Oscar Marzaroli: Photography 1959-1968

November 2010

Publication: The Times

What is photography’s primary purpose? In the popular imagination, at least, it is most often associated with memory —and by extension, with recording.  Despite photography’s other uses,  it is these qualities which are to be found most often in the work of the Italo-Scottish photographer, Oscar Marzaroli, who died in 1988 at the age of fifty-five.  Like the great nineteenth century photographer of Paris, Eugène Atget and Scot, Thomas Annan before him, Marzaroli was a photographer of the city —for it in was in his native Glasgow that he found the textures, contrast, light and compositional opportunities which most keenly fired his imagination.


Whereas Annan had been commissioned by the City Improvement Trust to record Glasgow’s vanishing closes and wynds during a period of sustained urban redevelopment in the 1860s, Marzaroli’s ‘project’ was largely self- initiated and self-financed.  Aware that the developments of the ‘sixties were to have a long term impact on the city-scape and its people, Marzaroli set about recording the changes he saw all around him.


Marzaroli’s tone in this body of work is affectionate, celebratory and participative. Looking at these images, with their astonishing sense of composition and atmosphere, one is aware of the emotional closeness between subject and photographer. In one of Marzaroli’s most reproduced works, Castlemilk Lads, from 1963, a group of four pre-adolescent boys peer inquisitively into the camera’s lens, against a backdrop of urban demolition and renewal. But it’s also possible to suppose that the photographer is one of their number or, at the very least, is known to the tough, street-wise kids who constitute this paradoxically tender group ‘portrait’. 


The idea of portraiture —in the broadest sense of that term — is at the core of Marzaroli’s work.  Blessed with a sensitive compositional eye, partially honed from an education at Glasgow School of Art and stints as a photo-journalist in Stockholm and London, Marzaroli had the uncanny ability to frame his shots of people, in particular, with apparent ease and minimal intrusiveness. Time and again Marzaroli succeeded in achieving emotional and physical closeness to his subjects without interfering with their sense of composure and individuality.  In the 1963 image Carnival, Glasgow Green, a youth gazes lovingly at a manikin-topped gaming machine while betraying no sense of the photographer’s presence. In the more robustly humorous Hingin out the Windae, Gorbals, from 1964 — which depicts a corpulent, head-scarved tenement dweller surveying the street below — Marzaroli conveys warmth and humour without condescension.


While ‘genre’ painting refers specifically to studies of people there is no equivalent terminology when applied to photography. If there were, then Marzaroli would be one of the twentieth century’s genre photographer’s of note.  Two works from 1962 show the same group of boys—both are titled Football, Forth and Clyde Canal, near Pinkston.  In the first, the boys are seen from a distance; one ‘heads’ the ball while the boy to the left is poised to strike it with his foot. The small group is framed by an apparently defunct signal on one side and an empty, open building on the other. In the second the same group are seen much closer up so it’s possible to make out the details of their clothing and the concentration on the boy’s faces. Again the urban landscape finds a reiteration in the boys’ physicality and gestures, for in the background a massive cooling tower echoes one of the boys’ wide-legged stance. The boys are so caught up in their game that nothing else around them seems to matter, least of all the presence of an apparently unremarked photographer.


Such tender elegies form part of Marzaroli’s invaluable legacy: a long and lingering visual love poem to the people and places of a long-vanished Glasgow.