The Power of Photography: Simon Murphy at Street Level Photoworks Glasgow

Simon Murphy, 'Govanhill 100 Rolls' contact sheet 1
Simon Murphy, 'Govanhill 100 Rolls' contact sheet 1

‘Govanhill’ - photography by Simon Murphy

Tue - Sun 12:00 - 17:00

From: 21 Oct 2023

To: 27 Jan 2024

Street Level Photoworks
103 Trongate
Glasgow & the Clyde Valley
G1 5HD

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Simon Murphy is an award-winning photographer from Glasgow who has worked on national and international press assignments and is now a lecturer in Photography at Glasgow Kelvin College. He lives in Govanhill – a district in the south side of Glasgow with a diverse population and a vibrant community of many nationalities. It’s not only the place where he lives, but it’s where he originally worked as a postman, where he did his college assignments as a photography student, and it’s the enduring inspiration for this current exhibition at Street Level Photoworks.

When he was a ‘postie’ Simon delivered postcards of exotic places, and thought he’d like to go to those places. He also delivered a postcard of the Beatles on the steps of Abbey Road studios in London, and had the realisation that there was a photographer there too and thought that he would like to do that, so he went on to study and make his career in photography.

Early displays of Simon’s photography were in Govanhill too, at Govanhill Baths, and then in a series of shop windows. He also produced a number of newspapers (five editions) carrying his photos that the public ‘had to find’. ‘It was about building a bridge’ with the community, he says. The Baths exhibition comprised ten pictures – not many came to the opening and Simon observes that some may have found the idea of a gallery setting intimidating.

This exhibition, by contrast, holds some 150 photographs and extends across the entire space of the Street Level galleries. In one gallery is his main Govanhill project, and in the second is his most recent work Govanhill 100 rolls. Both projects encompass mostly street portraiture, taken from 2017 to the present day, and featuring a diverse selection of people – accompanied sometimes by their animals. All the work on show is shot in black and white, taken in natural light on 35mm and medium-format film.

Simon’s subjects, some of whom he has photographed more than once over a space of years, look completely comfortable with being photographed and he has clearly found ways to put his subjects at ease. In none of the images does there appear to be any self-consciousness before the photographer. Simon explains that medium-format photography takes time to set up, positioning his camera on a tripod and taking a light-meter reading so the time to do this is often used to chat and develop a rapport with his subject – a great skill, with striking results.

The portraits are compositionally very strong, with immediate impact, yet also revealing something of each individual’s character. Some are of an isolated figure only, others incorporate the backdrop of the local streets – photographs of people are interwoven with shots of shopfronts and shutters, a telephone call box, bill postings and messages on tenement walls. In many of the portraits the gaze of the subject is immediately engaging. The portraits are mostly single figures, but occasionally two, or a group of kids, and always, Simon says, ‘Govanhill is the character’. These are arresting images, raising questions in the mind – who is this person and what is their unique story?

The first image of the exhibition is a rather forbidding tenement close interior. The three-legged dog in another early photo, Simon says, is a motif for the ‘underdog’, which might apply to the community of Govanhill or to some of its inhabitants. There are many photographs of children in the street and as Simon says, ‘children rule the streets, and are the negotiators in the many languages spoken in the area.’

Simon Murphy, 'Eliza' (© Simon Murphy), photograph
‘Eliza’, photograph, © Simon Murphy

The portrait of the girl, Eliza, ‘wearing’ her cat (one of the girls from an earlier photo of two girls in party dresses carrying presents) is one of the most notable pictures of a child with their pet. The cat was later lost, so the photo became more valuable to her.

Simon Murphy, 'Bike Boys' (© Simon Murphy), photograph
‘Bike Boys’, photograph, © Simon Murphy

Bike Boys conveys a strong sense of place with the length of the tenement street behind and a sense of togetherness in the close grouping of the four small boys in the foreground – perhaps echoes of Oscar Marzaroli in this one.

Simon Murphy, 'Dylan' (© Simon Murphy), photograph
‘Dylan’ photograph, © Simon Murphy

Dylan is one striking portrait among many with the qualities of a studio-shot photograph which in fact has been taken outdoors, or in the shelter of a lane. It is worthy of note that the portraits taken in medium-format are printed to a very large scale and the tonal qualities and detail in the prints are superb. Dylan appears in the exhibition more than once.

Simon often refers to ‘the power of photography’ and cites many examples of how his conversations with people on the street have led to unique moments captured in his photographs, and also how his portraits have sometimes stirred powerful emotions for the viewer, particularly for the family and friends of his subjects.

Simon Murphy, 'Seamus' (© Simon Murphy), photograph
‘Seamus’, photograph, © Simon Murphy

One of the poster images for the exhibition is Seamus, the man (a performance artist) with the strange animal’s-mouth hat. His costume – in fact a giant rat – also creates an interesting shadow on the tenement wall beside him, and this shadow device is repeated in several photographs, somehow amplifying the character of the subjects and the streets of Govanhill.

Simon Murphy, 'Govanhill 100 Rolls' contact sheet 1
‘Govanhill 100 Rolls’ contact sheet 1

In the second gallery is the Govanhill 100 rolls project – 100 new portraits taken from July 2022 to May 2023 using an award of 100 rolls of Kodak Tri-X film from the ‘Film Photo Award’. A video presentation in ten chapters accompanies Govanhill 100 rolls, in which the photographer describes working on the project – he tells the stories of his interactions with his subjects and what made him want to photograph each one in particular. He describes setting himself little targets, dividing the project up into chapters to build towards its completion. Particularly interesting to see too are the books of contact sheets for these portraits which can be viewed as part of the exhibition – it adds an extra dimension to see the shots either side of the final selection.

Simon Murphy, 'Govanhill 100 Rolls' video presentation
‘Govanhill 100 Rolls’ video presentation
Simon Murphy, 'Govanhill' exhibition display
‘Govanhill’ exhibition display

This exhibition coincides with the publication of Simon’s first major book, Govanhill, by Gomma Books. The first edition has swiftly sold out and it is hoped that there will be a further edition in 2024. This is a remarkable body of work, conveying the life of the people of the area – the ordinary and the extraordinary. ‘There is humanity in this project’, says Simon of documenting the people and the life of the area, ‘Govanhill’s treasures are its people’.

Artmag was delighted to be present at a ‘Walk and Talk’ presentation by Simon Murphy at his exhibition.

With Street Level Photoworks open again for 2024, a visit to the show is highly recommended, and the exhibition continues until 27th January 2024. A virtual presentation of the exhibition can also be viewed on the Street Level website.

With thanks to Gordon Reid for this review. Artmag would also like to thank Malcolm Dickson of Street Level Photoworks and Simon Murphy for their kind assistance.

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