Jenny Brownrigg and Alistair Scott / Franki Raffles: Observing Women at Work
This Photomonitor conversation focuses on feminist social documentary photographer Franki Raffles (1955-1994). Dr Alistair Scott (Edinburgh Napier University) set up The Raffles Archive Project which has gathered together Raffles’ complete photographic practice, together with her notebooks, diaries and press cuttings. Jenny Brownrigg (Exhibitions Director, Glasgow School of Art) has recently curated the exhibition ‘Franki Raffles: Observing Women at Work’ at The Glasgow School of Art, Scotland, the first solo exhibition of Raffles’ work in the twenty-three years since her untimely death.
Jenny Brownrigg: Why did you make the website for Franki Raffles’ work? What is the importance of that for a photographer’s body of work that they have left behind?
Alistair Scott: Franki and I had been friends since we were students right up to the time of her death in 1994, and I was aware of the range of her photographic practice and felt that it was important that the work should be better known. So the short answer is: I got a job in a Photography and Film Department where this could become a research project and part of my remit. Then I bumped into Mark Cousins who had known Franki and her partner Sandy. I had lost touch with Sandy so was able to ask Mark for her email and got in touch with her. We met and arranged for me to look Franki’s work which was all carefully stored in this big cupboard in the house that they had shared.
JB: In my role we are sometimes approached by families looking for advice who have been left with a lot of work when their relative has passed away. Did you see the website as an important way to get Franki’s work in order first, say before trying to get an exhibition of her work?
AS: The first thoughts were that we should get a complete overview of her work. As we did this I became aware of the scale of properly documenting it and archiving it. The driving factor was I was convinced that it shouldn’t be forgotten. It shouldn’t be hidden from history. We were in the middle of re-structuring the Edinburgh Napier photography course so I had been talking with photographers and looking at reference books and Franki wasn’t even a footnote for 20th century photography in Scotland. I didn’t think that this was right and it made me angry.
JB: But that anger is an important propelling point to get something done.
AS: It became clear that selecting images for the website was an important first step. Sandy gave her support. I also made sure I spoke with other members of Franki’s family – her children – in case anyone wanted to do it themselves. Whilst all were interested they were not really going to do it, so that meant I could take it forward.
JB: What were the first steps?
AS: Working with student support we began to digitise images which were representative of around a dozen different projects. I then arranged to go and speak about Franki’s work with other institutions including museums. Mark Boulay, Photography Curator at St Andrews University Library was interested, as he had a proactive role to build up their Special collections archive and Franki had been a student there, graduating in 1977 with an MA in Philosophy. I took along my computer to show him her photography, which speaks for itself. Then we arranged for Mark to come and meet Sandy and look at Franki’s work, all in a cupboard. I also made contact with other members of Franki’s family, including her mum, and sister and brother and met with them so that they were aware that St Andrews could take her work into their archive.
JB: Has there ever been any issue around the fact of your gender, working with this work by a woman that has a clear feminist message?
AS: It’s not for me to interpret or comment on that feminist message. Franki was a close friend of mine from 1973 onwards. [indicates to photograph of Franki on Lewis] I took this photograph of Franki – this is taken in 1979 at the house that she and her first partner were doing up at Callanish. We were part of the same circle of friends. When she bought the farm at Callanish on Lewis I went up and stayed with them to help with renovations. Then when she returned to Edinburgh my then girlfriend was involved in a feminist publishing group, Strumullion, and she asked Franki to contribute one of her early Lewis Women photographs for the 1982 Herstories Calendar Franki, and her work, was simply very much part of my life. Have you read the book by Sheila Rowbotham called ‘Hidden from History’? It’s a book published in the seventies which explores why the contributions of women have been forgotten – in the history of art, in the history of literature and culture. I remember talking about this with Franki. I had a really strong feeling that the same thing shouldn’t happen for her work.
JB: So it has been very important that Franki’s work be taken into the University of St Andrews archive…
AS: Yes, Mark Boulay was very interested because of Franki’s pre-existing connection to St Andrews. It was a significant body of work, quite amazing given that her professional career was really just 12 years. Her images represented the 1980s and 1990s which expanded their collection. Also her work had all these international aspects to it as Franki had travelled to the Soviet Union, China, India, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Israel. All her prints, negatives and various diaries and notebooks were deposited with the Library Special Collections by early 2014. Mark identified that the work could be used straight away, directing Marine Benoit-Blain, a French postgraduate student from the Ecole du Louvre to the Soviet photographs for her thesis. We had also filmed interviews with various people who had collaborated with or known Franki for our website and eventually we launched that to the public on 8th March last year, 2016.
JB: You have mentioned before that the establishment at the time were quite sniffy about her work. Do you think it was because she was untrained?
