David Peat: New show to put focus on filmmaker’s photography

David Peat was known for his photographs of children in the Gorbals
David Peat was known for his photographs of children in the Gorbals
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As a filmmaker, David Peat was an award-winner, but his other career – as a photographer – remained virtually a secret. Now, two months after his death, a major retrospective is about to give his work the recognition it deserves, says Susan Mansfield

David Bruce remembers the day when David Peat arrived to see him with a portfolio of photographs. As a former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Bruce knew well Peat’s award-winning work as a documentary-maker. But he had no idea that he was also a photographer. “He was asking me anxiously, were they any good?” Bruce says, shaking his head. “He had to be convinced by others that he was that good.”

David Peat, pictured in Edinburgh last year. Picture: Jane Barlow

David Peat, pictured in Edinburgh last year. Picture: Jane Barlow

And the photographs were good, very good. Bruce, a film and photographic historian, knew right away that the body of work was remarkable, beginning with children snapped amid half-demolished tenements in the Gorbals in 1968, but with a further body of international work, spanning more than 40 years. All the more remarkably, Peat had never attempted to have his photographs shown. Most were developed only as contact sheets.

It was his diagnosis with incurable myeloma in 2009 that prompted Peat to return to his boxes of still photographs and reconsider them. He died on 16 April, just as he was putting the finishing touches to a major retrospective at Streetlevel Photoworks in Glasgow, the biggest show of his work to date, which opens on 8 June, and a book of his Glasgow photographs, An Eye on the Street, published by Bruce’s Renaissance Press. In the same week, the BBC will screen a documentary, A Life Through the Lens, celebrating his work as a filmmaker.

Peat’s achievements in television are well known, from filming Big Banana Feet, about Billy Connolly’s visit to Ireland in 1976, contributing to series such as The World About Us and Man Alive, and making his own thoughtful, compassionate pieces such as Gutted (2004) about the decline of the fishing industry in Fraserburgh, and Life’s Too Short (2006) about the life a Glasgow hospice. In 2011, at the Scottish Baftas, he received a lifetime award for Oustanding Contribution to Craft.

His parallel career as a photographer, however, was almost a secret. He began to take photographs on the streets of Glasgow in 1968, with the Pentax camera he’d received for his 21st birthday, with the aim of creating a portfolio which might get him a job in television. This was successful, and he continued to take photographs throughout his life, especially on holiday, building up a collection of vivid black-and-white images reminiscent of his photographic hero, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Malcolm Dickson, director of Streetlevel Photoworks, describes Peat’s work as highly accomplished. “Many of these pictures were taken on holiday, but he wasn’t a hobbyist by any means. This is a body of work that a photographer might have developed in their whole life and practice, it just so happens in David’s case this was eclipsed by what you might call his day job. His international work is really interesting, full of visual references to people like Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank.”

Bruce says: “I think he was undoubtedly one of the best photographers that Scotland has ever produced. His work in the Gorbals and Maryhill in the late 1960s is up there with the others who worked in that genre, Oscar Marzaroli, Joseph Mackenzie, Bert Hardy, George Oliver, but what makes David different is his international work.

“He has an amazing capacity to be, in a kind of Cartier-Bresson way, in the right place at the right time, hitting the button at just the right nanosecond. He manages to get very close to people without them noticing it. His work is full of humour and humanity. I would like to think this is just the beginning, and he’ll start to get the recognition he undoubtedly deserves.”

The work in the retrospective will be in two distinct sections: Glasgow photographs, which capture a vanished world of grubby children playing on half-demolished streets, and the later international photographs which have a quiet, poetic quality: women on the Paris Metro, lost in their thoughts; cats on a quayside in Greece; a couple embracing, their faces hidden from us, in a pose that suggests deep trauma rather than romance, while further up the same street a man bends almost comically under the bonnet of his car.

Leading Scottish photographer and lecturer Robin Gillanders writes in an essay in An Eye on the Street: “[David Peat] has a very particular vision: a precise sense of frame and form… a finely judged anticipation of ‘the moment’. These are the quintessential and unique skills of ‘straight’ photography. They are skills with can be fine-tuned with experience, but they cannot be taught.” Looking through the images, David Bruce marvels at what he calls Peat’s “invisibility cloak… which allowed him into people’s personal spaces and out again without them every noticing”.

“He almost always shot wide-angle, 35mm, which means you have got to get close to the subject. I asked him if he’d ever got hit, but he said he never had, he would just make it look like he was photographing something else. Perhaps you get slightly closer to David Peat through his photography than through his films.”

At the heart of Peat’s work, in both film and still photography, was a passion for the human, for telling the stories of ordinary – or, as he prefered to see it – extraordinary lives. BBC producer Tony Nellany, a friend of Peat’s who worked with him in his last months to complete A Life Through the Lens speaks of a man full of warmth and humour.

“David’s whole thing was about capturing humanity, that was his mantra, he wanted to try and tell people’s stories. He had a wonderful way of connecting with people. He could relate to anybody, whatever their background was. His subjects never felt he was there to film them, more as a friend who just happened to have a camera. I phoned round lots of his past contributors to make this film, and without exception they all agreed to help – that’s not usual in television.

“Watching him work was pretty incredible, he could see the shot long before any of us knew what was going to happen, he was always in the position ready to catch it. It was almost like a form of intuition.”

Yet Peat remained extremely modest about his skills, questioning Nellany on why the BBC would want to make a programme about him.

“It was the same with his still photography,” Nellany says. “My colleagues in BBC News put together a slide show (for the website) which, when it went live, received 370,000 hits. To which David replied ‘370,000 hits, are you kidding?’, and came in to interrogate the journalists the next day. He simply could not believe that people would react to his work that way.”

He said Peat was not only a gifted documentary-maker but a talented teacher and mentor who was passionate about passing on his skills. “I went to see him two days before he died with a rough cut of the programme. He was lying in bed, gravely ill, watched the clips on a laptop and then proceeded to give me a whole list of notes. The real sadness in this is that when we started making this film, we never envisaged we would get to a point where we would finish it and he wouldn’t see it. We hope he’ll be sitting somewhere watching it – writing a list of things he would change!”

• A Life Through the Lens: David Peat, will be broadcast on BBC2 Scotland tomorrow at 9pm; David Peat, photographer: A Retrospective, is at Streetlevel Photoworks, Glasgow, 8 June-5 August; An Eye on the Street is published on 8 June by Renaissance Press, priced £9.99, www.renaissancepress.co.uk. For more information on Peat’s photographic work see the website at: www.davidpeatphoto.com