Daniel Meadows: Edited Photographs
When Daniel Meadows and Martin Parr began studying photography at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1970s, independent photography practice in Britain was very new. The split between professional and amateur practice was deep and entrenched, photography education was seen as technical and vocational and there were few established venues willing to show photography. Though photography had been fashionable since the 1960s, with fashion photographers David Bailey and Terence Donovan epitomizing urban cool and photojournalists such as Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths commissioned by the influential Sunday supplement magazines, there were few outlets for independent photographers, whose ambitions were to produce monographs or show prints on the gallery wall.
Daniel Meadows was one of a new grouping of young British photographers, editors, gallerists and curators who set up important new initiatives, with the assistance of funding from an arts establishment increasingly encouraged to widen opportunities. Emerging from a changing system of photographic education which reinstated photography as art rather than craft, the new British photography groupings used radical strategies to create new audiences and arenas for creative photography, sidestepping existing networks and creating entrepreneurial photography practices, which paved the way for the photography culture, which exists today.
Though few independent photographers held out any hope of financial gain from their photography, and some went on to have successful careers, most were unable to unlock the potential that their early work undoubtedly possessed.
The history of independent photography in Britain is complex, contested and vivid. Its roots are in the growth of state subsidy to the arts, radical politics, fine print aesthetics, popular culture, mass media and independent publishing. It was characterised above all by youth and energy. Its roots lay in reforms in Higher Education, radical shifts in government attitudes towards culture and the arts, and the emergence of an alternative gallery network. It is a history of a time when photography gained new confidence, in which groupings of young photographers, curators and editors challenged the photographic establishment. It is also a history of almost- forgotten events and initiatives- seminar series which changed the way we looked at the medium, commissions which provided starting points for emerging photographers, publications which began important debates.
While the US system had brought fame, critical response and even prosperity to photographers in the 1960s and 70s, in Britain, the medium’s status was uncertain; museums were hostile, the art market uninterested and the critical establishment uninformed. Creative Camera’s Peter Turner remembered that: We took it upon ourselves to reinvent photography. We were winning a great and glorious fight. (OHBP 1993) while in1950, the British Journal of Photography noted: ”Demand has outrun supply and there are simply no large schools where instruction can be had. “
Meadows’ projects from the 1970s were powered by invention and innovation, and a canny instinct for publicity and promotion. His practice was performative in that he placed himself at the centre of many of his projects - the high studio proprietor (for the Greame Street studio in Moss Side), the uniformed Butlins ‘walkie’ (at Butlins Camp in Filey) and, most spectacularly as the driver and operator of the Free Photographic Omnibus. Even the quest, with Martin Parr, to find the ‘real’ Coronation Street (June Street) relied very much on the ability of both photographers to project themselves and to become beguiling characters, acceptable and intriguing enough to allow people to photograph in the private space of home.
The new British photographers, predominantly the children of the English suburbs, (in Meadows’ case, of the English countryside), were classic products of the post-war boom. Meadows was unusual among his photographer contemporaries because he had been privately educated- most emerged from the grammar school system, and most had not succeeded academically. For those who chose art schools (many of which were re-formed as Polytechnics during the 1960s) their route through higher education brought them directly into the raucous culture of art education, itself transformed in the 1950s by the influx of ex-service people radical politics the new discipline of cultural studies. British art schools, though legendary for their macho attitudes and tribalism, became a safe place for rebels, mavericks and activists, where traditional class boundaries tumbled at a far faster rate than in British universities. For some students coming into higher education in the early 1970s, photography was something of a last resort.
The young British photography students who set a new agenda for documentary and landscape photography in the 1970s found role models and influences primarily from the United States, where photography was already a respected art form. Among those they most admired and emulated were Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander and the landscapists Minor White and Robert Adams. The bookshop operated by Colin and Grace Osman on the ground floor of the ‘Creative Camera’ building in Doughty Street was packed with imports from the USA and Europe as were the bookstores beginning to be opened by the new photography galleries. For many starting out in documentary photography in the early 1970s, the 1970 Bill Brandt exhibition at the Hayward Gallery was an inspiration.
