Jordan Ogg speaks to photographer Ian Paterson about a new exhibition documenting abandoned homes in the Outer Hebrides.
Abandoned buildings have been the subject of several recent photographic publications. In one of these, Ruin: Photographs of a Vanishing America (2009), the photographer Brian Vanden Brink notes that man's decaying structures serve as a kind of architectural memento mori:
'Maybe these buildings fascinate me because they represent all of us; maybe they are symbols of our own impermanent status here on earth - metaphors for our transient lives and inability to stop the passing of time.’
Similarly, the photographer Reuben Wu, when featured on The Island Review earlier this year, spoke of how he is drawn to abandoned buildings because they exist as signifiers, orphaned from their original purpose, of how 'everything will come to an end, and we only have a short time to look around before we die.’
'A’ Fàgail na Dachaigh / Leaving Home: an alternative view of the Outer Hebrides' is an exhibition of around 50 photographic prints by John Maher and Ian Paterson which adds to this growing genre. Soon to go on show at at An Lanntair in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, it documents abandoned croft houses in the Western Isles of Scotland.
Click on any thumbnail to view the gallery full size.
Earlier this week, Ian Paterson took some time out from his preparations for the exhibition to speak about the ideas behind the show.
TIR: For those unfamiliar with the history of the Western Isles, can you explain why there are so many derelict houses in the islands?
There are several reasons, the principal of which would definitely be depopulation of the Outer Hebrides throughout the whole of the 20th century, primarily on account of the lack of economic opportunities. Young people would leave the isles for the mainland, either for work or further education. Many simply did not return. Fathers and mothers would pass on, leaving their crofts to a younger generation who had no desire to live the lives of relative hardship borne by their parents.
There is also the topographical truth that many of these houses predate the existence of the road systems in the islands. The homes were originally built near the water's edge since the main mode of transport would have been by boat. As the roads were built, many of the properties found themselves some distance away, making them unsuitable for the younger generations to stay in after being left the house by their parents. It was often easier, and sometimes more cost effective, to create a new build by the road on the same croft rather than update an older house and create new road access.
TIR: What first triggered the idea for the project and what brought you and John together to work on it?
There was no actual trigger for the project, more a gradual realisation that we had amassed between us a relatively large body of photographic work that embodied a specific period of time in the Western Isles of Scotland. We were working independently of each other and neither of us had any kind of long term plan or end game in sight. John had been photographing the exteriors of the houses for several years at night under a full moon, creating some stunning images. His curiosity got the better of him and he started venturing inside them. I had been visiting the Outer Hebrides since the mid-1980s and had always been aware of the large numbers of empty houses, I had just never photographed them. On a trip to Vatersay in 2010 I visited the deserted and remote village of Eorasdail and became instantly hooked on discovering more about these places, and the people who lived there.
John and I first had contact through a chance comment I had passed on to him about Eorasdail, having come across some of his Hebridean night shots on the internet. I thought it would be a location that would suit his style of photography perfectly. That was in early 2012. Over the following 18 months we had the occasional e-mail and only two very brief meetings, although we were both aware of each other's photography via our websites. At a second meeting at Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris in May of this year, we decided to see if we could get our work exhibited together at An Lanntair in Stornoway. A couple of months later we got the green light and ever since then we have been working hard on the various aspects of putting the exhibition together.
It is the shared appreciation of the hardships of life on an Outer Hebridean croft, and the amazing fortitude and resilience of the people who lived on them, that brought us both together on this project. Bizarrely we have only spent about one hour in total in each other's company and have never actually been on a photo shoot together. It is purely and simply the quality and intriguing nature of the subject matter that brings us together metaphorically. The whole project has been coordinated remotely, with John on the Isle of Harris and myself in Fife. As John said to me, it's the poor man's photographic equivalent of the 1980s hit 'Ebony and Ivory', where Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder appeared together in the video yet each had his part recorded on opposite sides of the pond!
TIR: The exhibition website states that you have: 'spent the last two years researching, locating and photographing the houses, in order to document in visual form what remains of life in the croft houses of the Western Isles in the second half of the last century'. What did this research entail? Where did the process start and end?
