Project Pages
Review by Norman Parkinson
The LIST Magazine Issue 11

Once upon a time there were jokes about the Irish, but preceding them, I recall there was a series which posed the question ‘What is the height of …? Of ambition, of frustration, of callousness, of astonishment?’ Reply: ‘the mother Superior who found the seat lifted.’

Right away I must tell you that I found this wonderful book - excellently reproduced in Hong Kong without detracting one iota from David Williams’ sensitive photographs - the projection of the idea to ‘hide’ a resident male camera ‘behind the arras’ in a pubescent female seminary was farseeing to a degree.

David Williams’ prologue tells us that the Scottish Arts Council sponsored this project: so it is to them (or to a particularly enlightened individual on that Council), together with, dare I say, a slightly apprehensive Headmistress, that one of the most absorbing and informative visual records of the late 20th century now exists.

I do not St Margaret’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, but it appears to be a typically dour and forbidding incarnation. Likewise, I have never seen any work from David Williams’ camera, so that I became the third person, the observer, in a freshly squeezed naïve trinity.

Here I make observations which are easily refutable, but as a self-ordained water diviner I must make them.  Firstly that David Williams the photographer is not conversant with the keyhole world of Balthus in which maidens stretch and sigh unaware of the power of their own bodies observed, and secondly, a collection of such unpretentious images, quietly gentle as a tune on a one-string fiddle, because of their integrity, gather power from each other’s truth to compound into a Wagnerian overture.

The majority of the images are made doubly effective by the unmodern mood of the photographs - I wonder if this was planned?

Certainly this mood was imposed on the assignment by use of an ancient Rolleiflex that never actually takes what you see on your groundglass.  Of course, the book is not Victorian, but possibly Edwardian, everything about it turn-of-the century.  All these rampaging pubescent girls locked up together as if in a nunnery, in 1985 that is certainly retrogressive, and here they are almost each a still life against the painted, two-dimensionally backdrops of the High Street photographer. Herein lies the success of this book, a most full and comprehensive, but patently old-fashioned schooling system - how these seniors went wild on the order of release at the seaside on a bottle of wine - recorded on a thirty year-old camera, tenderly reprinted in duotone.

The ‘Moments Preserved’ in Irving Penn’s fine books are not as powerful as the moments here presented.  The girls are caught abundant with quick joys and long lingering disturbed eyes looking for the world outside, fledged to fly no doubt, but where to go?

By now, you must realise that I think this is very fine document, excellent photographs of an excellent idea, and my praise has nothing to do with the fact that I hail from a generation that finds schoolgirls in black lisle stockings devastating, but then in this book the black lisle stockings are only in the mind’s eye.

Back to the photographs.