Photography education in the early 1970s was predominantly technically and scientifically based, leaving significant gaps, which the young British photographers filled in informal and sociable ways, as Daniel Meadows remembered in an interview made for the National Sound Archive’s Oral History of British Photography in the 1990s:
‘On Friday nights we’d meet at Brian’s [Griffin’s] flat and we used to talk photography and look at what we could find, everybody used to bring things they’d find, and we’d also look at our own work and we’d have competitions. One week…we’d all gone off- I’d had to short Knutsford May Day celebrations in the style of Cartier Bresson, Martin had given Brian Blackpool World Ball dancing …in the style of Tony Ray-Jones, and Brian had given Martin [Parr] the brass band competition at Belle Vue Manchester in the style of Gary Winogrand I think, or Lee Friedlander’
When Daniel Meadows set off on his photographic journey, which would take him from improvised studio photography in an abandoned barber’s shop in Moss Side’s Greame Street in the early 1970s, to a study of suburbia in the south of England in the mid 1980s, he like many of his contemporaries, was influenced by photographers such as Tony Ray-Jones, who had returned to England from the USA in the late 1960s to document everyday life in Britain and by the early 20th century photographer Benjamin Stone, whose survey photographs of English customs had captured the attention of editor and photo activist Bill Jay. Jay edited ‘Camera Owner’ magazine (later ‘Creative Camera’) and the short-lived ‘Album’; most importantly for the new British photographers, Jay was an indefatigable touring lecturer, visiting Manchester Polytechnic when Daniel Meadows, Martin Parr and Brian Griffin were students there. For these young photographers, Jay was a beacon of knowledge and a lasting inspiration, giving them a vital background in photographic history.
From the beginning, Meadows’ 1970s work was based on a combination of image- making and storytelling. In his 1975 book ‘Living Like This’, he combined photographs made on the Free Photographic Omnibus- a converted double-decker bus, which he drove around England from 1973 to1974- with oral histories and his own commentaries. He set up free portrait studios when he parked the bus, and these photographs, republished in ‘National Portraits’ (in 1997) and subsequently exhibited in Tate Britain’s 2007 exhibition ‘How We Are’ have, over the years, and with the patina of age, acquired eager new audiences. Travelling across the length and breadth of England, he made, in the free studio portraits, a time capsule of a nation on the cusp of change.
His friendship and sometime photographic partnership with Martin Parr was also important in the 70s. Together they made the 1972 Series June Street, the result of a search for the ‘real’ Coronation Street, using a Hasselblad camera borrowed from Manchester Poly. Their dignified, highly detailed photographs of families and individuals in their living rooms are a poignant reminder of how much real life differed from TV drama. In the summer of that same year, they were employed by Butlin’s as ‘walkies’, brown-blazered camp photographers, charged with selling portraits to holidaymakers. In their own time, they made personal photographs, later exhibited at Impressions Gallery of Photography in York as ‘Butlins by the Sea’. Meadows made a series of colour photographs while he was there, which have now been repaired and re-printed and are rare examples of early colour work emerging from British independent photography. In these photographs, Butlin’s emerges as faded and melancholy, already superseded by cheap travel to southern Europe.
Both Meadows and Parr photographed in the north of England throughout the 1970s- Parr settled in Hebden Bridge in the mid 1970s,opened the Albert Street Workshop with a group of friends and made his ‘Calderdale’ series, while Meadows took up a Gulbenkian Foundation- funded residency in the Lancashire mill town of Nelson, where he became immersed in a long-term study of the decline of the textile industry. Both remained fascinated by ‘the ordinary’ and by working-class culture. In the 1980s, as Britain began to de- industrialize into a service culture, they both made photo series about the English middle classes- Meadows documenting life in suburban outer London in photographs and words (published as ‘Nattering in Paradise’ in 1988) and Parr in his groundbreaking colour work ‘The Cost of Living’, which appeared a year later.
The legacy of the independent photography of the 1970s is significant, and is gradually being recovered as works from the period begin to re-emerge: Paul Trevor’s photographs taken in Liverpool as part of the Survival Programmes project in 1975 were shown recently at the Walker Art Gallery and John Myer’s upcoming show at the Ikon Gallery, showcases his remarkable ‘Middle England’ portraits, made from 1970-74.
