Oscar Marzaroli: Tenements to Tower Blocks

November 2016

Publication: The Times

Oscar Marzaroli
Tenements to Tower Blocks
Fine Art Society
Edinburgh
 
In 1967 the flamboyant and much-loved folk-singer Adam McNaughton penned a song about the radical social upheavals in Glasgow brought about by reforms in town-planning. 
 
Oh ye cannae fling pieces oot a twenty-storey flat,
Seven hundred hungry weans will testify to that.
If it’s butter, cheese or jeely, if the breid’s plain or pan,
The odds against it reaching earth are ninety-nine tae wan.
 
Much of the older tenement housing in the Gorbals and Hutchesonstown areas, on the Clyde, were demolished to be replaced by high-rise flats.  Although McNaughton’s song puts a humorous spin on these momentous events, they mask something altogether more serious and, often, tragic.
 
The photographer Oscar Marzaroli (1933-88) was a contemporary of McNaughton, and although they differed in character and in their chosen medium, they shared social concerns. Marzaroli was one of a long line of photo-journalists whose images documented times of upheaval and reform. Marzaroli was born in Italy but his family moved to the Garnethill area of Glasgow when he was two. Marzaroli took classes at Glasgow School of Art and also worked in Sweden and London as well as travelling extensively in Europe.  He returned to Glasgow in 1959, where he set up a photographic studio.
 
As well as showing disturbing and dramatic scenes of demolition, with huge tower blocks replacing older tenements and a way of life undergoing fundamental change, Marzaroli was fascinated by the human element. His atmospheric, carefully composed black-and-white images show faces and characters which have long since disappeared. A well-known sequence here records the painter Joan Eardley at work in her Townhead studio in the early ‘60s, alongside the Samson children, whom she painted so vividly and memorably.
 
Marzaroli was adept at capturing nuance and detail.  Reflection of construction site (1968) shows a series of cranes around an emerging tower block, reflected in a ground floor window. Etched into the sandstone lintel are the words ‘No Parking’, and below, adjacent to a make-shift opening, ‘Letterbox’. The window pane is itself coated with a thick layer of grime, which in turn adds texture to the carefully crafted juxtaposition.
 
In New city flats (1964) Marzaroli captures the sterile isolation that the new architectural ‘Brutalism’ imposed on its inhabitants. From each of the three apartments faces peer out as if attempting to come to terms with the brave new world they inhabit – they are shielded and separated by windows, already somehow distanced and remote from the street life they have so recently left behind.
 
In an interview Marzaroli once stated, “A place like the Gorbals was a microcosm of what was happening in all the great cities of the world. It was as exciting as any location could have been”.
 
What makes Marzaroli’s contribution so valuable is that he was able to recognize the importance of this transition and to get close to the places, and people, whose way of life was irretrievably vanishing.