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Colin Thomas is a documentary photographer based in Telford, Shropshire. The Café Royal publication, released today, Wrexham Leisure 1982—1984, features work from his Event project which was exhibited at Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool in 1983.
Colin sent this text to help place his work:
I’ve owned a camera since my early teens but photography was just one of several interests. It became my main interest when I discovered the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool,in the late 1970s. The exhibitions inspired me, especially work by documentary photographers and for the first time I realised how powerful photography can be. I started educating myself with the help of monographs of photographers such as Tony Ray-Jones, Ray Moore and David Hurn.
I earned my living as a civil servant and moved, with my job, from Merseyside to Wrexham, North Wales in 1979 and the photographs in Event were all taken in the early 1980’s. It was the first time I’d worked on a series of photographs.
Shortly after our arrival my wife and I were invited to participate in an inter-street rounders match and a fancy dress charity evening. It was a great way of getting to know our new neighbours and despite having just moved into the area everything seemed familiar to me.
I grew up on a council estate on the outskirts of Aberystwyth, Mid Wales. It was a close-knit community and the regular organised events helped maintain and strengthen it. Many of my earliest recollections are of my family taking part in village activities. My father managed the local football team and I can remember my mother playing in a Ladies Cricket tournament and singing a couple of numbers at the Women’s Institute concert. I also recall the day I was pageboy to the Carnival Queen; I was reluctant to get dressed up but there was a box of chocolates on offer from the carnival committee so I was easily persuaded.
In Wrexham I rediscovered my love of community events and found plenty taking place in the area. It was, and still is, difficult for me to point my camera at someone. To get the photos I wanted I knew I had to work with a wideangle lens and get close. The more I worked the easier it got and I found that a lot of people assumed I was working for the local press because I had two, sometimes three, cameras around my neck. In 1982 the Open Eye gallery put up a couple of commissions for photographers and I applied and was accepted. The gallery was run by Neil Burgess and Derek Massey and they gave me valuable advice and encouragement. There was only a small amount of money involved but the exhibition deadline motivated me to work harder. Looking back I realise it was an ideal photographic project for me to cut my teeth on.
I guess there are two phases to my career as a photographer: The first phase was as an educator, teaching part time at several colleges in the north-west, ending up as a full-time programme manager at Hugh Baird college in Bootle.
During this phase I worked on several projects and in roughly chronological order (although some did overlap) they were:
“Pleasureland”: photographs of Southport fair out of season shot on 5×4 in black and white.
“Housing Estates”: photographs divided into four discrete sets that showed an evolution of approach to the same subject. Set1: 35mm graphic, contrasty black and white images. Set2: 35mm grey and understated black and white. Set3: 5×4 black and white and Set4: 5×4 colour.
“Demolition Sites”: 5×4 black and white photographs of areas of ground either where buildings were being demolished or where buildings had been demolished some time in the past.
“Skelmersdale”: 5×4 black and white photographs of the people and environs of Skelmersdale built as a satellite new town, twenty miles from Liverpool. The now defunct Merseyside Arts employed me as a photographer in residence and I worked there for one day a week for twelve weeks. (I continued with the project after the funding finished.)
“The Plight of the Trolley”: medium format ,semi-humorous colour photographs of abandoned shopping trolleys.
“Personal Space”: 35mm black and white photographs showing the quirky nature of modern family life.
“River to River” colour 5×4 photographs of the coastline from the River Ribble to the River Mersey
The above work was variously exhibited and published at The Open Eye Gallery, Impressions York, The Bluecoat, Liverpool, The Atkinson, Southport, North-West photography Group shows, British Journal of Photography, Creative Camera.
The second phase began in 1997 when Stephanie Wynne and myself formed the collaborative partnership: McCoy Wynne. We built up a successful commercial practice and were able to leave teaching in 2005, concentrating on commissioned work but also collaborating on personal projects, a selection of which are listed below. This second phase coincided with the increased use of digital techniques: another re-invention of photography.
“Quiescence”: a study of dormant spaces was our first large project exhibited in 2008 and this led to McCoy Wynne being shortlisted for The Liverpool Art Prize in 2009 for: “An Avian Presence”
“Bingo and Burial”: was exhibited as part of Liverpool Look 11 photofestival and we re-photographed from the original viewpoints of my demolition site photographs taken in the 1980’s.
“Gulls”: photographs of the flight patterns of birds disturbed at night within the urban environment and exhibited at The University of Liverpool and recently at The University Centre, Blackpool.
“Triangulation”: a long-term project to photograph all 310 triangulation pillars which will also provide a survey of the British landscape, exhibited as part of Liverpool Look 13 photofestival.
