David Peat, documentary filmmaker and photographer 1947-2012

A Memoir from the Darkroom

I first met David in 2006 when he asked the staff at Calumet Photographic in Glasgow if they knew of anyone who still made silver gelatine fibre exhibition prints so they sent him to me. We soon found that we shared a love of the same photographers and the Leica as the traditional pre-digital documentary photographer’s favoured camera.

David had a long career as a well-respected freelance documentary filmmaker who always carried his Leica M6 with the 35mm lens wherever he was working in the world to photograph whatever captured his imagination.

In about 2006 his many friends in Aberfeldy, who knew that he had a large archive of photographs, encouraged him to have an exhibition at the beautiful Watermill Gallery in the town. As most of his images had never gone beyond the contact print
he started to edit the images while still making documentary films such as “Big Noise” and the very moving “Life’s Too Short.” When we first met, David was not sure of the quality of his stills photography as it had always been secondary to his professional filmmaking. Subsequent exhibitions prove that he was a very accomplished photographer.

This was the start of our six-year collaboration, discussing how each image should look; often with copious notes, then I would try to interpret them in the darkroom. It was a great joy for both of us when I opened the boxes of new prints especially when I had managed to make them just as he had imagined.

At school David said that he was far from academic and he had been shipped off as a boarder Gordonstoun, which he hated, but he used to laugh about his time there. This experience did not improve his academic abilities so his father probably wondered what to do with him.

David’s father worked in the family shipping company and expected David to work in the same type of job so he joined another company as a shipping clerk. David found this work soul destroying but he had other ideas. He had already decided that he wanted to work in television. He had spent many happy times with his grandmother in London who was a keen amateur photographer where he saw prints made in her darkroom and this probably sowed the seeds of his future photography.

A birthday gift of a Pentax 35mm camera on his 21st birthday was to be his passport out of the shipping office. He started to photograph around the rapidly changing city of Glasgow in the late 60’s with the plan to make a portfolio which he would use to get into the business of film and television. His earliest photographs from this period are evidence of a sophisticated and compassionate eye which became the basis of his first two exhibitions at the Watermill Gallery and the RGI Kelly Gallery.

His early work was on a variety of film stock, probably processed by him in his kitchen or bathroom. His exposures were erratic so we had to deal with many underexposed and over developed negatives but the images were very strong, if at times a challenge to print.

When you work as a printer for another photographer you have to almost get inside their head to understand what they want from the negative. It can be a very intense and intimate relationship which is helped if the printer is enthusiastic about the images. David and I started working very closely on the early negatives and I always say that you learn more about printing by printing difficult negatives that you do from good negatives.

We worked together at my flat looking at negatives discussing how he visualised the images. We also regularly emailed one another about the images and developed a number of shorthand expressions for how we worked. As David had always sailed from childhood he would send me emails “From The Bridge” and I would reply “Engine room to Bridge” or “Engine room to Captain”. I’ll miss these nautical emails.

We both admired the work of Cartier Bresson and Josef Koudelka, who both used the great master printer Voya Mitrovic in Paris. For Cartier Bresson, Mitrovic would make long tonal scale prints and for Koudelka the prints had more contrast so sometimes I would ask David if this image had to be a Cartier Bresson or a Koudelka. I can still remember David laughing and saying, “A wee bit of both and not too dark.” We had lots of laughs often remembering the moment when he had made certain images. His photography was often humorous and always compassionate.

When he was diagnosed with Myeloma in 2009 I tried to encourage him by telling him about the eccentric Leica fanatic Tom Abrahamsson in Vancouver who makes improved soft releases and other equipment designed to improve the handling of Leica cameras. Tom had survived over eleven years at that time with Myeloma. Even then David said that his strain of the disease was particularly aggressive.

This started a period of making the most of his time with the family, skiing, sailing in the Greek islands and further editing of his archive for another exhibition “Through the Looking Glass” at the Watermill Gallery in June 2011. Robin Gillanders spoke eloquently at the opening about David’s work and how each print was a one off unlike the digital print which is infinitely repeatable.

He obviously did not know how long he had to complete this work and was concerned that I was to spend March in Kiev, Ukraine where I was exhibiting 60 images of my ongoing Ukrainian documentary work. I emailed from the “engine room to the bridge” in Kiev telling him not to worry because I was planning to spend all of April and May printing this show.

