Saint Georges Crypt Leeds 1968
Amongst my mothers saved family albums I found this negative. The first Loo roll picture.
I was born on February 23rd 1948. We were one of the first occupants of an estate of houses being built on Park Hill farm at East Moor on the edge of Wakefield. I was just a toddler and yet can remember a huge dusty barn where my father kept his car, there were hens everywhere running in and out of shafts of light projected down through holes in the roof.
I can also still see the small boy pulling himself up by the cold metal window ledge of our house to look out onto an exciting panorama of an industrial heartland woven into a rich green blanket. Before my eyes was a constant parade of saddle tank engines shuttling wagons full of coal across the front of this captivating landscape. A half mile beyond across the valley and equally visible from our window ran the Great Northern Line, where we would see and hear powerful steam engines leaving Kirk-gate station hurtling past and disappearing down the valley on their way north.
Beyond the two rail lines lay the Aire and Calder Navigation Canal. Coal was also transported along this waterway by barges towing a string of much smaller coal-laden steel barges. Tom Puddings snaking along behind on the canal which flowed into the Ouse and the Humber, joining the sea at Grimsby.
Here was our boyhood kingdom. A small gang of us would make our way to what was known as the ‘pit stacks’.These were slag heaps of shale, sharp-edged shards that were vomited up from the mines. From an early age you became wary of whisps of smoke and small patches of bubbling yellow sulphur A tell-tale sign of a burning stack just below the surface. My uncle, as a child slipped into one of these burning his feet so badly he was crippled for life.
Two or three of us at a time would toboggan down the steep stacks on discarded bits of conveyor belt. Often for extra thrills we would choose the stack that ran straight into the ‘black Lagoon’ Where dead trees eerily rose out of a coal blackened lake.
We also played in the dumping ground of the local electrical power station. These were deep beds of liquified ash that were crusted over with a skin. We called this place the Wobblies, because when we ran over the surface the skin wobbled under our feet creating a wave that could crack when it reached you. Of course there were dangers. We were told that if you broke through the surface you would disappear.
This industrial wasteland was not the only place where we sought our adventures. On the eastern outskirts of Wakefield was Heath Common a high hill, thick with gorse, it overlooked the city. Heath Old Hall an ancient manor house whose black fortified silhouette was visible against the skyline rising out of the hillside woodland as a backdrop to this landscape and was the view from our windows. It was haunted by the 'Blue Lady' as legend has it ended up down a hole near the river called 'Bolles' hole.
The building was Inexplicably only ‘half’ pulled down, leaving huge elaborate chimney pots balanced on the one remaining wall some four storeys high.
I remember once climbing up and standing perilously close beside those massive pots. It had been a personal dare and I scared myself stiff. Before long the last piece of Heath Old hall fell.
We used to Holiday occasionally on the East coast of Yorkshire. Scarborough, Robin Hoods Bay and Whitby, all equally wonderful old places.
It was in Whitby where a series of photographs had a profound impression on me. There would be others later, Strand, Kertesz, Stieglitz, Lange, Brandt, Disfarmer the amazing Sander, Arbus and Bellocq.
Frank Sutcliffe was a local photographer, his gallery and workshop studio, which was in the town, displayed some of his work. I was only 10 or 11 years old and possibly still clutching my fathers box camera at the time but saw in these images a quality that I remember so acutely.
Looking back and wondering what it was that made me remember that moment so well was I believe that I was aware the images were telling me something more, what it was of course I did not know at that time. I believe that there is always something of the mysterious within great imagery.
I had been using my fathers ‘box brownie’ since I was about nine years old.
Eventually I acquired a camera with a removable lens which enabled me to experiment with various methods. I found if I taped the lens onto a loo roll it became an ultra close up and I could photograph small insects. This might seem simple now but I recall it was a surprise for me then.
My parents had a very large double wardrobe it was fairly light proof if I taped up the door. There was just enough room for it to become a tiny temporary darkroom.
I remember using shirt boxes lined with a plastic bag to enable them to hold developer and fix in which I made my first contact prints.
Some time later on a school holiday we were introduced to sea canoeing by Wakefield Canoe Club, I loved it and joined there and then. This activity occupied every weekend and occasional days of the week for the next few years. I paddled against wild and aggressive waters around Britain and as I got more skilful the waters we pursued became wilder.
In fact my first stay in London was through this canoe activity.
We had become the winners of a sprint relay in Yorkshire and would compete as champions of our county in London. We trained all summer at Breton college lake to be ready for this event.
The Nationals were to be held at the Serpentine in London’s Hyde park. We took our tents and everyone camped in the park, right next to the bridge at the Serpentine gallery.
Little did I know that I would be at college next door 8 years later and this place would be my home!