A further ongoing project “The Urban Forest” has also been recently exhibited.
The projects listed above, although varied in subject matter, all have a grounding in notions of documentary photography. We do not tend to photograph “events” or feel we take photographs that are “reportage” or “journalistic”. At the risk of sounding pretentious we consider ourselves to be conceptual documentary photographers.
Our concerns are more long term and we like to work on projects over several years. The acceptance of the factual nature of documentary photography is ideally suited to portraying the passage of time and the revival of some of my archival projects by Café Royal Books has highlighted how photographs, which were once contemporary, have become historical documents.
It’s also worth noting that very few of the projects have people as the major subject. We are more interested in environments, landscapes and artefacts. We have never felt entirely comfortable photographing strangers and no matter how careful one is there will always be some elements of exploitation.
Stephen McCoy 2015
Images below are from titles published by Café Royal Books.
Talking Picture no. 21: For Stanley, a movie made by Daniel Meadows about Stanley Graham who worked in a weaving mill in Barnoldswick, Lancashire. The movie, a part of the entire Daniel Meadows Archive, is held at the Library of Birmingham.
This movie coincides with the second in a series of eight books I’m publishing with Daniel. The book, Bancroft Shed Weaving 1976, will be published and available this Thursday morning (19.02.15) from the Café Royal Books website.
You can follow Daniel’s movies on Vimeo.
Those of you who have been following this new site so far, and those who find it in the future, will see that I’ve been posting movies by Daniel Meadows each week, as they’re released. Each offers a window into his archive which is now held at the Library of Birmingham.
During the first half of 2015 I’m publishing eight books and a limited edition box set. Each book is the subject of one of Daniel’s movies and the box set contains the eight corresponding movies on DVD, as well as the books. The 40 movies are being released now, over 40 weeks to celebrate the 40th year since The Free Photographic Omnibus project which Daniel began in 1972.
I asked Daniel whether he could write a short backstory for this blog; I’m always interested in ‘why’ and ‘how’ people do what they do. Daniel has also written a short text to accompany each of the eight movies and the eight books we’ll be releasing this year, the first of which was January and the next being this Thursday, February 19th 2015.
I’m sure you’ll enjoy Daniel’s writing below. Please visit and subscribe to his movies on his Vimeo page. Please also revisit this post, where I will add images and links to the ‘new’ movies as they become available.
Here’s how I remember why I became a documentary photographer.
It was the summer of 1970, I was eighteen years old and in my final year at a west country boarding school. It was a mean-spirited place and my five years there had been grim, degrading even. With so many petty cruelties handed down each day, I’d learned only about the compliance of fear.
With just weeks to go before my release and sure only of what I did not know, I was fizzing. With rage, yes, but also with an insatiable curiosity to know about people whose lives were other than my own. I knew no one working class, no one black or brown, and – outside of my own family – no women.
There’s a documentary from 1969, Beautiful, Beautiful a BBC Omnibus programme. I looked it out recently, an old VHS. It shows photographer Bruce Davidson working in Harlem. “People have an innate dignity,” he says. “They will set themselves before the camera in a dignified way. And they will choose what they will give.” Undoubtedly that film set something playing in my head.
Then, in May 1970, I went to see Bill Brandt’s retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London. Brandt, it hit me, was using his camera as a passport to let him slip, effortlessly it seemed, between the social classes. How I envied him.
For me, going to Manchester that autumn was not just a journey from south to north, it was a removal, out of my own class (good riddance) and into other people’s. And there it was, in All Saints, in the photography school on the third floor of a tower block in the newly created polytechnic, that I began to learn how I too might slip between the classes. With dignity.
And I’m still learning.
These Café Royal Editions
In my subsequent photographic career one piece of work in particular, done in 1973-74 aboard the Free Photographic Omnibus, has become well-known. This is largely because of the enthusiasm and energy of writer and curator Val Williams who has long championed the street portraits I made during that time both in exhibitions and in books. However, what is not widely understood is that the “bus portraits”, as they have become known, were made as part of a much more comprehensive documentary adventure, something that includes audio recordings, works of photo-reportage, digital stories and short movies; and that it’s an adventure which continues to this day.
In 1975, in the last paragraph of my first book Living Like This, I wrote the following about my work. “I hope that everyone who reads these stories will be able to enjoy a snatch of life as it is lived by someone else. For it is only by appreciating each other’s circumstances that we can hope to improve our world.”
I like that, it’s good. I could write the same today and it would still be good.
