THE name Oscar Marzaroli is a totem in Scottish culture. Like the poems and songs of Robert Burns, the films of Lynne Ramsay, the dramas of John Byrne, or the poems and plays of Liz Lochhead, Marzaroli’s photographs offer us a wonderfully distinctive expression of aspects of our national life.

From iconic pictures such as “Off to School, Hill Street, 1959”, to affectionate photos of the Highlands, and images of great Scots like Alasdair Gray (below) and Billy Connolly, no-one has photographed Scots and Scotland quite like Marzaroli. His great panoramas of Glasgow seemed to capture the essence of the city. Indeed, one of those pictures would become the cover image of Deacon Blue’s Raintown album in 1987 (the year before the photographer’s untimely death).

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It was a huge surprise (some might say an absurdity), therefore, to discover that the exhibition of his pictures at the Street Level Photoworks gallery in Glasgow in 2019-20 was the first major showing of his work in three decades. A hugely successful and popular show, the Street Level exhibition has spawned another outing for Marzaroli’s pictures, this time at the North Lanarkshire Heritage Centre in Motherwell.

A touring exhibition by Street Level, titled Waiting For The Magic, the show will include many of the pictures exhibited in Glasgow two years ago. However, in a nod to the modern history of North Lanarkshire, it will also include a few stunning photographs Marzaroli took at the Ravenscraig steelworks, the major local employer that operated between the 1950s and its closure in 1992.

The photographer is often considered a master of the intimate picture. Marzaroli’s photographs of people on the streets of Glasgow, for example, reflect an extraordinary respect and empathy for their subjects.

However, he was also deeply interested in the labour of working people. The, typically monochrome, image titled “Ravenscraig Steelworks, 1962” (below), for instance, evokes the skill, danger and heat of the steelworker’s job.

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In the forefront of the picture we see a worker wearing protective eyewear, gloves and clothing, engaged in work that clearly requires intense concentration. Behind him, another worker is silhouetted against the light coming through the slats of the walls and the ceiling.

The glow from the furnace and the steam rising on the right of the photograph evoke the stifling heat of this particular workplace. Remarkably, the evocation of how a place might have felt and, even, smelled seems more powerful in black and white than it would have been if Marzaroli had created the image in colour.

Another picture, titled “Pouring Steel, Ravenscraig Steelworks, 1962”, focuses, with brilliant directness, on the object of the workers’ labour. At the centre of the photograph the molten steel creates an intense explosion of white heat.

Captured in monochrome, the pouring of the metal appears elemental. It is almost as if we are witnessing the birth of a new sun.

Dawn Crowe – who, as exhibitions officer for North Lanarkshire Council, has worked closely with Street Level on the Marzaroli show – is delighted the Ravenscraig images are to be shown in Motherwell. They reflect, she says, on an extremely important part of the area’s recent history.

The pictures will be supplemented, Crowe adds, by the inclusion of a short film from the council’s own collection. Titled The Big Mill, this piece about the steelworks includes work by Marzaroli, including a number of still images.

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Born in the Liguria region of Italy in 1933, Marzaroli (above) moved to Glasgow with his family before he was three years old. He worked as a freelance photojournalist in Stockholm and London in the 1950s, returning to his beloved Glasgow in 1959 to set up his own photography studio.

It is little surprise, then, that a large proportion of the images in the new show were shot in Glasgow. These include the memorable “Looking South from Park Terrace, 1960”, a panoramic shot of Glasgow that is, simultaneously, bleak and beautiful (like, one might say, the city itself).

In this picture (which became the aforementioned Deacon Blue cover photograph) the Finnieston Crane towers over the tenements on the right of the shot. Above the city, light pours through the clouds, battling the black-stained stone of the buildings.

In “Bridges over the River Clyde, 1963” (at the top of this story), Marzaroli captured a Glasgow that was both recognisably the city of 2022, yet also different in numerous respects. The series of great bridges in the city centre have changed little in the six decades since the photograph was taken.

However, the vistas of the hinterland to the north-west of the city speak to a low-rise past that has since been obscured by all manner of domestic blocks, hotels and business headquarters. The tracing of the line of the north bank of the Clyde evokes the still recent disaster of the crashing of an under-fuelled Police Scotland helicopter into the Clutha pub in December 2013, resulting in the death of 10 people. It was an event that scarred the Briggait area which is represented so vividly in Marzaroli’s photograph.

Superb though these panoramas are, the photographer’s love of Glasgow found its highest expression in his pictures of the city’s people. As Crowe says, the photographer had a talent for “capturing the warmth and humanity of people.”

