Margaret Watkins: Lost and Found

Margaret Watkins, Academic Nude – Tower of Ivory (1924), palladium print, 21.2 x 16 cm. NGC. Purchased 1984 with the assistance of a grant from the Government of Canada under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act

After more than 100 years, Canadian photographer Margaret Watkins has returned to her Hamilton birthplace, as the McMaster Museum of Art hosts the National Gallery of Canada’s exhibition, Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies

An artist’s body of work can sometimes be forgotten, fall out of fashion, or even disappear completely from the pages of art history. This was almost the case for Watkins, who was born in Hamilton in 1884. She left home in 1908, finding work in a Boston portrait studio before moving to New York City, where she became an accomplished professional photographer. From 1916 to 1928, she taught at the prestigious Clarence H. White School of Photography in Maine and later in New York, where students included Margaret Bourke-White, Laura Gilpin, Paul Outerbridge, Ralph Steiner and Doris Ulmann—all of whom are represented in the National Gallery’s collection.

In 1928, she left New York to care for her mother’s sisters in Glasgow, Scotland, and never returned to North America. She does not appear to have earned any real income from her photography after this date; she did, however, become an enthusiastic amateur, specializing in street photography in Russia, Germany and France. She was also elected an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society, and was the first-ever female member of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Photographic Association. Although she was largely forgotten as a photographer by the time of her death in 1969, her executor found hundreds of photographs in her Glasgow home, leading to a number of solo exhibitions in North America and Britain.

Lori Pauli, NGC Curator of Photographs, happened upon Watkins’ work almost by accident. “We had seven of her works in the collection, and one day I came across them while researching another exhibition,” she remembers. “They were these incredibly beautiful photographs by somebody who was born in Hamilton. I am from nearby Guelph, and I thought, ‘Why have I never heard of this artist and her work?’”

Pauli decided she wanted to do a major solo exhibition dedicated to Watkins: a project that would take nearly 25 years to realize. When the National Gallery exhibition finally opened in October of 2012, it marked Watkins’ restoration to her rightful place in the annals of twentieth-century photography—and eventually the return of her work to her Hamilton birthplace.

“It’s really exciting to see her come home,” says Pauli. “She had a one-person retrospective in New York before she left; but, after that, there really wasn’t anything. So these are the first solo exhibitions for her since the 1920s.” 

Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies features 101 photographs, ranging from soft focus portraits and landscapes to street scenes, storefronts, advertising work and still lifes. “Her work adds a whole new dimension to the history of Modernist photography and Pictorialism,” says Pauli.

Ihor Holubizky, Senior Curator at Hamilton’s McMaster Museum of Art, felt that hosting the exhibition was important for a number of reasons. One of these is that it reminds Hamiltonians that their city has been home to remarkable people and significant events. “We tend to think of artists, in particular, as coming from somewhere else—you know, not from here, regardless of whether the work was done in Canada or not. This exhibition challenges that notion.” 

Holubizky adds that, as an art historian, he feels that the reintroduction of Watkins’ work reinforces the notion that history is always being written and rewritten. “Here is a woman who carved out a place for herself, taking certain risks along the way,” he says. “The camera is a very powerful tool. She was right there, right in the moment. She was learning, teaching, contributing. As to why she isn’t better known: it isn’t the fault of the artist, but rather something for the rest of us to work through.”

Margaret Watkins: Domestic Symphonies is on view at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton until 3 May 2014. A catalogue in English and French editions accompanies the exhibition.

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