…so much research…time consuming, but necessary and interesting. I had never heard of Daniel Meadows so it wasn’t a quick refresher or a light bulb moment where I went, ‘Oh I think I’ve seen his work!’ I am pretty sure this is all new to me so off I toddle to Google…gotta love the internet…In his own words:
Once upon a time…I lived in a double-decker bus, reg. JRR 404, better known as the Free Photographic Omnibus. She was my home, my travelling darkroom and gallery. For fourteen months in 1973 and ’74, we travelled about making a national portrait of the English. We covered 10,000 miles shooting pictures and giving them away. In January 1975 we parted company. But that wasn’t the end of the journey…
…I’m still working.
In those 14 months of travel he offered free portrait sessions in 22 different towns, photographed 958 people, the majority of whom remained anonymous, collecting their free portraits the following day.
Daniel’s time on the bus marked an important turning point for him; he came back with not just the ‘national portrait of the English’ he had aimed for, but an entirely new perspective on human nature.
Listen to Daniel Meadows talk about his work then read the essay ‘The photographer as Recorder’ by Guy Lane.
This is a short 4 minute video where Daniel Meadows discusses the context and reasons behind his project. Firstly, he sets the record straight and tells us that he does not consider himself a photographer; he was not a trained professional and learnt his skills on the road as he went along. Secondly, he would prefer to be known as a ‘documentarist’ as he was using different tools to record as well as photography.
He tells us of a very limited and sheltered upbringing that left him with a natural curiosity of the world; he went to a same sex boarding school, never mixed with people of the opposite sex, or of a different race or culture, then he went to Art school in Manchester in 1970 and subsequently decided he wanted to learn about the world. The Vietnam War was going on, there had been student riots in Paris, he wanted to broaden his horizons and learn about other people. He cites Sir Benjamin Stone, founder of the National Photographic Association, as his inspiration to survey ‘English people’.
During his travels he was just interested in recording the people, he was not interested in flattery, making wonderful portraits, nor advertising anything, he purely wanted to hear their tales, and engage with people who volunteered to have their photo taken for free. His book and subsequent exhibition were entitled Living Like This.
Now time has moved on he is embracing modern technologies and encouraging people to make short ‘digital stories’. He believes images and stories are power, that we should take this power back and tell our own histories of what is happening now and how we are experiencing this moment in our history. That it is important that we make our own ‘stuff’.
The Photographer as Recorder Daniel Meadows, Records, Discourse and Tradition in 1970’s England – Guy Lane
When I first printed out this essay I thought it was going to be rather heavy going, admittedly there were a few things I needed to look up, but I was actually quite surprised at how much I enjoyed reading it, discovering how it all fitted within the coursework, as well as providing an insight into how and why some events are made possible.
The premise of the essay is simple, Guy Lane took the promotional leaflet produced by Meadows and set out his arguments as to how it fits into the history of English Documentary photography, the idea of national identity and, to some extent, questioning the ideas of tradition.
In order to do this he uses Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge to categorise his response. (Foucault was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist and literary critic. His theories addressed the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions).
In the introduction to the article proper, Lane gives us some background information. Despite not wishing to be seen as a photographer, this is inevitably how Meadows was seen, with Peter Turner (Creative Camera No 115, p3 January 1974) writing:
And now in 1973 the British photographic tradition is still essentially that of the photographer as recorder.
…comparing Meadows in the same breath as those who had gone before: Horace Nicholls, James Jarche, Bert Hardy. George Rodger and Cecil Beaton
Also, Lane tells us that today The Free Photographic Omnibus is only remembered for ‘its portraiture’ rather than as a survey of the English, documenting the loss of certain livelihoods, traditions and communities. This probably wasn’t helped by the way that, in 1997, his work was re-contextualised and re-published under the title of National Portraits. Editor Val Williams, in total contrast to the original body of work, only selected images that resembled the uniform and impersonal typology favoured by Bernd and Hilla Becher, who inspired the likes of Struth and Gursky.
In the original series Meadows had over 150 pictures, the minority of which were portraits. Out of these, only 4 were posed against walls…nearly 3%. Contrast this to the narrative form chosen by Williams – a book with 41 pictures, 34 of which are people standing in front of walls…nearly 83%. Quite clearly how you edit and present a body of work will totally alter the meaning and perceived intent behind it.
Meadows’ statement of intention made it very clear that he was compiling a body of work that included ‘pictures, tape recordings, transcripts and written information’ to form an ‘historical record of English life.’ The free photographs were merely the ‘inducement’ for people to participate, not the main aim of his project.
As an aside, his leaflet is also a model for good practice: he sets out his aims very clearly, provides a historical reference/precedence as to why this work should be carried out, where it shall be completed, a suitable time frame, his practical experience with photography and the success of a pilot scheme/trial run. He also adds that he has already secured sponsorship from a well-known publication, to further his support.
