Reason 3: Not Fitting In

Here’s the third post in the series of unknown length and duration, around reasons why I started publishing.

I’m not sure where to start this, so I’m going to write and see how it goes. Here are some terms, or genres I’m involved in/with. Each very different. Each a different crowd, generally. A different market, in a business sense. A different process in terms of making, and certainly different reasoning. Often, a different outlet or final place for the work to ‘be’:

Genres — Artist’s Book / Zine / Photobook

Sections — History / Culture / Photography / Gift

Reasons — Nostalgia / Collection / Archive / History / Dissemination /Presentation

Fitting in. I’ve never been a conformist. I’m not sure why. I don’t think it’s rebellion, although at times possibly it is. I think it’s more that I like to question things as they are. I’m never comfortable accepting that ideas as they are, are the best way. For example, procedure, hierarchy, method, answer…I never like to take a set of rules and agree, ‘that’s how it’s done.’ I’d rather find my way of getting it done. I don’t like the term, ‘creative’, when applied to a person, but I think artists, designers, photographers, ‘creatives’ generally, question rules. Often get accused of disobeying, quite negatively. Questioning, I think, is better.

When I’m not in the office/studio, editing, sourcing, replying to emails, packing post etc, I’m at book fairs, talking about the books and selling the books. Artist’s Book and zine fairs are the ones I started taking part in, 13 years ago. The first was Manchester Zine Fair, at what was then Urbis. Leeds, BABE in Bristol, Small Publishers, London Zine Symposium…Fairs in Lithuania, China, Korea, Japan, Australia…When I can’t go, I send a box of books. See previous post about ease of transporting.

More recently (past seven years), I’ve taken part in photobook fairs. Bristol, London, Glasgow, Paris, Rome, New York…The mindset is different. Not better or worse. Perhaps more focussed, because the subject is tighter. Photography includes photography. Photo books include photographs. ‘Artist’s books’ is perhaps a vaguer term, which is useful. Artists work in a multitude of ways so I think the term artist’s book refers more to the book as a container, the function and form of the book, as well (or can be) as the content. Photobooks can be more fetishised, more ‘collected’, more valuable and in some ways seen as more ‘prestigious’. A word I don’t like much. There are cross overs though, Ed Ruscha’s photographic books, for example. Artist’s will discuss them as artist’s books. Photographers as photobooks. There is, of course, a problem with categorising anything, but things do get categorised so I’ll go with it.

The bookshops that sell Café Royal Books vary in terms of the shelf on which the put the books. Photography is an obvious and appropriate one. History, Culture, Gift, are others — all just as appropriate. They have been exhibited, cited and discussed as examples of artist’s book, photobook, archiving, re/presenting work, zines, collections, cultural/social history…

Each term, in every case, has its own audience. The more terms one crosses, the wider the potential audience, and in this case, the more eyes that can see the images I publish. So that’s good. More people who perhaps didn’t know the photographers or their work, or a particular series of work, now do.

The main thing with all of this, is that the books (if that’s what they are…) don’t fit in. They float around a bit. Today, I have sent books to a gallery in New York. A library in San Diego. Someone in the UK, along with a note to say ‘Happy Birthday’ from the person who bought it. A biker on the Isle of Man, a playwright in London and a lawyer in the USA. The years I spent painting and exhibiting in a fairly formal way, I think has put me off sticking to one thing or place. So Café Royal Books helped me to make one thing, but be a part of several ‘networks’ (another word I don’t like.) I’m easily bored, and although ultimately I do just make one type of thing, it’s useful to be able to discuss it as several things, depending on where the books are, or where I am.

Image: One of the last paintings I made, 2005.

Colin Shaw — Farmwork

Colin Shaw is a photographer based in the  Peak District. The text below is a recently edited version of the introduction to his book. The images are from the same series.

Farmwork, men and women on the land Chatto and Windus, London. 1988 ISBN 070113299x

Growing up in a small Warwickshire village, it was impossible to ignore the day to day activities of farming. My memories of childhood are dominated by the freedom of a rural existence and the realities of living in an agricultural com¬munity: walking in meadows that had never been ploughed; watching the gangs of women with their prams, Wellington boots, headscarves and buckets waiting to go potato picking, then experiencing for myself the inevitable backache of the job; learning to drive a tractor; watching and trying hand-milking on a friend’s smallholding; helping to churn the cream to butter by hand, and enjoying the reward of fresh watercress sandwiches.