In my archive, now housed at the Library of Birmingham, are many picture stories which have nothing to do with the bus and which have never been published or, at least, have been published only in part. Here though, in Café Royal editions, a number are being published whole and for the first time. And that’s exciting. Also, each edition is accompanied by a short movie online, a Talking Picture, in which the voices of those who appear in the photographs can be heard.
These are the stories.
Stockport Gypsies and Travellers
In 1971, when we were both nineteen and students at Manchester Polytechnic, Shireen Shah joined me on my visits to Stockport’s gypsy and traveller site. She was studying sociology and researching for her dissertation. In 2013 she recalled those trips:
“This was a time when the local councils were meant to be making provision for them [gypsies and travellers] to have a site so they could stop and not be illegal. But many of the councils didn’t provide sites. This was one of the few places that they could stop and not be illegal. I called my dissertation Out of Gear.
“They weren’t liked. I went with them once to the laundry. They took their washing up to a laundry and one of them explained how you’d never use the same plastic bowl for washing clothes, your lettuce, separate stuff. But you could see that people didn’t want them to be coming in.”
James Nutter and Sons, Bancroft Shed, Barnoldswick
Between 1975 and 1977 I worked as photographer-in-residence to the Borough of Pendle: the towns of Nelson, Colne, Barnoldswick and Earby in north-east Lancashire. Here I made a series of extensive documentary studies. James Nutter and Sons at Bancroft Shed, Barnoldswick was one of these. The last remaining steam powered cotton weaving mill in the district, Bancroft’s buildings and machinery were largely unchanged since its construction during the first world war.
The Engine House, Bancroft Shed
During my time as photographer-in-residence I got to know and, in due course become friends with, Stanley Graham, the steam engineer (‘tenter’) at Bancroft. Stanley was a key contact, introducing me to his fellow employees in the mill, to the Weldone gang of boiler fluers from Brierfield and to Rochdale steeplejack Peter Tatham. In return, I helped him with his photography and audio recording.
In due course the mill closed and, in 1982, it was demolished. Stanley, who had a passion for history, attended evening classes at Nelson & Colne College and later went on to complete a degree at Lancaster University. During this time he also produced an extraordinary and unrivalled study of workers in the cotton trade, the Lancashire Textile Project (LTP), now housed in the special collections archive of Lancaster University.
In 2004 Stanley was awarded a fieldwork and recording lifetime achievement award by the Association for Industrial Archaeology.
Weldone Boiler Fluers
Weldone of Brierfield, a family firm of chimney sweeps, cleaned Bancroft’s boiler and chimney flues three times every year but, by 1976 when I photographed him, Charlie Sutton, the boss, had had enough.
“I’ve known every bloody boiler house in this part of the country,” he told me, “I’ve been to hell and back.” He was forty-nine and exhausted.
“I have a bad heart. I told Jack [his mate who worked with him inside the boilers], if he comes to me funeral, I want half a bottle o’ Bell’s puttin’ in with me, and me fluin’ mask.”
In October that year, following the publication of a spread of these pictures in Lancashire Life magazine, a buyer for Weldone was found and Charlie Sutton was able to retire. I’m almost certain that this is the only set of photographs ever done of boiler fluers at work.
Peter Tatham, Steeplejack
In September 1976 I photographed Rochdale steeplejack, Peter Tatham, first ladder and then demolish the 150 foot (46 metre) chimney of the former Salford city incinerator.
With a hole cut in the chimney’s side at the bottom so that rubble could be removed, Peter worked his way down the stack. Sitting astride the wall he took it apart piece by piece, dropping sections of cast iron and brickwork down inside the shaft.
“It’s a job like this,” he explained. “If you’re workin’ up there, you need to have done the labourin’ job to understand what the labourer’s doin’ down there and what you want him to do. The first time or two were a bit uncomfortable, ‘cos they stuck me up a big ‘un down in Rochdale first time, in winter. I got under the head and I came back down again. I couldn’t feel me bloody finger ends, you know?”
Pig Killing, North Yorkshire
In the winter of 1976-77 I visited Old Farm, Little Stainton in north Yorkshire. Here Cyril Richardson and his family reared pigs and, around Christmas, killed them. The hams and flitches were cured, the bacon hammered, rolled and hung up.
In the pictures Cyril is the man sharpening knives. His wife Elsie holds up the lace fat from the belly. Their daughter is Helen, their son-in-law farmer lad Tony Critchley. The butcher is Everett Moor. His assistant (in specs) is Jim Woodhouse. Wearing the ICI coat is Herbert Bray.
“The only thing that’s wasted with a pig,” said Elsie, “is its squeal.”
Welfare State International
As photographer-in-residence, one of my jobs was to record the work of Welfare State International, based in Burnley.
