Photographing History 2: Gendered Images?

After the Second World War the Brownie camera, produced by Kodak, sold millions and introduced the concept of the ‘snapshot’, as this inexpensive and portable camera allowed amateurs to record events. This image was taken using a Brownie camera.

Man in Apron

So what should we make of the image taken on the subject’s own camera by his daughter? This photograph shows John, a man of sixty years, holding his only granddaughter. He is standing in a kitchen under a pulley full of washing and is resplendent in an apron. He seems comfortable with this image.

Born in 1902 in Irvine, Scotland, John would have been the product of a time when gender roles were strictly demarcated and men were expected to be breadwinners while women took full responsibility for housework and childcare. Are we then to assume that either John rejected these ideas about manliness or that by the 1960s we have witnessed a marked change in men’s roles and responsibilities or, as some might surmise; he was simply hen-pecked?

John married Mary, a hosiery worker, also from Irvine in 1925. He worked as a stevedore, loading boats at Irvine harbour. John and Mary left Irvine in 1926 after the General Strike. There is no record of whether John or any of his family were victimised for participating in the strike but he was a deeply political man, a trade unionist and socialist and he came from a coal-mining family. Moreover, it was after the strike that John and Mary migrated to the town of Greenock where they raised their children and remained until their deaths.

John was in many respects the many faces of west of Scotland masculinity. He saw himself as a member of the respectable working class. According to a family member John was a deeply religious man and remained a committed Catholic until his death. He was an ardent trade unionist and initially a firm supporter of the Independent Labour Party until its disaffiliation with the Labour Party in 1932. After the General Strike he became disillusioned with the hierarchy of the trade union movement and with the Labour Party, as many who were affected by the strike did, and he left the Independent Labour Party to join the Communist Party which had a strong foothold in Greenock.

John was politically self educated and believed in the value of working-class education, grass- root trade unionism and shop steward autonomy as well as being a committed communist. However, while he expected his wife and daughters to follow his lead in voting behaviour, he also insisted that they refrain from political life. Even in his older age he maintained these views. During the industrial unrest when the ship-building industry in Govan was under threat, a reporter asked local children their views on the situation. John’s ten-year-old granddaughter, brought up in a culture of socialism, paraphrased the views of her grandfather and father. John saw this televised and was outraged, both at a female expressing these views but worse in a public forum. According to a family member he was not slow to voice his disapproval to the child and the child’s parents.

When not in work John would only be seen in public wearing a suit, collar and tie. He was a member of the teetotal Temperance movement and saw alcohol as the ‘opium of the masses’. He believed firmly in a healthy mind and healthy body and his leisure pursuits included fishing, rambling, cycling, swimming and boating. Indeed he worked himself up from being a stevedore to becoming a skipper on the boats of the Clyde and  was among the first working men to own a car in his locality. He also loved camping and continued his love of this throughout his life as we can see from the holiday snapshot of John and his wife and grandchild in the sea during a family holiday in Fairlie, Ayrshire in Scotland in the late 1960s.



Men in the west of Scotland have often been portrayed in a negative light with the dominant form of masculinity being associated with hard work, hard play, revolving around alcohol and violence, including domestic violence and gang violence. This image is often juxtaposed with ‘respectable manliness’ as if the two were mutually exclusive. So was John an early version of the ‘new man’, a man before his time?

Next week , our blog will examine assumptions and contradictions regarding these photographs of ‘John’ using personal testimony to locate the man represented in these images.