Because he was afraid that I would not complete the work he had some prints made in London while I was in Ukraine. One particular image “The Colours of Beneton” was made by the master printer Tony White. It was shot from inside a metro train in Paris and there are large Benetton posters on the station wall. After the exhibition I had to make a print from it to replace the sale of Tony’s print. David brought me the negative along with a few other negatives. When I saw the negative I was horrified.
The interior of the metro train was very underexposed and the lack of detail in the shadows was important in the image. It was like two different negatives in one with the almost empty shadows and the higher density of the exposure on the platform.
I emailed David to say that to him it was Paris but to me it was Stalingrad and thereafter we joked about the “Stalingrad” negative. Tony White’s print was the work of a great master printer and I have not equalled his print to date but hope to make another some time. Sadly Tony White died in 2011.

David’s archive is massive and he worked tirelessly to edit it because as he said he did not want to fall off his perch with so much of the work never seeing the light of day. Often he was quite exhausted, living life to the full and I would email him to take it easy and limit his constant “runnin’ aboot”. He just kept running at full pelt as he had always done.

He phoned me on the 12th of April very excited about the forthcoming retrospective exhibition in Street Level Photoworks, The BBC documentary “A Life Through The Lens” and the publication of a book. I said that I was going to visit friends for a few days from the next day and that I would be ready on my return to make the final prints for his retrospective. I was with friends in Cheshire when I received a text from David Gillanders late on Monday the 16th to tell me that David had died.

David may not be with us but his images are singing out loud and clear. I still owe him a great print from the Stalingrad negative. As I printed the last images for the retrospective I missed him telling me “Not too dark!”

Robert Burns
Photographer & Printer
23 May 2012

2011 was particularly busy.

I don’t know what happened in January but my photography year started with me going to Southport to document the annual “Jazz on a Winter’s Weekend” which I have been doing now for the past six or seven years. Although I was a fixture at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival throughout the nineties, Southport is the only jazz festival which I photograph now and it is great to meet up with all the musicians, old friends and fans.

I had hardly edited the 100 rolls of Tri-X from my August 2010 trip to Ukraine when I had a request from Stuart McKenzie of Pulse Marketing in Kiev to produce an exhibition to be part of the Burns night in the city in February. It was decided to have a combined St. Patricks Night / Burns Night on the 19th of March. This is the biggest charity event of the year and is organised by Stuart Mckenzie and the Lions Club of Kiev. The Lions Club supports many children’s charities in Ukraine including Friends House at Piski.

I spent February printing about 60 20’x16” images from the August 2010 shoot and flew to Kiev at the beginning of March. At Pulse offices I prepared the prints and the staff organised the making of window mounts in time for the event on the 19th. The Lions Club had paid my expenses and we decided to sell the mounted prints for $100 each.

The rest of the month was spent shooting on my Leicas in the city, visiting old friends
like Vadim Korzhenko at the Artist Unit Studios in Andrivsky Uzviz and making new friends like the wonderful photojournalist and Hasselblad prize winner Aleksandr Glyadyelov, known to his friends as Sasha, in his apartment on Chevorna Armiska (Red Army Street). Sasha works with Medicin sans Frontiers on the HIV/AIDS problems in Russia and eastern Europe. His images are powerful statements about the problems of Aids, drugs and prisons. These are not pretty pictures. He proudly told me that he did not own a digital camera, uses two Leica M6 cameras with usually a 35mm lens, a 50mm and a 90mm. The bulk of his work being on the 35mm lens.

While shooting one day at the bottom of Andrisvsky Uzviz I was approached by a young man called Taras Tarasov. He told me that he was a photographer and that he had been watching me working, oblivious to everything but my subject matter. We went for a coffee and talked about photography. Taras worked at one of the best art galleries in Andrivsky and from then on I would go to the gallery when I was in the area. One day he told me about a new art centre in Podol in the old part of the city and would I consider giving a masterclass at the centre. I only had 32 Ukrainian images on a flash drive but Taras organised a digital projector, a screen, a laptop with wifi and an interpreter.

I met Taras and my friend Alla Dimitriyeva at the gallery and we went into Podol by metro from Kontraktova Square then walked through the dark streets of the area until we came to what looked like a 60’s Soviet block of flats. The art centre seemed to be in the basement of the apartment block. This new arts centre was run by a group of young people without any state funding. They did not even charge a membership feebut it was early days and their enthusiasm was wonderful.

People started coming into the centre and there were between 30 and 40 people. We switched off the lights and I began by saying that this was not really a masterclass but I was going to show them the work which I had done throughout the pre-digital years printing black and white images for a number of photographers and for clients world wide. Then I showed the 32 Ukrainian images and asked for any questions. I learned that most young photographers wanted to work on film.

