeat.
Marzaroli’s black and white photos are exceptional in the immediacy of his visual record of humanity and his acute sense of social change happening in front of his camera. He shared in the interview with Jennie Renton,
I was seeing bits of Tolstoy, Dostoievsky and Gorky in the streets. I had the inherent feeling that time was of the essence, that it wasn’t to be wasted, thrown away.
He was commissioned to do any this work and was only urged by his creative instinct:
There was no question of me going out to look for what was considered then the tougher element of the city, or for something topical. All I know is I had a need to get down there daily, weekly, monthly with a camera.
As a result, Oscar left behind a vast body of work (The Marzaroli Collection donated by his family to Glasgow Caledonian University contains more than 50,000 negatives, now digitised by the students) encapsulating archetypes of Glasgow life in the 50s, 60s and 70s, very much in the tradition of humanist photography.
Marzaroli’s retrospective was beautifully and thoughtfully curated in a recognisably Street Level Photoworks’ manner (where a series of photos were placed on top of the mural-scaled, wallpaper-like prints we saw at Doro Zinn’s Save It for a Rainy Day). The brochure was generously illustrated and, besides the photographer’s biography, included a well-researched and well-written essay by Peter Ross I mentioned before.
The use of coloured walls and the choice of stark white mats with narrow black frames reminded us the presentation style of the seminal La photographie humaniste, 1945–1968 exhibition at La Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 2006-2007.
At the same time the inclusion of the blown up contact sheets from Marzaroli’s archives in each room and even as a centrefold of the brochure gave a nod to the famous Magnum Photos agency curatorial practice.
Besides pictures on the walls, there were several display cases, one biographical in nature, with portraits of Oscar, his wife and his daughters, and some newspaper clippings. The others featured black and white images printed by Marzaroli himself or in his lifetime.
As a gear head, I appreciated that Marzaroli’s tools of the trade, his Rolleiflex, Leica and Nikon cameras and his canvas Billingham bags were on display as well.
We were amazed how many visitors were dropping in on a Sunday afternoon and how much Glaswegians loved Oscar’s work. There were at least 50 people in and out there in that brief stretch of time John and I attended Street Level Photoworks galleries.
Due to popular demand the exhibition was extended until April 5 2020. Don’t miss it – it’s the first proper retrospective of Oscar Marzaroli’s work in 30 years!