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That love of the people is expressed gloriously in the iconic photograph “Expectation, Celtic end, Cup Final, Hampden Park, 1963” (above). It doesn’t matter what football team one supports – or, even, if one doesn’t support any team at all – the sense of excitement and nervous tension among this vast crowd is impossible to resist.

Even here, in an image of thousands crammed into a football terracing, there is an extraordinary sense of intimacy. The crowd is comprised mainly of men and boys, and yet one’s eyes are drawn towards the middle-aged woman who is, quite literally, at the front and centre of the shot.

Simultaneously engaged and stoical, it’s clear that she has been here before (maybe she was in attendance when Celtic lost 4-0 to St Mirren in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden Park in 1959). In any case, she knows the ups and downs of football, and – wedged between a bunch of boys who’ve made their way to the front to get a better view – she’s prepared for any outcome.

This famous photograph is another Marzaroli piece that benefits enormously from being captured in monochrome – the shot has no football colours.

Consequently, the image manages to be a quintessential representation of the Celtic support, yet also, somehow, a depiction of Scottish football fans in general. That the latter is true was reflected in Dundee Repertory Theatre’s production, in early-2020, of the play Smile: The Jim McLean Story. In that show, the story of the life of the great Dundee United manager was illustrated by Marzaroli’s famous photograph.

Whether he is capturing working-class people at work or at play, there is a palpable humanism and solidarity in Marzaroli’s work. From the insightful picture “The Castlemilk Lads, 1963” to the humorous “Boys in High Heels, Gorbals, 1963”, the photographer exhibits, as Crowe says, “a real empathy” with the Glaswegian working class.

These aren’t staged images, they are captured by Marzaroli the street photographer. If there are poses, as in the picture of the Castlemilk boys, they are poses chosen by the subjects, not the photographer.

As Crowe observes, Marzaroli, who was a lifelong socialist, is interested in photographing working-class people “in their natural surroundings, where they live and where they work”.

In addition to Marzaroli’s pictures of industrial labour and people in the streets, the exhibition also has photographs the artist took during his travels in the Scottish Highlands. Further to those, there is a series of pictures of political protest. Some of the most memorable images are connected with the work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971. The management of UCS announced that the company had gone into liquidation in June 1970. The response of the workforce – led by the famous trade unionist Jimmy Reid, among others – was not to go on strike, but, rather, to have a work-in.

The workers completed the orders on the UCS books, thereby proving that they could run the shipyards themselves, and dispelling the myth among right-wing politicians and commentators that the Glasgow workforce was “work-shy”. As they did so, a number of huge marches and rallies were held in their support.

In photographing the massive, 80,000-strong protest called by the British trade union movement, Marzaroli proved himself to be as great a photographer of the mass event as he was of human intimacy. Taken as the march passed through Glasgow city centre, the picture is filled with people and with significance.

IN the foreground we see a police officer on a horse (a sign, perhaps, of the authorities’ nervousness about the demo). Behind him are a great mass of trade unionists and other supporters of the UCS workers. Banners being carried by trade unionists from English towns such as Wolverhampton and Blackpool are testament to the Britain-wide nature of the event.

There are also images from the movement against Polaris nuclear weapons, which were located at the Faslane naval base on the Clyde. Crowe enjoys a personal story about Marzaroli connected with the peace campaign around Faslane.

“There’s a photograph of a demo against Polaris in Dunoon,” she comments. “That was the first date Marzaroli took his wife on,” she continues, with a laugh.

The title of the show, Waiting For The Magic, also comes from the photographer’s personal life. Marzaroli and his wife Anne were driving over Rannoch Moor on their way to Ballachulish, Crowe tells me.

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Every now and again the photographer would stop the car, get out and contemplate the view. Anne (above with Marzaroli) asked him what he was doing, to which he replied, poetically: “I’m waiting for the magic.”

Crowe is pleased that the Marzaroli exhibition will attract new visitors to the North Lanarkshire Heritage Centre. “It’s a beautiful exhibition space,” she says. “It’s very light … It’s the perfect venue for a photographic exhibition.”

The venue, which opened in 1996, is certainly fascinating from an architectural point of view. A concrete building comprised of circles, bends and sharp angles, it might be described as a neo-brutalist structure.

The centre’s most arresting feature is its large viewing tower, which offers stunning views of the surrounding area. In fact, on a clear day, the visitor can see as far as Ben Lomond, which is almost 40 miles north-west of Motherwell.

An ideal place, in fact, to take a Marzaroli-style panoramic photograph.

Waiting for the Magic – The Photography of Oscar Marzaroli runs at the North Lanarkshire Heritage Centre, January 29 to May 2: