A Scottish celebrity photographer is turning back the clock to the 80s for his new exhibition.
Donald Maclellan’s photographic roll call charts pupils’ progress in the eighties – a decade of cultural, technical and political upheaval – has been endlessly analysed by social historians: but never has this pivotal period been viewed from the perspective of a remote Scottish schoolroom and the children it sent out into the world.
In a departure from his series of high-profile solo shows, presenting a parade of prominent people, Donald has rediscovered his classroom roots to construct this visual journal of real lives.
Born in 1967 and brought up in the West Highlands, Maclellan’s 18-month personal quest has had this ex-photojournalist travelling over 3000 miles, across Britain, to find and photograph 24 girls and boys who turn 50 this year: they are the classmates with whom he spent his formative school days (1979-83) in the Lochaber port village of Mallaig, located at a northern tip of the West Highland railway line.
The project, called My Class @ 50, focuses on these former classmates, plus himself, set in their 2017 workplaces, ranging from train driver to able seaman, fisherman, shepherdess and teacher. And, in a daring but appropriate move, instead of his customary capital city showcases, Maclellan has chosen to debut this, his fifth portrait show, at Mallaig Heritage Centre in the far-flung village where it all started.
He said: ‘This project is about ordinary people and their place in the world. My belief is that everyone can identify with the experiences of rubbing shoulders with children at school, thrown together for that intense learning period purely due to an accident of birth.
‘Those relationships and life lessons affect the rest of our lives, yet we each pursue such diverse paths and destinies.’
The project has grown into an extraordinarily honest snapshot of social change, reflecting the demise of Scottish traditional industries, like fishing, and the shift into the service sector and tourism, replacing and creating unprecedented options for the region’s populace.
Donald continued: ‘My initial inspiration came from coming across my 1980 secondary form photograph on show in Mallaig Heritage Centre. The project then developed based on what we told the careers officer before we left school and the choices we have each made since – what we’ve achieved and how we earn a living.
‘From a technical perspective, I’ve challenged myself by making use of a fixed set-up, tripod height and camera setting, by maintaining consistent lighting and by positioning each subject in the centre of a landscape frame, even though individual environments and locations change.
‘I feel a protective and proud responsibility with this photographic record. These profiles of the achievements and contributions of my classmates are, unlike my previous key work, not about power and influence but about opportunities and choices in modern British society. It’s important to celebrate all work and its diversity.’
Accompanying and amplifying each portrait are the subjects’ answers to questions that Maclellan has posed about their early hopes and career choices. These personal stories offer a fascinating crosssection of contemporary life in Scotland and beyond.
The exhibition will include online and printed publications, plus a programme of preview and post-opening interviews and talks.
Planning is also underway for a dedicated feature on BBC Radio Scotland’s Janice Forsyth arts show.
My Class @ 50 runs from 2 April to 30 September at Mallaig Heritage Centre, Station Road, Mallaig.