AS: I don’t think it necessarily was just that alone – there still can be that attitude towards women photographers and Franki’s work had been given the label ‘unvarnished’ when she was still alive.
JB: Do you think it was because she did not see photography as an aesthetic art object? I sent our book to Julia Vellacott from The Hackney Flashers Collective [who are shown alongside Raffles’ work in the exhibition ‘Observing Women at Work’] and Julia quoted from your essay from P.15 saying she completely agreed with Franki’s quote ‘I don’t see my photos as art objects at all. They’re a means to an end. The content of what I’m doing matters more than the process’ (interview with Catherine Lockerbie, The Herald, 12 July 1988).
AS: If you look at the work of the other three women in ‘Picturing Women’ in 1989 in Stills Gallery, Edinburgh (Andrea Cringean, Lorna Bates and Della Matheson) their work was quite different – photography as art, with them very much as the authors. Franki was interested in representing women as they were. Talking with the women was just as important, not simply photographing them. For Franki photography was a tool. She had grown up with expensive paintings on the wall – her mother was a curator and art dealer who represented painters like Ann Redpath and Elizabeth Blackadder. I think Franki reacted against that, seeing that her mother represented a bourgeois elitist approach.
JB: I think that is why in exhibiting ‘Soviet Women Workers’ (in the exhibition, ‘Observing Women at Work’ (21017) it was really important to show the captions alongside the photographs as they allow the women’s voices in the photographs and undercut any preconceptions about the women that a viewer may have when looking at these women working in a field. For example, one of the younger women in the field is noted by Raffles as saying: ‘I’m a student of pure mathematics. I’m home for the summer. My mother is a worker in this brigade’. I am thinking also of the particular caption in Raffles work which perfectly represents Raffles’ relationship with the subjects of her photography:
She said, “Why don’t you come and live here. I could get you a job no problem”. I said, “I’ve got a job already”. She said, “Yeah, taking photographs of me”.
AS: Sarah Munro’s introduction in the exhibition publication captures Franki perfectly. For Franki there was no separation between work and home life, or work and politics – and friendships – everything came together for her. It might sometimes make her challenging to work with because she was so passionate and committed to taking an ethical approach.
JB: This is what I have been very mindful of when curating her work. It is quite different to work with the work alone rather than directly with the artist, with their vision for their work. I have tried to ensure that whilst there is little or no documentation of how she presented her work in exhibition, certain of her presentation methods, like letraset captions shown with photographs in one of her portfolios, have guided how her work is shown in the Reid gallery.
AS: She found people she wanted to collaborate with, like Sarah Munro and the Artlink connection with the poster campaign ‘Your Frame of Mind is Our Disability’. Or the Women’s Unit at Edinburgh District Council, with Evelyn Gillan and Elaine Samson, for ‘To Let You Understand…’ (1988), documenting women’s labour in Edinburgh against a statistical backdrop of unemployment, inequality and the cost of child care. The backdrop is there were all these people operating in alternative structures – women’s groups and networks, radical photography. They were not operating inside academia or arts institutions.
JB: How do you see your role now?
AS:I don’t think it’s for me to make an assessment or evaluation of Franki’s work. What I have is a knowledge of the context, from knowing Franki. That’s why in the piece I wrote for publication, I use a number of quotes from Franki from her notes and from newspaper interviews at the time. It’s also really interesting to see other people’s assessments of her work, such as in the Susan Mansfield review of the show in The Scotsman (1 April 2017) where she comments on how the demeanour of the women in Edinburgh (‘To Let You Understand…’ (1988)) is very much more resigned than the strength of the women portrayed in ‘Women Workers, Russia’ (1989). She points out that the Soviet women are engaging with the camera. They show pride in their work and companionship with their co-workers. Is it the difference between the political systems – capitalist and communist – seen through Franki’s lens, and her own politics, or is it just attributable to the development of her practice, as the Edinburgh series was taken the year before the Soviet series?
JB: What have we learnt from your research project and from the exhibition and publication?
AS: It is too early to say. It would be wonderful if, together with St Andrews University, we could secure funding to properly catalogue her archive systematically. What we have done is provide evidence that here is an amazing body of work. There is still a massive part of her work that deserves the same attention given to it as the selected three projects as shown in ‘Observing Women at Work’. There are also other exemplary examples growing of assessment of other women photographers and film-makers work- such as Sarah Neely’s work on the Orcadian film-maker Margaret Tait (1918-1999) There is much to be done.
For further viewing and reading:
‘Observing Women at Work: Franki Raffles’ exhibition at Glasgow School of Art (4 March – 27 April, 2017)
with thanks to Katherine Parhar, Jenny Brownrigg and Alistair Scott for this interview