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An angel poised on one foot

When Simon Murphy’s “Govanhill” was first published it lost little time in selling out but the good news is that a second edition of 500 copies (five times the number of the first print run) is now available.



Sean Sheehan


Murphy has been photographing Govanhill, a neighbourhood of Glasgow, for the last twenty-five years and his pictures are compellingly good. Individuals are not denied their individuality and they comport themselves unostentatiously in public spaces, knowing that a stranger wants to photograph them.

For white middle-class Glaswegians, Govanhill does not have a good reputation and this alone makes it an interesting area. Decidedly working-class and ethnically mixed, Govanhill’s shops that appear in the background of the photos tend to relate to money transfers, cargo services and pay-as-you-go sim cards. This is a Waitrose-free zone.

The area has long attracted people from outside, not just other regions of Scotland but also from the north of Ireland, poverty-stricken parts of southern Italy and Eastern Europe. East Asians have also settled here, alongside Roma people, asylum seekers and refugees. The number of different languages spoken in Govanhill is legion. No surprise then to find right-wing press calling it Govanhill, “the most demonised neighbourhood in Scotland” as one newspaper described it in 2008.


Murphy lived there for many years and has walked its streets with his camera to record authentic moments of a living and lively community. “I love diversity but I dislike tokenism”, he says, and his approach is anything but sociological. When he comes across a person he would like to photograph, he asks their permission and explains what he is doing: ‘Relationships can grow after the initial meeting but almost always, the portrait is made within a few minutes of meeting the sitter’, he adds, and this helps explain the raw honesty that shines out in moments of a person’s life captured in a 125th of a second.

R. D. Laing, the radical psychiatrist also used to live in Govanhill and some words of his preface “Govanhill”: “Right outside my bedroom window was the dome of a public library on the top of which was an angel poised on one foot, as though to take off to the moon and stars.” Such a scene contrasts strongly with Murphy’s photo that also appears on the front cover of his book. It shows a man standing on a pavement, presumably a street performance artist, dressed in black with a frilly white collar and a strange hat in the shape of the pointed head of a creature baring its teeth. The disjointed shadow of this figure on the wall behind him is even more peculiar and there is no clue as to why he is there on the pavement.  He is neither an angel nor a devil but, as Laura Barmwoldt remarks in the book’s fold-out inset, Murphy shows how “the exceptional and the ordinary can be indistinguishable”.

“Govanhill” by Simon Murphy is published by Gomma Books.

(Photos supplied by the publisher)

























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