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Homer Sykes’ social commentary, from Lewisham riots to Burberry shows

Bay City Rollers pop group girl teen fans screaming Newcastle UK 1970s © Homer Sykes

The photographer explains his career-long search for moments which provide depth and understanding of British life

For 50 years, Homer Sykes has been documenting British society, beginning his career in the mid 1960s after finding his passion for social commentary while at college in London. Now his work is to be featured in a new Burberry show, Here We Are, a major exhibition featuring images by over 30 social and documentary photographers.

For Sykes, this is the culmination of the work that has inspired him for half a century – shooting ordinary people in their daily lives. “I am interested in life,” he explains, ahead of the show’s opening. “I try and produce content-led, graphic clarity that includes context, extracted from the everyday visual disarray.”

His collection, My Britain 1970-1980, was reprinted in its fourth edition earlier this year through Cafe Royal Books, proving to be a successful series following a one-man exhibition at Les Douches La Galerie in Paris in 2015. The photobook takes in communities across the country during what Sykes describes as a slower era.

“These photographs illuminate a way of life, a slower pace. It was the way we were,” Sykes elaborates. “The images have content. It was a time before everyone had a hand-held device, when families sat around the table together for a meal. Society was moving forward and developing at a manageable speed. Social media didn’t exist. There was no fake news.”

Picnic at polo match Windsor Great Park, the car park. Berkshire England. Circa 1985. Wealthy upper class style, the woman is wearing a Hermes headscarf and blue Burberry waxed jacket as is he plus a flat tweed cap. She’s on Bucks Fizz, he’s drinking Champagne.1980s © Homer Sykes

Covent Garden, London. 1980. George O’Dowd, later know as Boy George, with friend Wilf Rogers at the Blitz Club, where George was working as the cloakroom attendant. He is wearing a Malcolm McLaren cowboys t-shirt from Seditionaries based on a Jim French drawing. In reality George O’Dowd had not assumed the name “Boy George” at this time. He told me he was known as just George. Jim French (14 July 1932 – 16 June 2017) American photographer and illustrator © Homer Sykes

Waterloo, London. 1975. A house-proud resident washes her front door step and pavement in Roupell Street, which was first developed by John Roupell in the 1820s. This Georgian terrace of nineteenth-century cottages in the heart of Southwark was originally occupied by artisans and skilled workers. It was one of several streets developed by the Roupell family who had made their money from lead smelting and scrap metal. The properties in their Lambeth Estate passed into private ownership in 1976 © Homer Sykes

Yet there is no doubt that the Britain he captured in the 1970s and 80s was a society in change. The terms of Labour Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan came to an end, and a new era was ushered in with Margaret Thatcher. It was a time that saw the photographer travel the country, following fast-moving events in areas previously unknown to him.

“I have always been interested in documenting Britain and have been doing so for 50 years come 2018. The north of England was new to me, visually exciting, and I wish now I had spent more time documenting life there,” he says. “There is a gentle humour I have been told to many of the pictures, whether they were taken in the industrial north of England or elsewhere.”

One of the more politically-charged events Sykes witnessed was the Battle of Lewisham, which took place 40 years ago this year in the London borough. Cafe Royal Books recently published a collection of photographs from that day, named after the event, showing the civil unrest and clashes as members of the left and the right fought it out over the issue of immigration. The gravity of that moment has stayed with Sykes.

“The chaos, people falling over in the push and crush. The smoke bombs and missiles thrown, and of course, the memories of making some, I believe very pertinent images,” says Sykes. It was a news event but Sykes tried to avoided going after the action, hoping instead to convey something of the divide and unrest that had lead to the crisis.

“I was looking for other moments, spontaneous juxtapositions that gave depth and understanding to the demonstrator’s predicaments,” he says. “Those sorts of images are not responded to by daily news picture editors.

“I believe that the great strength photography has, and in particular documentary photography, is content,” he continues. “So much of what is published today, seems to me to be contentless. I hope my photography illuminates and resonates with viewers and tells how British society was. And, of my more recent work, of how society is.”

Sykes latest photobooks, including The Battle of Lewisham and My Britain, are available to purchase through Cafe Royal Books. How We Are, featuring the work of Homer Sykes, will be open to the public from 18 September to October 1 at Old Sessions House.
http://homersykes.photoshelter.com/

National Front march to Lewisham London 1977. Police protect members of the National Front, during the so-called Battle of Lewisham, which took place on 13 August. 500 members of the National Front marched from New Cross to Lewisham, various counter-demonstrations by approximately 4,000 people led to violent clashes between the two groups and between the anti-NF demonstrators and police. 5,000 police officers were present and 56 officers were injured in the riots, 11 of whom were hospitalised. 214 people were arrested for obstructing the police, threatening behaviour, assault, possession of an offensive weapon and throwing missiles. Later disturbances in Lewisham town centre saw the first use of police riot shields on the UK mainland. © Homer Sykes

Lewisham, South London. 1977. Robert Johnson bursts through a police cordon to confront National Front supporters protected behind police lines © Homer Sykes

Southend-on-Sea, Essex. 1969. Ignoring the incoming tide, a couple discuss some of the finer points of life. Sir John Betjeman once said that, “The Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier”. It is the longest pier in the world extending 1.34 miles into the Thames Estuary © Homer Sykes

My Britain 1970 – 1980. Published to coincide with “My Britain 1970-1980”, at Les Douches La Galerie Paris. Autumn 2015. PhotoZine published by Cafe Royal Books. Edition of 150. First published in 2015. Third Print, November 2016 © Homer Sykes, Cafe Royal Books