All of this was seasoned with the advice and country wisdom of my father. He started life as a farm worker in Lincolnshire; a steam traction engine was the first vehicle he ever drove. ‘Never walk across a ploughed field,’ he would say, ‘even if the footpath goes straight across the middle. . . always be wary of male animals, especially pigs!  ‘Never go in a field if a cow has just calved; they can be worse than bulls.’ My father left farm work because of low pay and the demands of a growing family. I never knew him when he was a farm worker, but his country wisdom remained and was a constant source of knowledge during my childhood.

During the 1950s it was not unusual for villagers to keep a ‘cottage pig’ and a few hens. My father was no exception and I well remember riding on the back of a huge Middle White called Sally. We watched her farrow and saw the piglets feed and grow; then they were gone. The day that Sally went, father was very upset; I remember the pots of home made brawn and cuts of meat in my grandmother’s kitchen. He never had another pig.

I enjoyed the regular trips to our field and always marvelled at my father’s skill. I remember watching as he carefully loaded eggs into an incubator and filled and lit the paraffin heater. I recall him explaining patiently that they needed warmth to hatch, and that the heat had to be carefully maintained.

With sadness we learned of plans to build a new village school on land adjacent to the field which was to be taken for the school drive. I always hated my time at that school! My father had lost his last real links with farming and by this time he was employed in a local car components factory. But even a rural secondary school has its compensations, I remember the fascination of watching a ewe give birth in a field next to the playground, and so conveniently at morning break.

Like most village kids, I worked on farms in the school holidays but never considered farming as a career. It would have been impossible to have grown up in such an environment and to have remained unaware of agriculture, but I can honestly say that it never seemed an attractive way of earning a living. Perhaps I knew too much.

It is easy to recount these experiences and produce an idyllic view of what ‘real’ farming was like, unlike today’s so-called agrochemical plunder of the land. But such memories rarely have space for the harshness of country life. As village kids we knew that animals were bred for meat, we knew that the all-pervading stink of the knacker’s lorry was part of life and we knew that working on farms was no holiday. Yet, when eventually I went to work in Coventry, I found that our country knowledge was not universal. ‘Where are you from then?’ asked one of my new colleagues. I named my village to which he replied, ‘So you’re a clod, why aren’t you working on a farm instead of coming here and taking our jobs?’

I quickly learned that there was a difference between ‘townies’ and ‘clods’, and that many people saw the countryside in a very different way. That there was a gulf between our life styles could not be denied, but I resented the implications of the label ‘clod’. I felt indignation at the suggestion that farm work was easy and fit only for the village idiot. I knew that people from my school had gone to agricultural college and that the received wisdom of my father was not that of a fool.

Later, as an undergraduate, I became concerned by the way that images of the countryside were used in the press and by advertisers. ‘Down on the farm’ is often a term of mild abuse or amusement, to be called a farm labourer a much used put-down. Such terms only serve to reinforce the growing gulf between farm and city.

I started the Farmwork project because I wanted to document the everyday life and work of farm workers. By using photography I wanted to make the work of farming more visible and, I hoped, challenge some of the romantic myths. I also wanted the photography to be as neutral as possible. I did not want to adopt a partisan stance, neither wishing to criticise nor promote farming. I felt that my limited exposure to the industry was helpful, but I knew little about modern agriculture, so the photography was preceded by a period of research and familiarisation with the arguments surrounding the industry.

Documentary photography implies some sort of neutrality and impartiality, but there are always choices to be made. I do not claim to have seen, or photographed, every aspect of British agriculture and I have obviously chosen what to photograph and what to leave out. I was not refused access to anything and was able to photograph anywhere I pleased. My approach was the well-known ‘fly on the wall’ technique. I wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible and never asked for particular scenes to be set up or staged for the camera. I feel that it is very important for photographers to explain what they are doing and why. All the people in the photographs knew why I was there. To have used any other approach would have seemed dishonest; even so I did experience some mis¬understanding. During one of my first trips I was threatened with physical violence by a group of potato pickers. This job has traditionally been the preserve of women, but the changing employment situation has led to many men joining the gangs. When I appeared on the field with a camera there was a considerable amount of disquiet. I learned some days after that local DHSS officials had been photographing gangs of casual workers and using the photo¬graphs as evidence in prosecutions.