Formed in 1968 as a collective, Welfare State took art out of the privileged spaces of theatre and gallery, to reach new audiences. Innovators of community art, carnival, fire show spectaculars, lantern festivals and pioneering theatre of all kinds, Welfare State’s work has been internationally acclaimed.
“In those days you could get free teeth and free coffins,” co-founder John Fox recalled in 2013, “but you couldn’t necessarily get free art.”
Clayton Ward, Prestwich Hospital, Manchester
These pictures are about mental illness and the beginnings of what we now call ‘care in the community’.
In February 1978, I lived for two weeks with twenty long-stay psychiatric patients at Prestwich Hospital in north Manchester. Forgotten souls, most of them had been there for at least as long as I was old. I was twenty-six. Brought together from all over the hospital, these patients were guinea pigs in an experiment.
Encouraged by what psychiatrists had discovered from the application of post-war psychopharmacology and influenced by the behaviour modification theories of B F Skinner and also R D Laing’s ‘politics of experience’, psychologists at Prestwich established Clayton Ward. Here they instigated a token economy scheme.
The objective was to enable patients to live ‘out in the community’. First, though, they needed to learn how to behave in ways that would not upset or alarm people ‘on the outside’. A necessary prerequisite for a patient’s inclusion in this experiment was that he or she should have an addiction, in this case tobacco smoking. ‘Good’ behaviour — engaging in ‘verbal interaction’, making your bed, wearing a tie, tucking your shirt in and so on — was rewarded with tokens.
And you needed tokens to buy not just tobacco but also your food and drink.
 Williams, Val (ed). (1997) National Portraits: Photographs from the 1970s by Daniel Meadows. Salford: Viewpoint Photography Gallery, and Derby: Montage Gallery.
Williams, Val. 2011. Daniel Meadows: Edited Photographs from the 70s and 80s. Brighton: Photoworks.
 Meadows, Daniel. (1975) . Living Like This: Around Britain in the Seventies. London: Arrow Books.
Remember to subscribe to the movies…here!
All images above ©Daniel Meadows
I was interviewed by Alice Compton for Photoworks a few weeks ago…Here’s the result
– In your opinion, what makes a great photo book?
This week’s publication is by Homer Sykes—Biddy Boys Ireland 1972. An edition of 150, 36 pages.
I have published several books by Sykes, the First being Blitz Kids, Skins and Silver Spoons. There are three more planned for this year.
My first documentary photographs date from the late 1960s, during 1970s – 1990s, my principal commissions in Britain were for what used to be called the “weekend colour supplements” such as The Telegraph, The Sunday Times, The Observer, You and the Sunday Express magazines. I also shot weekly news for Newsweek, Time, Now! and New Society magazines.
I always worked on my own personal photographic documentary projects. These include work on aspects of British Society, and documenting traditional British folklore customs, that I started in 1970 and completed seven years later resulting in the publication Once a Year: Some Traditional British Customs (Gordon Fraser). I have in recent years been revisiting many of these annual events and finding ‘new’ annual customs that I had not photographed in the 1970s.
More recently Café Royal Books have published ten limited editions books from my British archive.
My work is represented in private and National Collections.
I have had numerous exhibitions through out my career. A mini retrospective exhibition of ninety photograph, Homer Sykes England 1970-1980, was held at Maison de la Photographie Robert Doisneau, Paris for over three months in 2014. This was principally from my projects on aspects of British Society. I was the first British photographer to be shown there. There was a publication to go with the exhibit, Homer Sykes This is England (Poursuite Editions), was published on the occasion of the exhibition.
My vintage prints are represented by the James Hyman Gallery London.
In the last 35 years I have gone from shooting about three editorial commissioned magazine stories a week, mainly one and two days assignments, to about one commission per annum. Which suits me fine, as 90% of my time is now taken up managing my archive, and shooting stuff that interests me.
I’m working with Ken Grant on a series of four books. Here’s a potential cover for the first book, Shankly, out next month.
I use a digital press. For the limited run that I print which is an average of 200 copies, litho is prohibitive in terms of cost. I like to keep the books affordable to make and to buy. The best digital presses can output very very close to litho plate printing so it’s not a concern, it just means they lack the scent of ink!
At every stage an image can be altered and the alteration can affect the print out put. A basic example is below in the picture. Images can be sent to a mono machine as RGB, CMYK or grey files. They can be sent as desaturated colour files. They can be sent as colour files embedded in a PDF which is then converted. Alternatively the machine can convert. The machine can ‘enhance’ or be not. Really there are infinite options, each with it’s peculiarities.
