Virtually ignored for 30 years, John Myers' images of 1970s and 80s Britain have undergone a radical re-evaluation, and are now on show in Luton
“I believe photographers have got to come to terms with the world we live in, not the world journalists like, which is spectacular and exciting and makes good copy,” says John Myers.
“Photographers and sub editors and journalists, all kinds of journalist want a story. They want to sell papers, and what sells is something unusual. ‘Man with three legs marries 86 year old widow’, it makes a terrific headline. They’re not so interested in what’s going on down the road at number 83.”
With photographs of garages, TVs, electricity substations, new builds and his neighbours, Myers’ images of urban life bear him out. Shot within walking distance of his house in Stourbridge between 1973-1981, his archive was part-funded by an Arts Council award, when he was an emerging photographer who’d also just shown at the Serpentine Gallery.
But then it lay almost forgotten for 30 years – until Pete James, then-curator of photographs at the Library of Birmingham, came across it, and helped get Myers solo exhibitions at the Ikon Gallery in 2011, and the Dublin Gallery of Photography in 2014. Now a new edit of the work is on show, in a travelling exhibition called The World is Not Beautiful curated by Matthew Shaul, artistic director of the UH Galleries at the University of Hertfordshire Arts.
“I was asked to give a talk about British landscape photography in Germany, and just when I’d finished writing it, I did a Googled search and found John’s work,” says Shaul. “I thought ‘OK! I’d better include this!’ and sent him a mail. When I saw more, I knew I wanted to do something together.”
The title of the show comes from Myers, and originally read “The World is Not Beautiful – But It’s There”. It’s a philosophy that underpins his work – and perhaps explains why it fell from favour for so long. “I did send my work around in the 1980s but no one was interested,” says Myers. “They were interested in John Blakemore, in a certain way of looking at the world.
“[Back then the popular style] was a sub-brand of the picturesque – it was high levels of management in the darkroom, pleasing to the eye, unusual, artistic, atmospheric, nature. But for me, the business of photography is about looking at the world we live in.
“Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Minor White, Harry Callahan – they’re all fine photographers, but when I walked out of my front door I didn’t see the Rocky Mountains over the road,” he adds. “I saw the substation on the corner and the pub. If I walked down the street, I saw a new house being built.”
By the early 80s Myers’ life had changed, he says – having originally trained under Richard Hamilton he was working as a fine art and painting lecturer, and got more involved with Labour Party activism. But he also created another large body of images showing British industry, which is also now being reappraised. Ex-Rencontres d’Arles director Francois Hebel has picked them up for the 2017 edition of his new project, the Foto/Industria festival, and will exhibit 36 of Myers’ images in Bologna’s Old Palace this Autumn.
Myers modestly laughs off his new-found fame, laughing that it’s “like being unearthed”. But Shaul puts it very differently. “The world has caught up with him,” he says. “In 1970s, people thought ‘Is this guy crazy?! Standing on the street corner, his head on a hood, looking through a Gandalfi plate camera at an electricity substation?!’ But he was light years ahead on what makes a good and interesting picture.”
John Myers: The World is Not Beautiful is on show at The Gateway Gallery, Luton Culture until 29 April. Myers will conduct a guided tour of the exhibition at 2pm on 25 March, and curator Matthew Shaul will give a talk on Myers’ work and its wider context at 2pm on 25 April. The exhibition will move to Wolverhampton Art Gallery next year, with further venues to be announced. www.johnmyersphotographs.com www.lutonculture.com
UH Galleries and Cornerhouse Publications have also produced a catalogue of the work, priced £12. www.cornerhousepublications.org