We were 13 year olds competing against military teams of much older bigger boys, Needless to say we came last but we put up a good fight and what an adventure.
I really loved my canoeing days but I knew in my heart that I would not be able to divide my life. College time would eventually win.
I would learn more than once at this time of my life that you sometimes have to make sacrifices that are hard to do and there is always a constant ‘ did I do the right thing back then’.
This kind of dilemma was about to flair up again sooner than I expected.
Eventually I attended Wakefield Art College, studying fine arts. Painting, Sculpture and ceramics and began building a pottery at home after visiting Bernard Leach’s pottery in St Ives in Cornwall.
I was hooked. At sixteen I was helping Harry Taylor (our pottery lecturer) teach the night school to a mature student class.
I used to spend a good amount of time making many pastel drawings of sunken barges at the chantry bridge on the Calder in Wakefield. The beautiful Hepworth gallery now stands in the exact spot where I used to sketch. Most of the old warehouse buildings in my sketch book still remain today.
After four years I applied for and was accepted for Loughborough college for their ceramics degree course.
However during this time I had been fascinated with and was experimenting with alternative processes of photography. As it got closer to the time to leave Wakefield and to take up my place at Loughborough I became aware that this time I had a life changing decision to make.
Though I loved working in ceramics, ‘creating with clay’. The draw of photography, it's alchemy, the way of expression was I decided what I wanted to spend my life involved in.
Liverpool Regional Art College seemed the right place.
The city of Liverpool itself was such a special place. Right next to our college was the Anglican Cathedral I spent many lunchtimes sketching this imposing building from every angle. It was there I met an old photographer who had been making images of the inside of churches with a quarter plate camera lighting the scene with a hand held torch, in effect, 'painting with light.' I was impressed I had not seen this before and found the pictures captivating.
He said that he wanted to sell his wooden plate camera which I bought from him. I really felt that he had also taught me something and with this old camera I was able to use sheet film.
Some years later when I was at the Royal college I made a trip back to my home town of Wakefield and discovered a cache of Gandolfi cameras at an old industrial photographer’s in a place called Garforth, just outside Leeds. On a hunch I had done some telephoning around and found that the firm had recently turned to the new metal versions of the view camera. A whole car full of equipment was available, so I borrowed money from my parents and bought the lot at a very resonable price. These were to be some of the tools of my trade for a large part of my life.
However much I liked Liverpool I realised before the end of the first term that the photography was not geared towards art. I searched for a college where I could study photography as an individual subject.
Kitson College of Art in Leeds was the only college in the country at that time. I left Liverpool college to start a three year degree course in photography at Kitson college in Leeds.
The course at Leeds, like Liverpool earlier, was in fact a ‘Graphic Design Degree course’ and in order to comply with the curriculum I would have to participate to a degree. The lecturers at that time were quite understanding and turned a blind eye to a slight bending of the rules. As long as I made some of my Photography fit design projects. This was the only way in Britain at that time that one could pursue photography as a subject at art college.
I was lucky enough to be mentored by one of the tutors, a freelance photographer Dave Thomas. He helped me with photography and we worked all over Northern England and as far north as Aviemore in Scotland.
It was there I really made a start in experimenting and broadening my approach in photography. Amongst the many subjects I began photographing tramps at St George’s Crypt, a soup kitchen for down-and-outs close to my college and in 1968 when the troubles exploded in Ireland and especially Belfast I decided to make my way there.
It was also whilst I was a student at Leeds that I started what became a fifty year long project, Circus Work.
By the end of my three years at Leeds I was made aware of a newly formed college course dealing in pure creative photography. It was the only one of its kind in the UK. A Master of Arts Degree course at the Royal College of Art. I applied and was accepted starting in October 1970
There were just five of us in the basement of what was the RCA fashion department in the Cromwell Road.
We were directly opposite the Natural History and the V&A museums. Such an uplifting creative spot. I spent many hours at lunch time walking the corridors of the both of these buildings.
The photography head of department was Professor John Hedgcoe, a well known photographer at that time. He inspired me, he drove me to create work on a daily basis, his weekly critiques were ferocious, fortunately he mostly liked what I was producing.
I started experimenting using front and back projection screens. I was invited and subsequently became a lecturer in 'special projects' at the RCA when my course finished. At this same time I won an award of ‘Photographer of the year’ from the Telegraph Magazine. This gave me the opportunity to travel and work for their weekend supplements.
So in 1972 my life as a freelance photographer had begun, my sparce income supplemented by a few days lecturing at the RCA and London College of Printing. My role at the LCP was titled 'Lecturer in Alternative Processes' and enabled me to experiment further on projects such as Platinum printing.
I began shooting a large amount of record sleeves as well as commissions for the Sunday Times and Telegraph supplements which took up the first half of the 1970’s. and I still continued travelling to photograph circuses.