What makes all these photographs remarkable is not just our fascination with photographs of an England which is now so utterly changed, but the energy which charges them, the excitement which surrounds them. The new British photographers, excluded from the elite world of mainstream photojournalism, and superfluous to the needs of the art establishment, made a virtue from a necessity, as they created their own projects, paid for them with a combination of public and private funds and disseminated them through small-scale publications and exhibitions. They were fascinated by the ‘ordinary’, inspired by a widespread interest in working class lives, and were very much part of an English counterculture which had created a new set of alternative values and lifestyles.
An increasing interest in our own recent past, fuelled by the growing accessibility of images and evidence via web- based sources, by a fascination for ‘vintage’, a vastly more sophisticated research culture in photography and a far more inclusive view of photography as a medium which is no longer divided into specific ‘camps’ have all made 1970s photography more accessible and understandable.
Professor Val Williams, of the University of the Arts London Photography and the Archive Research Centre at the London College of Communication and has worked with Daniel Meadows’ archive for the last three years. Daniel Meadows: Edited Photographs from the 70s and 80s, by Val Williams, is published by Photoworks and a touring exhibition: Daniel Meadows: Early Photographic Works has been curated by Val Williams and will be shown at the National Media Museum in Bradford from 30 September 2011 to February 2012. An issue of Fieldstudy, featuring Daniel Meadows’ colour photographs from Butlins will be published by the Photography and the Archive Research Centre: www.photographyresearchcentre.co.uk
Daniel Meadows: Edited Photographs from the 70s and 80s can be pre-ordered online from www.photoworks.org.uk.
New Publication from the Photography and the Archive Research Centre
Daniel Meadows: Edited Photographs from the 70s and 80s
By Val Williams
In 1973, photographer Daniel Meadows went on an extraordinary journey, photographing the English as he travelled the country in a double-decker bus., giving away photographs he had made in the free studios he set up during his journey on the Free Photographic Omnibus.
Meadows was one of an important group of photographers who spearheaded the independent photography movement in the early 1970s, breaking with tradition and infusing the medium with new energies and ways of seeing. His practice is complex, passionate and sometimes deeply autobiographical. He produced an astonishing record of urban society across Britain, working in a uniquely collaborative way with his subjects, many of whom he interviewed. These are those rare photographs that people come to love, for their innocence, their directness and their sense of longing.
Together with recently discovered unpublished work from Meadows’ own archive, this book presents his five best known projects: The Shop on Greame Street, 1972, Butlin's by the Sea, 1972, June Street, Salford, 1973, The Free Photographic Omnibus 1973-74, and Nattering in Paradise, 1984.
Illuminating a remarkable period in British photography when everything seemed new, and gloriously possible, writer and curator Val Williams has written a fascinating text that places Meadows’ work in the context of contemporary culture and has mined the Meadows archive as well as using contemporary and current source material. From the remarkable free photographic studio on Greame Street in Moss Side to his study of suburbia, Meadows emerges as a powerful and engaging documentarist and an incisive commentator on his times.
Published to accompany the exhibition Daniel Meadows: Early Photographic Work, curated by Val Williams, showing at the National Media Museum from 30 September 2011 to 19 February 2012 and touring to Ffotogallery, Cardiff; Birmingham Central Library, and the London College of Communication.
Published in association with Photography and the Archive Research Centre, University of the Arts London, in partnership with National Media Museum, Bradford, Ffotogallery, Cardiff and Birmingham Central Library Gallery.
Designed by Dean Pavitt @ LOUP
Printed by EBS
Authored by Val Williams
Edited by Val Williams and Gordon MacDonald
248 pages, duotone and colour plates.
The Daniel Meadows research project was led by Professor Val Williams, of the University of the Arts London Photography and the Archive Research Centre at the London College of Communication.
An issue of Fieldstudy, featuring Daniel Meadows’ colour photographs from Butlins will be published by PARC to coincide with the exhibition and publication.