Pictures from No Man's Land

Photographer, and former Head of Photography at Edinburgh College of Art, David Williams, reflects on a series of photographs made in 1984. Works form this series are included in When We Were Young, an exhibition of photographs of childhood from the National Galleries of Scotland collection. 

The two images included in When We Were Young are selected from Pictures From No Man’s Land, a series of photographs I produced at St Margaret’s School for Girls, Edinburgh in 1984. This body of work resulted from a six-month artist-in-residence post, initiated by the school in collaboration with The Scottish Arts Council. Advertised with a view to commissioning an artist (not necessarily a photographer) to explore their own area of specialism while being attached to the school’s art department, it also involved teaching the pupils. Looking back after all these years, my appointment to the position was one of the most significant developments in what has turned out to be a long career as a photographic artist and educator.

Such retrospection on my part can feel emotionally charged as it relates to feelings surrounding when I  was young and at the very early stages of my head-over-heels love affair with the medium of photography. I was so full of enthusiasm, yet somewhat naive, particularly on the technical front. At that time I had acquired only three or four years of self-taught experience having been a professional musician and songwriter until 1981. In the years that followed, I devoured every photographic monograph I could lay my hands on. Many of these featured the work of American ‘giants’ such as Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon. This was to have a considerable impact on the way Pictures From No Man’s Land took form.

David Williams, Tennis from 'Pictures From No Man's Land', Silver gelatine print, 1984
David Williams, Saxophonist from 'Pictures From No Man's Land', Silver gelatine print, 1984

From the outset, I was intent on working within certain conceptual parameters and keen to go beyond a functional, ‘fly-on-the-wall, six months in the life of a girls’ school’, documentary approach. For better or worse, my take on things had to be more lyrical/metaphorical. I endeavoured to establish my ‘theme and variations’ in much the same way as a composer might – a strategy not unfamiliar to me, given my previous experience in music. Simply put, the theme is that of ‘growing up’ and its myriad ramifications.

I should add that from my perspective, although the subjects were girls and the environment a private school, this was of minor relevance to the underlying thesis. These factors certainly helped in providing a ‘streamlined vehicle’ for what I hoped to say in the work, but a boys-only school, or indeed a co-educational institution could have provided equally fertile territory as regards the exploration of such a universal theme.

David Williams, Sixth Form Girl, Primary I Girl from 'Pictures From No Man's Land', Silver gelatine print, 1984

The notion of ‘growing up’ is perhaps most succinctly communicated in the image, ‘Sixth Form Girl, Primary 1 Girl’. Hopefully this photograph is both insightful and witty as it relates to the overarching concept. We see the older girl, in her very final days at St Margaret’s, standing next to a brand new recruit. The former seems quietly confident, restrained and aware of how she is presenting herself as a young woman to the camera. Conversely, her partner seems utterly transparent in her lack of self-awareness, exuding a kind of unbridled joy.

The two girls appear as polar opposites, but crucially this image alludes to the fact that in many ways they are inextricably connected: one was like the other as a child and the younger pupil will in time, acquire traits of her older counterpart. Notice here that as is the case throughout the entire project, the subjects in the photograph are not mentioned by name in its title. This is because there is no attempt to ‘capture and convey their essence' as individuals. Rather, they serve to represent different facets of the process of growing up, whereby innocence irrevocably evolves into increasing self-awareness.

David Williams, 'Senior Girl from 'Pictures From No Man's Land', Platinum Print, 1984
David Williams, Junior Girl from 'Pictures From No Man's Land', Platinum Print, 1984

Having established this theme, time and again throughout Pictures From No Man’s Land, variations are presented, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subliminally, often via sequencing and juxtaposition of imagery.

One photograph I am particularly fond of is the group portrait, ‘Primary 1’. Intentionally understated, it seems paradoxical in content: just how can these infants look simultaneously so young and yet so mature? One can somehow already imagine them in middle age; photography has such curious alchemical potential. I distinctly remember looking into the ground glass screen of the camera at all those sincere, young faces and experiencing a spine tingling sensation on pressing the button to set off the flashlights and take the picture. I just couldn’t wait to process the film.

David Willams, Primary I from 'Pictures From No Man's Land', Platinum print, 1984
David Willams, Nursery Pupil from 'Pictures From No Man's Land', Platinum print, 1984

The end result seems even more miraculous when one considers that throughout the shoot, apart from the disarming serenity contained in that single shot, mayhem ruled the day. For my tiny, on-site studio to be invaded by eleven very excitable children, pushed all of my skills to the limit, despite being most ably assisted by their teacher who was of course present for the occasion.

I think it fair to say that Pictures From No Man’s Land was a critical success. It was exhibited internationally and won the BBC Television 150 Years of Photography Prize. But I have to admit I was nervous initially about how a male artist’s interpretation of such subject matter would be received. Indeed nowadays it is difficult to imagine a comparable scenario materialising in the first place.

And in some ways the project is a testament to ‘When Photography Was Young’. Currently, any photographic practitioner in even remotely similar circumstances would be strongly advised to obtain formal permission from guardians or ‘model release forms’ prior to wider dissemination of the resulting work. I think these symptoms of the medium’s ethical coming of age are to be hugely welcomed – such considerations did not pertain to nearly the same extent, if at all, in 1984.

David Williams, Primary School, Teacher from 'Pictures From No Man's Land', Silver gelatine print, 1984

Down the decades, several ex St Margaret’s pupils have been in touch to request prints or copies of the book to remind them of their days at the school. At the time of writing this, I have just sent off prints to one of the girls who appears in the ‘Primary 1, Teacher’ image (also included in the When We Were Young exhibition). Now a paediatric surgeon in Chicago with two small children of her own, she would have been five years old when it was taken.

Not so long ago, I met up with the two subjects in the previously mentioned Sixth Form Girl, Primary I Girl (Joanna and Camilla), who generously agreed to participate in an attempt to ‘remake’ that photograph, 30 years on. It was wonderful to see them again and we had a great time together, despite the fact that my efforts to produce a new version of the image were unsuccessful.

Recently, Joanna told me that the image of her and Camilla has had pride of place on her wall since she first acquired a copy all those years ago. I found it most gratifying to learn that the photograph has remained so significant for her throughout her life. For me, this points to the real power of photography and its unique currency as an artistic medium. Joanna also kindly joined me at the preview of When We Were Young to speak with television and press.  

I am delighted that extracts from Pictures From No Man’s Land have been included in this captivating, intelligently curated exhibition and feel honoured to be in the company of such outstanding historical and contemporary practitioners.

By David Williams, 18 March 2018