A friend and I found an empty house in Redcliffe Gardens which we turned into studios and a dark room. The house had been bedsits and was being marketed by a local estate agent- We had the run of the place for a minimum rent until the house was sold.
Then onto another 5 story house in Finborough road. My life continued in the South Kensington and Chelsea area, my youngest son being educated at the wonderful Bousfield School in Brompton gardens - one of the first progressive schools in London.
Chelsea Arts Club became my regular haunt from 1970 to the present day.
My wife Kimberly and I lived in Battersea where we eventually found a studio. At that time being south of the river was a 'no go' area for cabs whose drivers would not venture south of chelsea bridge for fear of a lack of a fair back north side.
The studio had originally been an old stable just off the Latchmere Road almost next door to the house that we lived in at the time. The building was a wreck and backed onto Clapham Junction railway station.
We ran the place as a studio for a couple of years renting the front of the building to a boat builder for extra income before deciding to pull the place down and re-design it. It had a very narrow front which spread out like a wedge of cheese. It was my Tardis
A lot of the rebuild I did myself, making a ground floor studio, dark room and creating a stone staircase leading up two floors to a roof terrace where we lived - We were awoken most mornings to the shunting and the coming and going of the trains at Clapham Junction - much like the engines at the time of my youth in Wakefield.
During the 1980’s the studio was party to numerous shoots- fashion, portraits, occasionally wild animals, Kimberly using the space for her various film costume fittings. I was being commissioned by Bruce Bernard to create picture stories for the Sunday Times and later The Independent.
This was also the hay-day of creative advertising in London and I found myself sometimes shooting for 2 or 3 agencies a day - exhausting but with so much creative freedom it was hard to resist.
I would certainly say that advertising and Editorial in the 80’s and 90’s was a boom time creatively, the freedom one was given to create a vision was most welcome.
I took every chance I could to work on personal projects The circus, visits to photograph the Amazonian Indians in Brasil and in the early 1990’s Tetra Pac gave me a commission to travel to Papua NG, China, Africa , Japan & The North Pole which culminated in completing a project entitled 'Of Humankind' circa 2000.
In the mid 1980’s kimberly and I had a second son -found an old farm house in Wiltshire with land and barns- perfect for renovation-I was keen to get into the business of creating a building again !
Brandiers became a perfect place to shoot, we had enormous studios, darkrooms, back lots,- Once constructing a Carribean Lagoon with model made coral reef for a car ad.. accommodation for crew to stay over, the local Victorian station Kemble 10 minutes drive away.
Whilst to-ing and fro-ing between the London studio and Brandiers I became involved in a local project concerning the repatriation of soldiers lost in the war in Afghanistan- Royal Wootten Bassett as it became see Tale of a Town took up 12 months of my time.
Brandiers turned out to be a long term project 36 years later we still have an enormous amount of work to do
The 35 acres which surround the farm house was originally the location of a Roman Brick kiln and later a Medieval pottery. Minety ware circa 1000-1300.
Here I am back to the beginning making a full circle - I am throwing pots. I will never stop picking up a camera of course - as Bruce Bernard used to say Peter Lavery will never stop taking pictures of the Circus!
I have built a rather large camera in my studio. info to follow.
I am intrigued by the possibilities of re-creating Minety-ware pottery - So I am now building a wood fired kiln.
View across the Industrial heartland to Heath Common on the horizon. The chimney stacks of Heath Old Hall still standing are visible in the tree line. It is 1962 my 'almost' finished canoe is on the shed roof in the foreground.
On holiday in Scarborough with my parents and my dads 'Box Brownie' camera.
My homebuilt pottery wheel.
Winning Appletreewick slalom 1963.
Riskily holding a toy gun borrowed from the younsters beside an Army Barricade in the Shankill and Falls road area of Belfast. A period of extreme high tension in 1968.
My first car was not too reliable—a three wheeler which was prone to losing a front wheel occasionally. I remember the first time it happened, seeing a wheel fly over my bonnet, I wondered who on earth had just crashed beside me until the left side of my car crashed to the ground and I was suddenly a two wheeler.
It was a Berkley sporting a 325cc motorbike engine and allowed me to drive at sixteen the official age for a motorbike licence.
The last piece standing in 1962
The Anglican Cathedral was close to my college at the end of Hope Street the new Roman Catholic Cathedral at the opposite end.
In the short time that I spent at Liverpool I made many studies of this building inside and out. These are a couple of pages from my sketch book.
Standing on top of the hill above the city it is a beautiful imposing almost threatening structure
surrounded by its own wild, rocky, graveyard landscape.
Setting up the front projection screen for a lecturing day at the Royal College of Art.