St Margaret’s School for Girls, Edinburgh 1984
In 1984 I undertook a six-month Artist-in-Residence commission at St Margaret’s School for Girls, Edinburgh. The commission was instigated by the school in collaboration with the Scottish Arts Council.
Pictures from No Man’s Land, my first major project after having taken up photography in 1980, proved to be a pivotal experience for me and seems all the more so in retrospect. In the 30 years which have elapsed since its completion much has changed, both in the world of photography and the world at large. The school itself is now closed and single-sex private schools are less common in the UK.
As Artist-in-Residence, my remit was to make work based on the school and to teach photography to a wide range of pupils within the school’s art department. Looking back, it was one the most challenging and intensive undertakings of my career, due in part to my lack of experience. I had to learn an enormous amount technically and in the area of social engagement as the project proceeded.
In making the work, it was never my intention to comment on the pros and cons, political or otherwise, of the form of education represented by St Margaret’s. Rather, I sought to allude to the universal process whereby children grow into adolescents. The concomitant, inexorable shift from innocence to self-consciousness is referred to throughout, often by way of formal portraiture. The school and its inhabitants can be seen as a vehicle for the expression of this central theme rather than the subjects of overt socio-political commentary.
Overall, Pictures from No Man’s Land achieved considerable exposure, being widely exhibited and published although the accompanying book is now somewhat of a rarity. In some ways, again partly due to lack of experience, I was surprised at the attention it received. However, I was delighted when in 1989 it won the BBC Scotland 150 Years of Photography Award and equally so when Norman Parkinson described it as, ‘…one of the most absorbing and informative visual records of the late 20th century’ (the List Magazine, issue 11, 1986).
David Williams is Reader of Photography at Edinburgh College of Art.