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2 Jun 2020

Photo forensics – teasing out the details

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna Archivist
Black and white photo of a large magnifier over a photo to show it in greater detail.
Magnifying the details in the Canna photographic archives
Here are some of the techniques I use to fill in the gaps of the Canna photographic archive catalogues, along with some of the surprises I've encountered along the way.

The National Trust for Scotland is very fortunate to have some incredible photographic collections in its care, and none are more comprehensive, fascinating and culturally invaluable than those of Canna folklorist and photographer, Margaret Fay Shaw. Margaret’s collection of around 9,000 images, both black & white and colour, is a wonderful representation of a life well lived, in the USA and in Scotland. Margaret was born in 1903 and began her photography career as a teenager, when she first came to Scotland to attend school in Helensburgh for a year before commencing her classical music training at university. Her collection includes what is probably the world’s most important visual record of a Hebridean life which no longer exists: the faces of a people whose descendants still live in the places where the images were first taken in the 1930s; the houses they lived in; the jobs they did; and the lives they lived.

When Margaret first began taking pictures, she did so, as she wrote herself, ‘For the love of it’. It was only later that she began to appreciate how important her work might be in the preservation of a culture, language and heritage that was rapidly disappearing. After her marriage to internationally known folklorist John Lorne Campbell in 1935, their joint work in folklore, music and photography has left us with a priceless legacy, unmatched in the world for its value to us today, for us to learn from and enjoy.

Black and white photo of two women and two men standing in front of railings, with a tree to the right-hand side.Black and white photo of two women and two men standing in front of railings, with a tree to the right-hand side.
John and Margaret’s wedding in 1935

Margaret has indeed left us with a wonderful collection of images, but the data behind them – the names of people in them, the places they were taken, the dates – are often missing. The Morton Photography Project team have in recent years been working on redigitising of the collection and collating data where available. This, together with my own detailed knowledge of the collections, gathered over the course of the last 25 years or so, has meant I’ve been able to fill in many of the blanks. This increases the richness and cultural value of our collections, as well as telling us more about who John and Margaret Campbell were and the work they did until their deaths in 1996 and 2004 respectively.

Black and white photo of a man in a hat, standing at the roadside next to the sea.
Ruairi Iain Bhain

Being able to ‘fit the jigsaw’ together means using lots of different research techniques and resources. So here are a few examples of how I’ve utilised those techniques to place a particular image at the centre of a wider setting, giving a sense of place or time, and perhaps a reason for that image being taken in the first place.

Black and white photo of two women on deck on a boat, with a lifebelt at the right-hand side.
Margaret and Isabel Conklin on deck on the TSS Nieuw Amsterdam

The original photograph catalogue gives no information on this particular image. At face value, we have a nice image of Margaret and another woman, taken on a boat or ship (see lifebelt). I examined the clothing of the two women, which indicates it was taken probably sometime in the 1920s, and this would lead us to think that Margaret was in her early 20s. I knew from previous research that after her initial trip to Scotland in 1920, Margaret returned to Scotland on several occasions, first in 1924. I also knew that she was an avid diary keeper, so I located her early diaries and found the one for that year.

Part of a handwritten page of a diary.
Margaret’s diary from 1924

Reading this, I was able to ascertain that her cabinmate and companion for the voyage was Miss Isabel Conklin. So I could pin the name to the other girl in that image. How was I certain that this was the correct voyage? Because in the image Margaret is holding a book. Zoom in on the title and we see that the book is called Unnoticed London.

Black and white photograph of a woman on board a ship, holding a book, Unnoticed London
Margaret holding Unnoticed London

Here is the diary entry for that day ...

29 June

‘Conklin and I sat in deck chairs in sun all morning and sang hymns. Chicken and icecream for lunch. Read Mills books of Huxleys “Reflections on Modern Science” and E Montezambert’s “Unnoticed London”, a fine book on London’s really unnoticed interesting parts.’ She even draws a little cartoon of herself and Isobel sitting on ‘the edge of the boat outside railings, with our feet over – very enjoyable’.

Part of a page of a handwritten diary, with a cartoon of a boat.
Cartoon of a boat, in Margaret’s diary

Of course, the internet is extremely useful to us today in this kind of research. I was able to further verify Margaret’s travel itinerary by finding the passenger arrival lists for her and Isabel Conklin from the shipping line, on

Then I located Margaret’s copy of the book itself in Canna House.

A favourite picture from the collections is this one of Màiri Macrae holding a large cod fish outside Taigh Màiri Anndra (her croft house) in North Glendale, South Uist.

Black and white photograph of a woman holding a large fish above three cats.
Màiri Macrae, the cats and a codfish

All we know about this image is: a) it’s Màiri Macrae, b) the location, and c) that it has the cats, Fluffy, Wicked Willie and Finlay in it. There’s no date in catalogue, although we know that Margaret lived with Màiri and her sister Peigi between 1929 and 1935.

I remembered that when I first came to Canna House in 2015, I had come across a little artefact in Margaret’s personal effects and wondered if it might be useful so I made a note about it and kept it for later use ...