During one of my first attempts to photograph harvest in action, a farmer came roaring across his field in a Range Rover, stopped close to me, jumped out and said, ‘You’re not from Friends of the Earth, are you?’ To which I replied ‘No’, and mentioned that I had phoned the previous evening to arrange the visit. He jumped back into the vehicle and sped away.

On the whole, the photography was very enjoyable and full of amusing incidents. I remember driving across to the west Wales coast to photograph the New Zealand ‘Golden Shears’ sheep shearing champion at work on a farm. It had rained during the night and the shearing was called off. On my way home I noticed a large flock of dry sheep in a roadside pen waiting to be sheared. I stopped and asked if I could photograph and the farmers agreed. Later, one of them asked if I was interested in photographing dipping; he explained that it would be after breakfast and that I was welcome to join them. We walked up the hill to the farm house. The men were shown into the kitchen and large pots of tea were produced. I was taken through to another room where there was a large table set with two places. The two farmers sat at either end and a sofa was drawn up for me. It must have been an amusing sight because I was seated considerably lower than the table which was at about chin height! It was a wonderful breakfast.

Most of these photographs were taken in 1985. By the end of that year I had travelled about 10,000 miles and produced nearly 12,000 negatives. Although West Midlands Arts had funded the photography and research, it became obvious that the project had grown much larger than originally envisaged, so I approached ICI Fertilizers for help with the production of two exhibitions and they agreed, seeing the project as low profile arts sponsorship. ICI Fertilizers and Farmwork won the award for best single project from the Association of Business Sponsorship of the Arts in 1986. 

Two exhibitions were produced, the first a large scale, framed exhibition of 80 prints and text aimed at galleries and arts centres. The second exhibition was intended to be shown at more informal venues such as village halls. It is designed to travel with its own portable display system to allow for showing in virtually any location. Both exhibitions toured from 1986 to 1991 and went to around 80 venues.

Project rationale

It seems to me that there are two quite different views of modern farming. It is seen as a romantic occupation, a bucolic way of life beloved by many, or it is thought of as a world full of the frantic roar of machinery and the headlong rush for higher and higher profits. The first image feeds on ideas of tradition and regret for the loss of simple rustic existence. The second is a reaction against European politics and stresses the folly of intensive farming and over-production. Both obscure the work and people in farming, the first by not permitting people to spoil the rural idyll and the second by not allowing them to intrude into macro-economics.

There is a high degree of physical isolation inherent in modern farming. Mechanisation has reduced the numbers working on the land and now crops seem to grow themselves. A quick glance through the window of a passing car or train confirm that little work is done in the countryside. It is possible to run an arable farm of 1000 acres or more with only three or four full-time workers who see little of each other during their working day. When such a small number of people are spread over a large area it is not surprising that their work is not very visible.

We see the countryside as a place to escape to from the pressures of urban life, a place associated with leisure rather than work. We idealise it as part of a past golden age and hark back to a time when people worked hard and played hard, when villagers were united as one, when there was a place for everyone and everyone knew their place. We obscure history to build an image of how things should have been rather than how they were.

Patterns of a ploughed field, the colours and texture of growing crops and the rural scene have long been subjects for artists. They depict the landscape but often ignore the human labour that produced it. Where work is allowed to intrude it is idealised, technology is seen as being in opposition to the ideal of rural work. The overall effect is to obscure labour; there is little human involve¬ment apart from the old rustic, the ‘character’, who is only there for decoration.
Advertisers project an image of farming as it existed before the application of modern techniques. By using a picture of someone reaping corn by hand or of horses ploughing, manufacturers hope that their product will be distinguished from the mass-produced competition. That the label bears little resemblance to the way the food are produced is of no interest to them.

But farming is about producing food, the food we buy in supermarkets or from the corner shop. We are given few clues as to its source; plastic wrappings shield us from those who picked the potatoes, pulled the onions, collected the apples and harvested the grain.