So, onto the analysis of the document itself…the Discursive Practice being about the use of language and the power behind that use. Lane picks up on both the written and visual language used by Meadows. The signifiers he mentions are the full height double-decker bus, Meadows’ casual dress (yet jacket button done up) standing full length, relaxed un-posed stance, frontal, direct gaze at the camera and a deliberately ordinary image. The signified being a road trip, a ‘hippyish’ lifestyle, ‘breezy optimism’, non professional yet serious intent and his ’emphatic youthfulness’.
Historically and culturally, the bus was linked to this ideal by the popular film ‘Summer Holiday,’ and yes, I too still hanker after owning a bus one day, converting it and driving it through Europe. Cliff and Una have a lot to answer for!
Meadows’ pose and text – vowing to complete a ‘straight’ record – draw ‘parallels’ to the work of Stone who captured more informal portraits ‘standing..full length…full-faced…the real man …looking straight in the eye…without resource to…the professional photographer.’ (Stone 1906,ii) Lane assures us that Stone’s work was ‘upheld as models for emulation.’
On moving onto the surfaces of emergence …how and where objects come into play with conceptual codes and rationalisation…accredited a status in the hierarchy of learning…
A copy of the statement can be found in the V&A. how and why it got there can be understood when you look at the entire context and timing of this project: The British Arts Council appointed its first Photography Committee in 1969, in 1971 Barry Lane (first Officer of said committee) declared they were ‘now committed to supporting photography as an art’ and should be more proactive in the production of work, grants should be made available and the committee needed to be drawn from the ‘photographic world.’ Meadows developed a good relationship with the Arts Council at the right point in history. Photography courses were available, photographic magazines were on the scene and there were subsidised gallery spaces, such as the Photographers and Half Moon Galleries in London and Impressions in York, to name a few. This was pertinent as Meadows exhibited at both the Impressions and Half Moon galleries. According to Lane ‘the elevated status of photography also fostered the …emergence of…sponsorship within the private sector’.
Finally Lane discusses the importance of the archive – the cataloguing and categorising of discourses, how things are ‘grouped together…with multiple relations’ (Foucault, 1972, p.129).
Meadows assertion that he wanted to record ‘blighted’ communities under the threat of ‘disappearance’ and our intrinsic ‘Englishness’ fell neatly into the tradition of much post war documentary photography. The desire to capture the essence of a culture, still in existence or under threat, still occurs today and links to the work by Salgado discussed within the previous exercise, along with other contemporary photographers like Jimmy Nelson, Keiron Nelson, and Simon Roberts to name a select few.
Meadows tapped into a rich vein of media paranoia over social change, over population, pollution, the stress on the NHS and impending ecological disaster…not much changes then? In wanting to capture where and how the English relaxed and had fun he was contemporaneous with Tony Ray Jones, Homer Sykes and Patrick Ward.
In allowing his summation to adopt a more whimsical tone Meadows also, possibly unwittingly, falls into the category of traditional English sea-side humour and our ability to gently mock ourselves. All three of the above mentioned photographers had work described as ‘surreal…amusing…strange…’ or that they made the English out to be ‘preposterous’.
Lane concludes that this theme of tradition, or lack of it, ‘unites the three areas’ he discusses and in analysing the essay I think I am in agreement with this statement. There are certain traditions Meadows followed, in the subject and manner, in which he wanted to capture his images. He also broke some in the same way…and some of the traditions he wanted to record were ‘factitious’. We recognise the signifiers and signified as we are traditionally and culturally trained to recognise them as such.
Humans invent their own traditions and become very attached to them, who cares that Father Christmas or Santa as we recognise him from the Coke ads has only been around since the 1930’s? Who cares that the tradition of the Conker Festival only began in 1965? Who cares if throwing Christmas wrapping paper snowballs on Christmas morning was only started in my home with my kids? It maybe a tradition my kids carry forward who knows? The point is traditions have to start somewhere with someone and we English do get emotional about them and anxious if we think they will end!
This article related to so many aspects of the previous exercises and opened my eyes as to how a simple statement of intent can fit into the history of English Documentary photography on so many different levels.
and a random video to finish which also sum up a time and a place and his connections…
and an interesting link
Meadows, D. (1974) Search. Available at: http://we-english.co.uk/blog/2009/05/15/daniel-meadows-photobus/ (Accessed: 25 December 2016).
Museum, N.M. (2016) Daniel Meadows: Early photographic works. Available at: https://vimeo.com/28349336 (Accessed: 25 December 2016).
Philosophy, I.E. of (no date) Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/foucault/ (Accessed: 31 December 2016).
Photobus ~ home (2016) Available at: http://www.photobus.co.uk (Accessed: 25 December 2016).
Photobus ~ news (2016) Available at: http://www.photobus.co.uk/news/20/49/NEWS-FREE-PHOTOGRAPHIC-OMNIBUS-RADIO-DOCUMENTARY#texttop (Accessed: 25 December 2016).
viewfromaburrow (2014) Michel Foucault – the archaeology of knowledge – part I-II. Available at: https://viewfromaburrow.com/2014/01/05/michel-foucault-the-archaeology-of-knowledge-part-i-ii/ (Accessed: 31 December 2016).
(No Date) Available at: http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/meadowsguylane (Accessed: 25 December 2016).