A cover for a photographic exposure calculator.
Wellcome Exposure Calculator, 1932

This is a Wellcome Exposure Calculator, a form of diary for photographers, including an original card exposure ‘wheel’ meter.

This little book has various tables and information, which we tend not to have to worry about in these days of digital photography. The wheel is a tool to help set up the camera correctly and would help to create a well-exposed image. This little book would have been an invaluable tool for Margaret in the 1930s, helping her to calculate shutter speeds and aperture ranges, bearing in mind the lack of electricity for good indoor light for camera work.

Page of a photographic instruction book, with a settings wheel on the right-hand page.
Settings wheel

In Margaret’s calculator, I was able to tell the exact time the image was taken, the light range, and the exposure range used. So we now know this image was taken on 11 May 1932 at 10.40am, along with the light, stop and exposure settings. Description of image? ‘Màiri & cats with cod’. Even the likely weather conditions that day – ‘Bright sun’!

Page from a photographic settings manual, showing particular settings for images.
Settings page

It adds so much to the image, being able to visualise the space, time and place of its setting.

Tapping into the knowledge of others is also an important way of both engaging with ‘audiences’ and making sure that the information you record is as authentic as it can be.

This is especially important, perhaps, when the subject matter or location looks to be completely out of your own area of expertise. I’ve recently been spending time documenting information on images which Margaret took on holiday, away from Scotland in the mid-20th century. The Campbells took a tour of Europe after the war years and there are lots of images with little or no information attached. Here’s one of two battleships somewhere in Europe – no information in the catalogue other than ‘Italy, France, Greece, Corsica or Cyprus’.

Black and white photograph of two battleships in a harbour.
Battleships in Piraeus Harbour, Greece

It was a process of elimination and my own travelling knowledge of Europe to narrow this one down. The number 853 led me to finding the name of one of the ships – the US Navy destroyer, USS Charles H. Roan. The other ship, an R21 C Class destroyer, was HMS Chivalrous. From internet research, we know that this ship was commissioned in 1945 and was then sold to the US in 1954, but in this image it still belongs to the Royal Navy. She was in service in the Mediterranean from 1947 onwards. Researching ports used for naval purposes post-war and looking at the large church building to the right (the Greek Orthodox Church of St Nicholas) led me to discover that this is Piraeus harbour, Greece.

I then searched through John Lorne Campbell’s diaries for 1947–54 and found out that he and Margaret undertook an extensive European tour in 1948. This was borne out by letters I found indicating that John was going to visit various folklorists when he was ‘coming to Greece’. When I posted the image on social media, as a means of involving the ‘Internet Hive’ to glean any other further information, comments helped to flesh out the details, including the fact that the bunting on the ships indicated they were dressed for a courtesy visit to a friendly port.

Here’s a favourite image of mine, taken in the mid-1920s.

Black and white photograph of a wide street with a man pushing an ‘adult pram’.
An ‘adult pram’!

This delightful image of a hand-pushed adult perambulator has no information at all in the catalogue. What do we know about it just by looking?

  • Fashions indicate 1920s
  • Impressive building
  • Looks coastal

It was out with the magnifier for this one. I didn’t recognise any of the people in the image so I looked at the surroundings. Its position in the catalogue, along with a neighbouring one obviously taken at the same time, placed it most likely in North America.

Black and white photograph of three ladies in 1920s clothes.
Ladies who lunch

After a little enhancement of the image, and using a magnifier, I was able to make out that the lower building to the right-hand side had what looked like a neon sign saying ‘Brunswick Panatrope’.

Black and white photograph of large buildings in the background, with people walking along a promenade.
The Brunswick Panatrope

After a little enhancement of the image, and using a magnifier, I was able to make out that the lower building to the right-hand side had what looked like a neon sign saying ‘Brunswick Panatrope’.

Newspaper cutting about the Brunswick Panatrope.
Newspaper cutting about the Brunswick Panatrope in Atlantic City

The signage was placed on the Panatrope showroom, in front of the Traymore Hotel, the large building with the imposing towers. The boardwalk became known as the ‘Rolling Chair Parade’.

Colour postcard of the ‘Rolling Chair Parade’ in Atlantic City.
The ‘Rolling Chair Parade’

So, although we know the rough date and the exact location – with an fascinating story attached to it – we don’t yet know the names of the people in the images. But I hope that I might eventually find these in the diaries at Canna House.

I wonder if Margaret was drawn to Atlantic City in 1928 to try out one of the first commercial recording machines. Was this the beginning of her intention to return to Scotland and start taking down and recording the Gaelic songs she had heard in Scotland already?

A piece of song music with a Gaelic song title.
S’e m’Aghan Fhin Thu

It’s fascinating to be able to find out more from photographs which have little information attached to them, sometimes just by thinking ‘out of the box’ but also by using personal knowledge or experience, trial and error, Google and ancestry tools. I enjoy it so much that I now do it for fun. I get great personal satisfaction when I’m able to further enhance the cultural jigsaw that is the Canna Collections, just by spending a little time, pulling together all the elements of the Canna Archives – and putting myself into Margaret or John’s shoes!

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