Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Margaret Watkins (web: traditional still life approaches)

Margaret Watkins
(web: traditional still life approaches)

Margaret Watkins was born in Canada in 1884. When 25 years old, she moved to New York the centre of artistic life. She had her own studio in the 1920s and studied photography and later was a teacher at Boston's Clarence White School of Photography. She had students like Margaret Bourke-White. It has been said that she was half in love with Clarence White and, when he suddenly died in 1927, Watkins organised a memorial exhibition for him. She displayed some of his major pictures, which he had given to her in lieu of salary. White's widow sued Watkins for ownership and she had to sell her the pictures back. With hurt feelings Watkins decided to move to Scotland to look after her four aunts. Slowly all her relatives died, and the second world war started. Even though she didn't have any reason to stay longer, she couldn't go back then because at those times you could only cross the Atlantic if you really had to.
She continued to take pictures, but never like earlier in her life. Watkins never went back to New York, she stayed in Glasgow. Before she died in 1967 she gave her neighbour Mulholland, who was a journalist, a box of most of her work on a strict promise not to open it before she died. When Mulholland went in to Watkins house to look for more pictures, he found her suitcases still packed with passport ready to go back to New York.

When he opened the box he found a jumbled archive of thousands of contact sheets, negatives and photographs, documenting an incredibly accomplished career spanning the early part of the 20th century. Even though they were really good friends, Watkins had never told this part of her life to him.

Margaret Watkins took some very powerful still life images using ordinary household scenes. These include Domestic Symphony, which features three eggs, perched on the edge of a smooth, sculptural surface and The Kitchen Sink, a composition consisting of a ceramic sink containing a grubby milk bottle and other household paraphernalia.
Both of these images were featured in Vanity Fair magazine at the time.
Her subject matter for this photograph, a kitchen sink was shockingly revolutionary for a work of art. Watkins was the one of the first to turn aspects of female household responsibility, into a still life. The way she composes the objects, creates abstract patterns, shadows and reflects light.
The Kitchen Sink image was quiet popular and some say the most famous domestic photograph. It looks very simple but still it is not an image that just anyone could have composed to give such a strong impression.

Why didn't she go back? Did she feel like her work wouldn't be good enough after all those years? Maybe she had her bag packed to prove that she could go back if she wanted to, but she chose not to. She hid her early life from Mullholand and chose the relative simplicity of Scotland over the glitzy life of New York. Was she rejecting the sophisticated, prefering the beauty of ordinary life? She elevated the mundane, giving beauty to everyday objects. Her work is in one way very realistic, but also creates a world full of shape and form.




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