Virtually ignored for 30 years, John Myers' images of 1970s and 80s Britain have undergone a radical re-evaluation. As he prepares for Photo London, BJP reposts an interview on his travelling exhibition The World Is Not Beautiful, currently on show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery
“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 1980s 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 picked them up for the 2017 edition of his new project, the Foto/Industria festival, and exhibited 36 of Myers’ images in Bologna’s Old Palace.
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.”
++This article was first published on 03 March 2017++
John Myers: The World is Not Beautiful was on show at The Gateway Gallery, Luton Culture from 24 February-29 April 2017 https://www.lutonculture.com/whats-on/whats-on/2017/02/24/john-myers-the-world-is-not-beautiful/2192/
The exhibition is now on show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery until 17 June, and John Myers will be In Conversation with curator Matthew Shaul there on Thursday 24 May from 2pm www.johnmyersphotographs.com http://www.wolverhamptonart.org.uk/whats-on/john-myers-world-not-beautiful/
UH Galleries and Cornerhouse Publications have produced a catalogue of the work, priced £12. www.cornerhousepublications.org
John Myers’ work will be represented at Photo London by Galerie Clementine de la Feronniere on stand B13 alongside work by James Barnor, Peter Mitchell, and Marc Riboud. https://photolondon.org/exhibitors/2018-2/galerie-clementine-de-la-feronniere/
John Myers will be signing copies of his new book, The Portraits, on stand B13 from 4pm-5pm on 19 May https://photolondon.org/event/john-myers/ The Portraits is published by RBB Photobooks, priced £75 https://www.rrbphotobooks.com/collections/all-books/products/john-myers-the-portraits-1