During the 1970s photography took on a new importance in Britain. After the rise of fashion photographers and photojournalists in the 1960s, a new generation was beginning to emerge who wanted to pursue their own projects, not paid for by advertisers or commissioned by magazine editors but financed piecemeal through a fragile combination of personal and public funding. Rather than travelling abroad, they wanted to explore the lives of ordinary people in Britain, many of whom were under threat of unemployment as the country shifted from an industrial to a service economy and traditional working-class communities began to break down. they wanted to examine the problems caused by poverty, class and race. and they wanted to do this with the minimum of interference or editorial control. Their photographs were aimed principally at exhibition on gallery walls and publication in books.
In this they were influenced by their counterparts in America, where the gallery system took its lead from the Museum of Modern Art, which had had a photography department since 1940 and regularly exhibited new work by young photographers. and for those who wanted to make complete statements in books, rather than to confine them to six or eight pages of a magazine, Robert Frank’s the Americans, based on his road trip across the US in the mid-1950s and published there in 1959, was hugely influential. it was an extended personal essay, full of scepticism about the American dream and, aesthetically, it looked different from anything else that had come before: his pictures were glancing, blurred, uncanny, not perfectly composed but full of emotion. he had used photography to create a work that was more like a novel than a news report, but was no less true.
Meadows, with Shireen Shah and Martin Parr at the opening of Parr’s ‘Home Sweet Home’, Impressions Gallery, York, June 1974. (Photographer unknown)
This was a book that deeply impressed the young Daniel Meadows, a student on the first year of the photography course at Manchester Polytechnic that started in 1970. Meadows had watched a BBC documentary about Davidson as “he strutted about East 100th Street with his 5x4in plate camera on a tripod balanced across his shoulders … I loved it. More particularly I loved the portraits he made: for their engagement, their intimacy and for the generosity he drew out of the people he photographed.”
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Butlin’s Holiday Camp, Filey, North Yorkshire. Meadows worked here alongside Martin Parr as a portrait photographer, taking the opportunity to produce his own, more oblique, compositions
Inspired by Davidson’s approach, Meadows launched his own documentary project in Manchester’s Moss side, home to the African-Caribbean community. he rented an old barber’s shop in Greame Street, called it the Greame Street Free Studio, and opened it every Saturday to invite local people inside to have their portraits taken. Every week he put new pictures in the window and anyone who was photographed could claim a free print. To his own copies, he added quotes from the sitters and his own thoughts about their lives. After eight weeks he ran out of money and the studio closed down, but it was an important first step in what would be, for Meadows, a life’s work spent creating forms of visual storytelling – documenting ordinary people’s lives in words and pictures – a practice that, with the advent of digital technology, has allowed him to make all these stories accessible online.
Further images by Meadows of Butlin’s Holiday Camp, Filey, in the summer of 1972
But before that there was Butlin’s. In the summer of 1972, Meadows and a fellow photography student at Manchester, Martin Parr, were employed as “walkies” at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Filey, in North Yorkshire. Supplied with brown blazers and Butlin’s ties, a camera and a flashgun each, they were sent round the camp to take pictures. each person photographed was issued with a numbered stub, which they handed in the next day to claim their pictures. If they bought them, the walkie got a percentage. If they didn’t, he got nothing.
Here were two young men from the south of England (Parr came from Surrey; Meadows from Gloucestershire) for whom Butlin’s must have promised the perfect image of the northern working classes at play. For Parr, it was “very exciting and entirely up my street”. For Meadows, it was much less ideal: “It was a nasty place to be … it wasn’t the friendly thing that one would see in the adverts. by then it was a kind of battleground for yobbos. Families had given up going because they were now going to the Costa del Sol. Mum and dad and 14-year-old daughter would go to Marbella but 17-year-old son with his first tattoo would be sent with all his mates to Butlin’s Filey … they had the biggest bars I’d ever seen so you never had to queue for a drink, and they could be quite violent.”