On returning home in early April I started to print a large exhibition for David Peat which was to open in June at the Watermill Gallery in Aberfeldy. Thereafter I spent most of the
Summer printing orders from this exhibition and then started printing the exhibition “Margaret Watkins in Paris 1931” which opened on Friday 25th November at The Hidden Gallery which will run until the 3rd of March 2012.

UnfortunatelyI could not be present at the opening of the Margaret Watkins exhibition because I had decided to fly to Ukraine on the 29th of October and did not return until the 26th November. I went to Ukraine to document the work of Jim Gillies
Jim Gillies is a 70 year old retired electrician from Cumbernauld who stages a vigil in George Square in central Glasgow each year on the 26th April, the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster to remind the people of Glasgow that the people of Ukraine are still suffering from the results of the disaster. He has written a book “To Chernobyl with Love” published in October 2011 which is available from his website. Jim has collected money, clothing and medical supplies over the past fifteen years which he takes to Ukraine each November. He has collected in the region of £30,000, most of which has gone to the children’s department
of the general hospital at Malyn which is about 80Km north west of Kiev just outside the Chernobyl exclusion zones. We spent two or three days at the hospital in Malyn. The MD of Henkel Ukraine, Miroslav Krejsa donated three large palettes of detergents which were delivered by Pulse Marketing in Kiev, the biggest marketing organisation in Ukraine, run by Scots Stuart McKenzie, Robert McNeil and Mark Wright a New Zealander.

We then went to the social and psychological rehabilitation centre for families from the Chernobyl region at the village of Kobylyn which is about 30 Km from the border of Belarus. We were fed at various homes in the village where we were involved in many toasts drinking the local samogon, home made vodka.

We were involved in a few vodka marathons st Malyn and Kobylyn. I learned that you must eat all the local produce along with the samogon if you want to be able to walk afterwards.
We are greatly indebted to our driver / interpreter Anatoli Artemenko who took us to Malyn, Kobylyn and later to exclusion zone 2 where we stopped in deserted ghost villages from which the people had been evacuated. After this trip we had to take the car through a thorough car wash to remove any radioactive particles which might be on the tyres.

Anatoli Atemenko has a dacha in the village of Nebrat about 50 Km north west of Kiev and we went with the Kiev painter Heorgi Babychuk who also has a dacha in the village. It is a typical Ukrainian village with only one street, Lenin Street. We bought food and of course vodka from a supermarket on the way to the village. We went to Heorgi’s dacha where I was to spend the night. Even wearing my polar jacket indoors I was very cold as Heorgi does not normally visit during the winter with the exception of their Christmas on the 7th of January when he gets his central heating working. We immediately started eating bread, pate washed down with copious amounts of vodka. Anatoli’s wife Elena later prepared a good chicken dinner again washed down with vodka. We drank three bottles of vodka that evening and I slept well in what appeared to be a peasant type bed with very heavy bedding which soon heated up. I hope to go back to Nebret with Heorgi some time in the future in either spring or summer to make a study of all the people who live on Lenin Street.

I made contact with Fiona Concoran of the Chernobyl Cause, a charity in Cork, Ireland, who introduced me to Mykola Giruk, who took me to the Centre of Social Care and Protection, Betel in Vatutino 200 Km south of Kiev where they run a Mercy Home for eldery people, homeless people, a youth centre “Step to independence” a hostel and help with social adaption, a social care centre for mothers and babies providing a family type children’s home and a therapeutic agricultural centre. My work is available to these organisations to help raise funding.

2012 starts with me editing all the work which I have done in Ukraine, scanning and sending images back to Ukraine. As I have been asked to make a presentation to the Helensburgh Photographic Society on the 24th of January I will show work from all aspects of my work and include new Ukrainian images. Quite soon I will start to edit the 1933 images of Margaret Watkins in Russia with Joe Mulholland, the owner of the Archive for another exhibition in November 2012.


March 2012-03-06

The Southport Jazz on a Winter’s Weekend was shot digitally on Nikon, the X100 and some film in Leicas, edited and sent to the organiser Geoff

I edited work done on the X100 at the social centre of Vatutino in Ukraine and sent them on a DVD to the charity.

80 negatives from the 1933 Russian work have been selected for printing with perhaps another 20 to 30, I’ll start printing them at the end of the month and the 10x8 prints will be scanned for the catalogue.

On the 10th I’m going to stay with a friend in Athens, make a photograph of the Athens members of the Lions Club for the LION magazine of the Lions Club International in Chicago. I’ll also be photographing protests and the daily life of the city.

On my return I’ll be editing the film from 4 visits to Ukraine firstly for a photo essay about Friends House at Piski 80km NE of Kiev which is for the LION magazine of the Lions Club International in Chicago.