One thing is for certain, as with litho but to a slightly greater extent, every print run will differ. Like no two cans of custom colour mixed paint will be exactly the same.
Every book is different. For what it’s worth, this book by Daniel Meadows, the top right will work best!
I wrote this for RRB Photobooks, it was published on December 14th 2014.
Café Royal Books is ten next year. As happens in a decade, a lot has changed; some planned changes, some happenchance. The reason I started CRB was to enable me to disseminate affordably my own work, quickly, internationally, and to many places at the same time. I had spent the previous decade painting large abstracts which were prohibitive due to their size and weight, so decided to return to drawing for its simplicity and speed. ‘The book’ worked as exhibition spaces, and ‘the multiple’ as a ‘rapid fire’. The content of the books was unfocussed and production fairly DIY, but considered. The excitement was in the making and in using the book as a container.
Somehow, online mainly, word spread and I ended up collaborating with other artists, illustrators and some photographers, publishing their work as small editions of around 50 copies. Around 2006 my practice began to shift from pen to lens based, partly because I could work faster and more simply without as much ‘interference’ as happened with a pen / pencil; also because I started to value more the recording of information, possibly for the future. We had our first child around the same time which probably had an impact on my way of thinking. Of course, as my own practice and interests changed, so did what I wanted to publish. It wasn’t until around 2010-11 that I started to become more focussed and direct about what I was to publish, and about what I wanted to make in terms of my work outside of Café Royal.
There has always been a bit of a clash, time-wise mostly, between the things I do. I’m a full time lecturer on three separate degree courses. I make work, exhibit etc my photographs – generally focussing on Brutalist estates and the urban environment. I have two children, 3 and 6. Café Royal has become a full time business, still run out of a small room, and only me…It’s hard work but really enjoyable and it’s a privilege to work with so many artists and photographers.
What I do now is publish a book each week. I can’t possibly publish all the work I’d like to, so have to remain pretty focussed in terms of subject. The subject tends to be work that documents an aspect of change; social, architectural, geographical…I don’t know what drives people (or me) to take photographs of things. It’s a strange compulsion, but somehow there is a need. ‘Now’ is happening – people know ‘now’, so the photographs, to my mind at least, become something else when the ‘now’ has passed and is no longer accessible first hand. They gain historical value or importance perhaps.
My experience of working with photographers is that generally they work for ‘the now’ for various reasons. One is financial. We all need money and work and so are focussed on ‘the now’. Others, who have perhaps had their commercial career, may have other interests: books, travel for example. In most cases there are vast archives of work that are untouched, mainly because the photographer has no reason to touch them. Feedback from many collaborators has been that CRB has offered the photographer opportunity to revisit their much forgotten archives. This has sometimes led to a rethink of current work and to other opportunities for sales and exhibitions of older work. None of this is intentional, it’s not why I started Café Royal, but knowing that this occurs means a lot and has become an aim of what I do.
My books are inexpensive, both to produce and to buy, in comparison for example to a coffee table hard back. They are limited run, generally of 200 copies. The conflicts with my desire of getting this forgotten archive work seen by many. However, many galleries and museums now collect my books. They are in a lot of ‘special collections’, photobook collections, artist book collections, exhibitions and so on. This makes them publicly accessible, looked after, ‘locked in’. So essentially anyone can gain access to them without
owning them. This has become a strong element of what I do. To have the work collected by galleries is important, if for no other reason than to fill the gaps in UK gallery photographic archives, which are fairly slim. Of course there are other reasons. To know MoMA, Tate, V&A and other major international galleries want the books enough to collect them means a lot. To have many shops stocking them and to have so many customers from the website is priceless. To meet Peter Mitchell, Ken Grant, Martin Parr, Daido Moriyama and discuss books, their work, their past work is amazing. I think publishing has allowed me to do a lot that perhaps otherwise I wouldn’t have done.
I once lost all of my own books, collected over 30 years – about 800 books, in a flood. I now have a strange relationship with books – I make lots of them but am still fearful of buying too many. Publishing allows me to make the books I’d like to collect; albeit a strange way of going about it!
The future. I’d like to start a PhD but need to fine-tune the question. It might relate to some of the above. I want to continue to publish small affordable well produced books / zines showing moments of change. I see Café Royal Books as a kind of meeting point. I don’t just publish the work of well known photographers but I do only publish work that I like and often subjects or times that I couldn’t get access to myself. As long as it’s enjoyable I’ll continue. There’s a lot of important work that needs to be seen! In many ways I see what I do as a long term project, cataloging the not too distant past.
Recently I’ve started a new project, ‘Notes’, which will hopefully become a reference tool and work as contextual support for the books I publish.
The original article can be seen here.