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Secret Trunk Held Photo Treasure Trove

Shortly before Margaret Watkins died in 1969 in Glasgow, the 80-something, reclusive former Hamiltonian gave a large trunk to a neighbour and made him promise not to open it until after her death.

Joseph Mulholland stayed true to his word, and when he finally cut the strings and pulled back the lid on the box, he couldn't believe his eyes.

"I found folder after folder of photographs, many of them mounted with stickers on the back showing that they had been exhibited in the great galleries of New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Paris, London and Osaka," he writes.

There were more than 1,200 photos and some 4,000 negatives and contact prints.

"There were landscapes and nudes, and portraits of men, women and children. There were flower studies and still lifes, abstracts and interiors, studies of post-revolution Russia, and of harbours and docks in Scotland and Germany."

Prior to this, Mulholland had no idea that Watkins had been a professional photographer, let alone someone with such impressive talent.

Flash forward more than three decades, and those extraordinary photos are the subject of a book by McMaster University English and cultural studies professor Mary O'Connor and Concordia University studio arts professor Katherine Tweedie.

Watkins was born in Hamilton in 1884, the only child in a wealthy family. Her father, Frederick W. Watkins, was a prominent dry-goods merchant, an alderman and head of the YMCA.

But his businesses, Pratt & Watkins, and later F.W. Watkins stores, hit hard times. By the time Margaret left home in 1908 for the United States to join an artistic community, the family she left behind was destitute. From there, she developed a passion for photography, studying at the Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York City.

She moved to the Greenwich Village section of the city and made a name for herself as a commercial photographer in advertising. She became part of a modernist movement developing among art photographers at the time.

Prior to this, photographers generally wanted to make photos look like paintings. But people like Watkins, in the early decades of the 20th century, were exploring an "interest in design and geometric form. They would crop objects so that they look strange but yet would be quite beautiful," says O'Connor.

"She focused on objects in her kitchen or bathroom. She did exquisite photos of her kitchen sink, for instance."

One thing Watkins didn't seem interested in was taking pictures of her hometown. O'Connor says she knows of no Hamilton pictures by Watkins, even though the photographer visited the city at least once or twice after moving away.

In 1928, Watkins travelled to the United Kingdom, eventually finding herself in an old, dreary house, caring for sick, elderly aunts. That lasted for more than a decade.

After this she returned to professional photography but couldn't make a living at it. She tried selling antiques. That flopped as well.

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