Butlin’s Filey, Yorkshire. July-August 1972
Nevertheless, it gave both photographers the chance, when they weren’t officially working, to take their own pictures and it was some of these that were exhibited late in 1972 at the newly opened Impressions Gallery in York, in a show organised by its young director, Val Williams, now director of photography and the Archive Research Centre at London College of Communication. For the past two years she has been searching through Daniel Meadows’ entire photographic archive for an exhibition which opens at the National Media Museum in Bradford later this month. she has also written the book that accompanies it, which traces Meadows’ development and analyses the growth of independent British photography from the 1970s on, setting it within its social context and bringing a gently sceptical eye to the sometimes overly romantic notions of working-class life espoused by Meadows and Parr during their years in the north.
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In their last year as students, Meadows and Parr worked together on a project which, like East 100 Street and the nascent Greame Street studio, sought to photograph the people who inhabited a single location. they were also inspired by Britain’s most popular TV soap opera, Coronation Street, which had started in 1960 and was set in a fictional town based on Salford. the opening credits showed a real Salford street, Archie Street, which no longer exists. For their study Meadows and Parr chose another terraced Salford street, June Street, and in the early spring of 1973 they wrote to every household along it: “We are social documentary photographers and our names are Martin Parr and Daniel Meadows … before redevelopment changes the face of Salford we want to record for future generations the friendly atmosphere which is characteristic of your city.” they would be calling in the next few days “to arrange a date to photograph you at your own convenience”.
The resulting photographs, which were formally posed and shot on a medium-format camera, showed neatly dressed couples, sprawling young families, lone mothers with small children, sitting in their living rooms, and their pictures paid as much attention to the details of the setting – wallpaper, ornaments – as they did to the residents themselves. they also recorded some of the June Street residents talking about their lives, and this, again, fed into Meadows’ growing fascination with documenting Britain in photographs and words.
Four studies from a project portraying the residents of a single street, undertaken in Meadows and Parr’s final year together at college
At the end of 1973, Meadows set off on what would be a defining photographic project, the Free Photographic Omnibus, funded by a variety of grants, donations and sponsors. Meadows converted an old double-decker bus into a travelling studio, complete with studio, darkroom, exhibition space and living space. For the next year he drove up and down England, offering a photo session to anybody who volunteered, with a free print in exchange. “It seemed to me,” Meadows wrote later, “that it was high time someone photographed a cross-section of the English people, not only from all walks of life but from all corners of the country.”
As Val Williams points out, the final cross-section was more limited than originally promised. Meadows agreed: “Where, for instance, are the photographs of bank managers and university professors, dukes and earls, stockbrokers and company directors?” it was not, however, necessary, he said, to use a Free Photographic Omnibus to get a photograph of a stockbroker. “But, if you want to photograph the ‘ordinary man in the street’ then there is no better way of getting to meet him.”
In 1975, he published the results of his findings in Living Like this, a book which aimed “to document the lives of those whose quality of life is threatened by the apparent necessity for rapid social change”. Rapid change, Meadows believed, was the enemy of community life. “It takes a long time for a community feeling to establish itself,” he wrote. “The tower block environment seems to be so totally alien to the people who are obliged to live in it that they cannot envisage themselves remaining in it for the rest of their lives. ‘Something better will turn up.’ and so, because people are hopeful for a future in a street with a patch of garden and a road outside the window they cannot be content with the present. No one can establish firm roots in ‘temporary accommodation’.”
Meadows would go on to exhibit the photographs and, over the next three decades, the “bus project” would grow in popularity and importance. Widely recognised for his work as an oral historian and as a social anthropologist, Meadows has revisited it, republished it, refound and rephotographed some of its subjects. he, and Martin Parr, and Val Williams, have remained at the centre of British independent photography for 40 years. this exhibition is, in different ways, a tribute to them all.
‘Daniel Meadows: Early Photographic Works’, curated by Val Williams, runs at the National Media Museum, Bradford, September 30 to February 19 2012.’Daniel Meadows: Edited Photographs from the 70s and 80s’ by Val Williams is published by Photoworks on October 1, £25.
From left: Newcastle-upon-Tyne, September 1974; Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, identified as James O’Connor (left) and David Balderstone, November 1974; Workington, Cumbria, October 1974; Hulme, Manchester, February 1974
From left: Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, ‘Boot boys’ Brian Morgan, Martin Tebay, Paul McMillan, Phil Tickle, Mike Comish, November 1974; Workington, Cumbria, October 1974; Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, twin brothers Michael and Peter McParland, November 1974; Workington, Cumbria, October 1974
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