The Scottish Post Office 1985 — David Williams

This selection of images is from the body of work commissioned by the Scottish Post Office in 1985 to celebrate the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the GPO. I adopted a humanistic approach to the project, seeking to portray the dedication of a range of the organisation’s employees as well as highlighting the importance of the Post Office to both urban and rural communities in Scotland. I had always been a great admirer of John Grierson’s film Night Mail (1936) and was proud to be commissioned in a similar manner to produce a piece of work based on the activities of the Post Office. 

The images were made mainly in Edinburgh and various locations in the West of Scotland. Throughout my travels, I encountered extraordinary kindness on the part of the employees and have very fond memories of the time I spent with them. I was deeply impressed by their commitment to their work and how such commitment contributed to the wellbeing of the wider community. No matter how remote the location, or inhospitable the weather conditions, one always had the sense that ‘the mail would get through’.

The project was never disseminated as planned and indeed never fully completed. The Scottish Post Office view was that the images were too ‘down-market’ for public consumption given the host of political pressures (related to possible privatisation) it was under at the time. My feeling was that as a commissioned artist as opposed to a commercial practitioner, I reserved the right to produce work which functioned outwith the immediate promotional concerns of the organisation. We agreed to differ and parted company just as I was about to embark on making portraits of employees in more managerial roles. Nevertheless, hopefully I still managed to produce an engaging body of work, supportive of what was a deeply impressive national institution. 

David Williams is Reader of Photography at Edinburgh College of Art.

All images and text © David Williams.

Pictures from No Man’s Land — David Williams

St Margaret’s School for Girls, Edinburgh 1984

In 1984 I undertook a six-month Artist-in-Residence commission at St Margaret’s School for Girls, Edinburgh. The commission was instigated by the school in collaboration with the Scottish Arts Council. 

Pictures from No Man’s Land, my first major project after having taken up photography in 1980, proved to be a pivotal experience for me and seems all the more so in retrospect. In the 30 years which have elapsed since its completion much has changed, both in the world of photography and the world at large. The school itself is now closed and single-sex private schools are less common in the UK. 

As Artist-in-Residence, my remit was to make work based on the school and to teach photography to a wide range of pupils within the school’s art department. Looking back, it was one the most challenging and intensive undertakings of my career, due in part to my lack of experience. I had to learn an enormous amount technically and in the area of social engagement as the project proceeded.  

In making the work, it was never my intention to comment on the pros and cons, political or otherwise, of the form of education represented by St Margaret’s. Rather, I sought to allude to the universal process whereby children grow into adolescents. The concomitant, inexorable shift from innocence to self-consciousness is referred to throughout, often by way of formal portraiture. The school and its inhabitants can be seen as a vehicle for the expression of this central theme rather than the subjects of overt socio-political commentary.

Overall, Pictures from No Man’s Land achieved considerable exposure, being widely exhibited and published although the accompanying book is now somewhat of a rarity. In some ways, again partly due to lack of experience, I was surprised at the attention it received. However, I was delighted when in 1989 it won the BBC Scotland 150 Years of Photography Award and equally so when Norman Parkinson described it as,  ‘…one of the most absorbing and informative visual records of the late 20th century’ (the List Magazine, issue 11, 1986).

David Williams is Reader of Photography at Edinburgh College of Art.