Whichever way you look, agriculture seems to be in the midst of some deep crisis. Nobody knows how great the crisis will be and few appreciate the human toll. There are many people relying on agriculture for their living; when a job is lost in the country it is often much more difficult to replace than one in town. The population of villages is changing rapidly. Now it is unusual to find a single farm worker in some villages.

There is constant talk of overproduction and of the rape of the land. Some people argue that the whole system must change; others say that market forces will dictate the shape of the industry. Either way, agriculture will survive; it has to because we need food. As an industry, it has experienced most of the crises facing other industries at the moment,  mechanisation, the introduction of new technologies and changing demand for its products. There is talk of a ‘new agriculture’, very different to the one that we know now, with fewer and fewer people employed on the land and economies of scale producing bigger and bigger machinery and more efficient processes. Perhaps then the rural myth will hark back to the days when people drove tractors, milked cows, tended sheep and grew crops. Rest assured, the myth will see this as a better time.
Work on modern farms will continue to be highly skilled, at times unpleasant, often backbreaking and always crucial to the needs of a modern society. It is safe to assume that agriculture will still rely on people; it is also safe to suggest that their work will be hidden from the majority of the population. I hope that Farmwork helps to challenge this obscurity and puts people back into the agricultural landscape.

© Colin Shaw 1988, updated January 2015.

Homer Sykes—Biddy Boys Ireland 1972

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.

From Homer:
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.

I am the  author, and co-author-photographer of eight books about Britain as well as Shanghai Odyssey (Dewi Lewis Publishing) and On the Road Again (Mansion Editions).

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.

Further reading.

My British Archive
In conversation with Peter Dench
Photo Histories
PhotoShelter Blog
Biddy Boys

David Walker – Spectators

Today I published a book by David Walker called Spectators. As part of his proposal, David sent me some notes explaining the work. There are more posts planned for next year which present more of David’s work; work that wouldn’t fit in terms of a Café Royal publications but is still very relevant in terms of UK Social Documentary.

I began making photographs in 1983. I’d been working as an Art Director in Advertising since I left school at 15, and at the ripe old age of 35 I began to look and appreciate the work of Weegee (Arthur Fellig), Eugene Smith, Gary Winogrand, and Tony Ray-Jones.

I was working then as one half of a freelance concept team with a writer, which afforded me a little time to persue something that I desperately needed to do (photography). I purchased a Pentax LX some lenses and began to take photographs.

One of my great interests when I was younger was Speedway Racing, I needed something to get excited about so I visited Belle Vue to see what I could find. I discovered two madly dedicated fans, and found that after their permission they were so infatuated with the sport that they forgot about me poking my camera just inches away from their animated faces. ‘SPECTATORS’ was born right there.

I enjoyed an amazing amount of success for my first project by being shortlisted at the Photographers Gallery and had shows at Oldham Art Gallery, the then prestigious Turnpike Gallery, and a part show ‘City life’ at the Cornerhouse making the front cover of the Cornerhouse magazine.

There are interesting stories surrounding every image in the book. Here are four that relate to the images below.

I managed to acquire a ticket for the semi final between Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg from my wife’s boss.The character I photographed because he came from a wealthy background would be termed as eccentric, if he was from a lower class background would be labeled MAD. I was seriously restricted in my movement so I waited patiently for this character to react to the play, when Boris won a set he stood up and gestured to a friend with the thumbs up sign.

With this image, I managed to obtain a ticket from Newcastle so that I could be in the Newcastle PEN. It was Hades in there,”I was in danger of my life”. However I managed to complete several strong images before someone stood beside me, and said in his best Geordie accent “I think you’d better go now”. The image shown here (which was shown in the Centenary of the Football League Book under the slogan “We hate humans”) was taken before the game even started.

The World Cup Snooker Final:
I decided to put my own slant on this by photographing the final between the unknown finalist Joe Johnson and Steve Davies in a Working Mens Club in Failsworth. The tension can clearly be seen on the faces of the Pool players as they watched the final frame of the tournament on the tele in the corner of the room.

Ice Hockey:
This was a very difficult shoot. I shot in several different areas before I realised that when the players were taking ‘A time out’
that they themselves became Spectators of their own sport.

Spectators by David Walker
36 pages
14cm x 20cm
b/w digital
Edition of 150

£7.00 available from Café Royal Books

All images © David Walker. Publication © Café Royal Books.