Oscar Marzaroli (1933-1988) is, unquestionably, one of the finest photographers Scotland has ever produced. His pictures of Glasgow and its people, in particular, are an intrinsic and iconic party of the city’s self-image. It is extraordinary, therefore, that this brilliant exhibition in Glasgow’s pre-eminent photography gallery is the first major show of his work in 30 years.
Born in the Liguria region of Italy in 1933, Marzaroli moved to Glasgow with his family in 1935. Following four years working as a freelance photojournalist in Stockholm and London, he returned to Glasgow in 1959 to set up his own photography studio.
In addition to his prodigious photographic output (there are more than 50,000 negatives in his collection, which is held by Glasgow Caledonian University) Marzaroli also turned his talents to film. For instance, Ogam Films, the company he co-founded in 1967, was commissioned to make dozens of short movies about life in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Nevertheless, it was as a stills photographer that Marzaroli was best known. A visit to this exhibition leaves one in no doubt as to why.
The pictures (which are entirely in black and white) cover a startling array of subjects, from personal accounts of visits to rural Scotland to portraits of a number of the country’s most famous cultural figures (including the painter Joan Eardley and the author and visual artist Alasdair Gray). However, it is Marzaroli’s diverse photographs of Glasgow and the Glaswegian people that, quite rightly, dominate this show.
There are photos documenting important moments in the history and politics of the Glaswegian (and wider Scottish and British) working class. A procession for the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in in Glasgow in 1971 shows workers’ banners from Wolverhampton and Blackpool. An earlier image, from 1961, puts working-class women front and centre in a demonstration against Polaris nuclear weapons.
Excellent though such photographs are, it is Marzaroli’s capturing of moments in the everyday lives of the working-class people of Glasgow that have the greatest impact. In one image from 1963 we see a huge ring of little girls holding hands and dancing round their school playground. On the right-hand side of the picture one child connects directly with Marzaroli, looking into the camera with a beautiful, intense, calm inquisitiveness.
There is in such pictures a deep, almost forensic empathy and a sense of human solidarity that should be instantly recognisable to any socialist as the essence of their creed. These images are appalled by the poverty of a place like the Gorbals in the 1960s, yet exhilarated by the resilience, defiance and sense of fun of the people, especially the children (not least in the gorgeously humorous photo of little boys playing in a Gorbals street wearing their mothers’ high-heeled shoes).
From his great, aerial panoramas of Glasgow to his warmly engaged images of people from Glasgow’s south and east Asian migrant communities, Marzaroli captured a city with a rare combination of documentary skill, artistic beauty and egalitarian humanism.