My use of the word 'research' does not mean that we studied academic texts and historical documents to isolate prospective properties worth photographing. There is no register of abandoned croft houses, or not one that we had access to. Mine was a very modern and computer-led form of research initially, spending hours on Google Earth locating potential houses to photograph on my next visit to the isles. Frequently this was fruitless, since the computer images were several years old, and on turning up at the location I could find a shiny new holiday home, or a heap of stones. It did provide me with some wonderful locations too.
I would communicate with people via Facebook, posting occasional images on relevant groups asking for information or stories relating to what I had photographed. These contacts often lead to phone calls and long chats with people who were very keen to offer their help. There is absolutely no substitute, however, for the boots on the ground approach. The majority of the information I managed to get about potential subjects came from walking around the villages and taking the time to talk with the locals.
I probably wouldn't bother with Google Earth now since I'm so familiar with the areas of interest to me. Instead I’d rely on spending as much time out and about as possible, talking to people and asking them endless questions. There is no end point to the process, none of the images or stories I've collected are finite in nature. There are always more places to photograph, different ways to record the same place, and most importantly there are many more stories out there to enrich the images. I'm hoping that the exhibition will bring some interesting information out from people who come to view it, and who perhaps even lived in some of the houses we've photographed.
TIR: The exhibition website also mentions that many of the images will be accompanied by text passages detailing the memories of those who either grew up in these houses, or who remember them when they were still homes. What was it like hearing and watching people tell their stories?
This for me is far more rewarding than taking the actual photographs. It's always very nerve wracking knocking on the door of a complete stranger and asking them about their childhood home which now lies abandoned, and which you're seeking permission to photograph. The older people of the Western Isles whom I had the pleasure of conversing with were incredibly generous with their time, in every case inviting me into their homes for a cup of coffee and chunk of cake whilst we chatted. These abandoned homes are full of memories, not all good, and are now gradually returning to the earth as they give in to the Hebridean weather. This is a very emotive and sensitive subject for those who grew up in the houses; not everyone would be interested in sharing their memories. The hospitality and geniality exhibited by the islanders I spoke with is not the sort that is practiced and brought out for guests; it is the kind that is congenital and inherent with living in a small community where regular contact with your neighbours is an essential part of day-to-day life. One thing that did surprise me though was the lack of a sense of misery for what they didn't have when growing up. Everyone I met with spoke of a life full of hardship in retrospect, but a great life too since it was all they knew at the time. I liked this lack of self pity.
I did possess a digital recording device and had every notion to use it, not wanting to miss a single detail. I used it once, then packed it away again. With the recorder switched on I felt that I too was acting as part of the recording machinery. I much preferred to sit back and have a really good blether - that's the way it works in the isles - and just hoped that I could remember as much as possible by the time I climbed back into my car.
TIR: What is your lasting impression of the project now that it’s reaching the final stage?
It's difficult to form a lasting impression of the project since it feels like there is so much still to be done. I'm sure that when the An Lanntair exhibition finishes it will not be over either. We already have ambitions to take the whole show to other venues in 2014 and the wonderful response to our Kickstarter campaign has meant this is a definite possibility. The main impression we both get from the body of work we have created is right there in the subtitle of the exhibition, it is an alternative view of the Outer Hebrides. We are proud to have created a record of these family homes before they disappear for ever. Most areas of the Western Isles proved very difficult terrain in which to forge a living in the last century and we admire the people who managed to do this. The incredibly stunning and dramatic landscapes of the Outer Hebrides belie the hardships endured by those who had to farm the land, fish the waters and do whatever else they could to sustain a living for themselves and their families. We'd like to think that our project injects some reality, even offers an antidote, to the stereotypical image of the flowering machair atop the vast empty white sand beach. Our project puts the people and social history before the landscape, and it is just as captivating.
A’ Fàgail na Dachaigh / Leaving Home: an alternative view of the Outer Hebrides runs from Saturday 9th November until Tuesday 31st December 2013 at An Lanntair.