‘DON’T it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Never were Joni Mitchell’s words more fitting than in the case of Joseph McKenzie, who died a few days ago, aged 86, and whose funeral will take place on Friday at Tayport. His obituarists routinely described him as “internationally acclaimed”, “one of the most ambitious and prolific post-war photographers”, and “the father of modern Scottish photography”. No one would have enjoyed the irony of these posthumous hurrahs more than McKenzie himself, for he had long since stopped exhibiting publicly and had just cause to believe he was suffering from that terrible disease that can afflict even a towering talent, namely neglect.

But if the wider world was unaware of McKenzie’s achievement, he did not want for admirers among those who view life through a lens. Graeme Murdoch, former chief executive of the Scottish National Photography Centre, recalls once asking him if he possessed a digital camera: “His harrumph could have been heard across the Tay.” Albert Watson, who is feted for his portraits of celebrities and whose work has often graced the covers of Vogue and Rolling Stone, was one of McKenzie’s students. “Joe was a wonderful teacher,” he says, “passionate and intense. From the minute I picked up a camera I felt the same.” Another who was taught by him is the artist Calum Colvin. “His technical skill was profound and the quality of his printing was stunning,” he says. “As a student of his I remember him speaking little about the history of photography but his attention to the poetic voice of the print was immense.”

Those who took the trouble to visit McKenzie at his Tayside home were at first greeted gruffly, as if by a man who was not used to company other than that of his immediate circle. His gaze was steely and his tolerance of fools non-existent.

As the hours wore on, however, he defrosted and welcomed inquiries about his work. Lunch was a Scotch pie or two garnished with brown sauce and accompanied by a mug of tea. McKenzie had no social pretensions. “He loved to challenge the status quo,” says Murdoch. He was constantly taking photographs, always in black and white, running off a reel of film a day. His archive, carefully stored and meticulously documented, comprises tens of thousands of prints, very few of which have seen the light of day. “What has been seen,” says Colvin, “is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Joe always claimed his work would remain private until after his death.”

Though he was umbilically attached to Scotland, McKenzie was born and educated in London, in 1929. After conscription and regular service in the RAF in the years immediately after the war, he studied photography at The London College of Printing. Thereafter, in 1954, he was appointed Lecturer in Photography at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, a post from which he prematurely retired in 1986.

The 1960s were perhaps McKenzie’s most productive decade. Then, noted Gerry Badger, a writer on photography, he was “a lone wolf for Scottish photography – a lone wolf howling at the establishment, some might say”. During that period McKenzie had one exhibition after another: of children in the Gorbals, of Dundee as it wrestled with post-industrial deprivation, of Northern Ireland embroiled in sectarianism. His images were haunting, unsentimental, depressing, brutal, empathetic, indelible, a testimony to human indomitability and harsh existence. They were also, acknowledged Badger – in an essay to accompany Pages of Experience, a selection of McKenzie’s photographs from 1947 to 1987 – “grudgingly received north of the Border, and wholly disregarded south of it”.

WHY this was so is hard to tell. What is clear, though, is that McKenzie’s disillusionment with the reception of his work was profound and long-lasting. In particular, he was angered by the vituperative reaction in some quarters to his exhibition, Hibernian Images. This was the fruit of many months spent in Ireland in 1967 documenting a society in a state of anarchy: petrol-bombed homes, burnt-out pubs, ragged children building brick forts, graffitied walls, rookie troops looking apprehensive. The Troubles had begun to brew and McKenzie was no objective observer. As a Roman Catholic convert with five children, his sympathies lay with the Catholic minority, which may partly explain the venomous hostility to his work. Whatever the reason, McKenzie was chastened and determined never again to show it. However, from 1974 to 1980 he mounted exhibitions in a large room in his Tayport home, which was open to visitors by appointment.

He took much inspiration from American photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Paul Strand, whose photographs of a rural community in South Uist, taken in 1954, bear obvious similarities with McKenzie’s of Donegal and elsewhere in Ireland in the 1960s. But it was on his own doorstep, in the Hawkhill area of Dundee, that he found what may have been his best subject. Using his lunch hours, he wandered the cobbled streets of a “city in transition”. Here he found three, elderly women – the antithesis of the three graces – chatting in lane about who knows what. Over a steaming brazier a labourer attempted to stay warm. Elsewhere an infant sprawled on the pavement beneath its upturned pram. And then there was Mrs Wallace in her eponymous pie shop, wearing a white apron and offering for sale nothing but a few unappetising pies. It was probably taken in 1964 but it has the air of an image from a time almost beyond memory.

McKenzie took photographs to immortalise such “ordinary” folk. A photograph, he once wrote, was like a living epitaph. As for himself, he was an outsider, a role which he both embraced and wore like a hairshirt. Unappreciated even by those with whom he worked at Duncan of Jordanstone, he persevered regardless, unable or unwilling to compromise or kow-tow to those who might have helped his career, confident that one day his as yet unexplored archive would set his reputation right.