Coutts’ old photos in the frame

The Ugly Sisters from the Cinderella pantomime in 1962 – Allan Anderson and Stewart Smith – feature in another exhibition of Dennis Coutts' photographs at the Bonhoga Gallery at the Weisdale Mill. Photo: Dennis Coutts
The Ugly Sisters from the Cinderella pantomime in 1962 – Allan Anderson and Stewart Smith – feature in another exhibition of Dennis Coutts’ photographs at the Bonhoga Gallery at the Weisdale Mill. Photo: Dennis Coutts

Another exhibition of photographs from the 1960s by renowned photographer Dennis Coutts will be launched in the Weisdale Mill on Saturday.

Mr Coutts will be on hand to open the event which is being staged in response to the massive demand that met his last exhibition two years ago – it drew the largest number of visitors ever to the Bonhoga Gallery.

The 50-odd pictures, picked by Shetland Arts, represent another slice of island life from a decade that saw Shetland recover from its post-war slump but still belonged to the era before the oil boom of the 1970s.

According to Mr Coutts, these photos concentrate mainly on people at work, but represent just the tip of the iceberg of the collection of photographs he has from the 1960s. He said that after the last exhibition he could hardly walk down the street without people asking him when the next one would be.

He said: “I have such a huge number of photos from that era that it seemed pointless to move ahead. Shetland was then just beginning to recover from the doldrums of a very low population of around 16,300 with the fishing just picking up and of course there was no oil then.”

Mr Coutts was self taught as a photographer and had his first photo published in The Shetland Times in 1951 when he was still at school. He says that he owes a huge debt of gratitude to the newspaper’s then owner Basil Wishart and editor Hugh Crooks for helping get him started in a lifelong career.

Mr Wishart then helped set him up with a job at the Falkirk Herald which he held for two-and-a-half years. When returning to Shetland for Up-Helly-A’ one year he shared a flight with Press and Journal chief photographer Ian Hardy with whom he “got on famously” and a few months later he was working for Aberdeen Journals.

It was a hard schooling with eight to 10 regional editions of the Press and Journal including one for Orkney and Shetland. In those days the circulation was around 100,000, boosted up to 140,000 on occasion, and working “at very high speed to very tight deadlines”.

Attie Coutts painting a welcome message on his shop window prior to the Queen's visit in 1960. Photo: Dennis Coutts
Attie Coutts painting a welcome message on his shop window prior to the Queen’s visit in 1960. Photo: Dennis Coutts

The Evening Express had as many editions and a similar circulation. Technology was also very unforgiving then – cameras were simple with only three adjustments, but equally tricky to get a good result from.

If covering a football match Mr Coutts would have to have a minimum of three decent shots on 9×12 glass plates within the first 20 minutes. These would have to be captioned before being handed to the driver to take to the paper for developing. Incredibly, they could be on the pages of the paper and on sale before the end of the match.

“Photography then was very difficult in some ways. You needed an awful lot of experience to know what to do with a camera and it was not so easy to take a satisfactory picture,” he added. “You did not get a second chance at a wedding or a royal visit.”

Mr Coutts was then part of a photography team of 12 at Aberdeen Journals and a staff of 600.

Mr Wishart then gave him the chance to return to Shetland in 1959, convincing him that there was enough of a market taking photos for the local and national press and for events like weddings. He even closed The Shetland Times darkroom and helped set Mr Coutts up with some of the paper’s own equipment.

His time working at the Falkirk Herald’s wedding photography business paid off and Mr Coutts was sometimes taking photos at three or four weddings in a day as Shetland’s population began to grow and young couples were getting married by the dozen.

His early days as a photographer overlapped with that of the famous JD Ratter who was still taking photos of wildlife and scenery. When Mr Coutts returned to Shetland he would get jobs for the Daily Express or Daily Mail and these often spun off into other, different commissions. He took photos of jewellery for Silvercraft, which he found very technically difficult.

He was also one of the first photographers to move the art of taking photographs of people from the studio into more natural settings and did a lot of travelling throughout Shetland in the course of his work.

Like the previous exhibition “1960s Revisited” is in black and white. Mr Coutts says that he does not think there is a photo to match the one of Johnnie Isbister of Breckans in Foula, taken in August 1960, that proved to be the main talking point of the last show, but still believes folk will be fascinated to be reminded of old times and faces.

There are a couple of photos from Foula taken on the same day with folk attending a sale of work outside the school. There are photos of Lerwick harbour and a royal visit with the brass band playing. There are photos of Polish seamen and Russian tenders coming in for water for the huge fishing fleet that was based off the east side of Shetland.

“They used to say the main exports from Shetland were young folk’s brains and Sandy Loch water for the Russian fleet,” said Mr Coutts.

There are also photos of cargoes of fish for the gut factory and a very young Jonathan Wills getting ready to take the stage in a play in the Garrison Theatre.

A studio portrait of two ladies, 1960. Photo: Dennis Coutts
A studio portrait of two ladies, 1960. Photo: Dennis Coutts

Especially close to his heart is an image of a “peerie boy” watching Mr Coutts’ father Attie painting a sign for the family shop Coutts and Coutts which sold shoes from the bottom floor of the Commercial Street premises. Dennis’s studio and darkroom was on the top floor and his mother Theodora Coutts had a knitwear shop in the middle floor.

Mr Coutts added: “What really interests folk is seeing their face and faces of folk they know. When John (Coutts) puts photos in the paper from 50 years ago, there’s not a Friday that goes by without someone stopping me and asking about what they see in an old photograph. People realise it’s about time and things changing.”


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