John Myers' work has been rediscovered after years of obscurity; his portraits - some of which he'd never previously printed - have been published as a book, and he'll be signing copies of it at Photo London
“It was a different time to now, it’s hard to remember just how scarce images were,” says John Myers. “Now you can get things on screen, in the early 1970s there was only a smattering of images available. When I give a talk, I often start by handing out a sheet of paper with a list of interests and influences in 1972-75. The names run across just half a side of A4. There aren’t that many on it, and it includes people I was interested in on the basis of one or two images.”
But for Myers, this scarcity was part of the allure. After studying Fine Art with Richard Hamilton, he got into photography in 1972 “because I had never done it”; initially only familiar with Bill Brandt and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, as photography rapidly gained recognition in Britain he soon had access to much more. “I was so excited to come across people, when photography suddenly started emerging from the shadows and books were being published,” he says.
Myers started shooting with a Mamiya but, finding it “odd” to be looking down at his waist, moved to a 5×4 plate camera and soon found his stride. Starting out by shooting portraits of his friends and neighbours, he went on to add televisions, electricity substations, and what he terms “Boring Photographs” to his repertoire, always working within walking distance of his home in Stourbridge, and deliberately choosing everyday scenes. It was a decision that was partly practical, he says, helping him fit photography in around lecturing at Stourbridge College of Art. But it was also inspired by another photographer he’d discovered – Diane Arbus.
She seems a surprising source, given Myers’ predilection for shooting the mundane, and Arbus’ reputation for shooting the unusual. But Myers – perhaps because he had access to so little photography – has a deeper reading of her work, and says her reputation is wrong. “I don’t know if you remember the effect Diane Arbus’ work had in the 1970s,” he says. “Most of the press was really taken with the exotic aspect of it – you can tell how we lived, we had never seen a man dressed as a woman or nudists at home. But actually if you go through Arbus’ catalogue of the time – as I did – you saw the work differently.
“Most of Arbus’ photographs are not of freaks at all,” he continues. “They’re written about in the press because it makes a good story. Photographs of babies, or a woman in Park Avenue, or on the street, or of a man at a parade wearing white mac – these are not freaks, they’re just ordinary people. Actually the vast majority of them are just normal people.
“People tend to want to go out and look for the spectacular and the different, they pander to a certain narrative that doesn’t exist, these narratives created to sell newspapers and magazines and make people say ‘Ooh!’” he adds. “That’s sadly what happened to Arbus.”
And though his subjects were apparently unspectacular – many people were appalled by the idea of shooting “Boring Photographs” he says, of “going against the beautiful and picturesque” – Myers was soon attracting attention. He was included in the group show Serpentine Photography 73 in the London gallery of the same name, and won Arts Council funding to publish his first book, Middle England, in 1974.
In the 1980s he shot deindustrialisation in the Black Country, that was exhibited as, The Dudley Experience, De-Industrialisation, Unemployment and Enterprise in Dudley M.B.C. 1979-1983. But then, perhaps because photography was still so under-appreciated, he fell off the photo radar. Putting his camera aside he focused on his painting for 20 years, studying for an MA in History of Art and Design in the 1990s.
Until, that is, 2011, when Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery got in touch. Its curators were putting together a season celebrating the Ikon’s 40th anniversary by revisiting past exhibitions, and thought Myers had shown there in the 1970s; he hadn’t, but they invited him in for a meeting anyway, and he met Pete James, curator of photography collections at the Library of Birmingham.
“I took in 15 or so portraits and Ikon said ‘Ok you didn’t have a show’, but Pete was interested, and asked me to meet with him a week later,” says Myers. “I took in a box of about 10 televisions from 1974, and he opened it and went through them all in silence. Then he said ‘We’ve got to go back to the Ikon! These have got to be shown’.”
A solo show at the Ikon followed, and then another at the Dublin Gallery of Photography in 2014; in 2017 an exhibition of his work called The World Is Not Beautiful went on show at The Gateway Gallery in Luton Culture, and it’s now at Wolverhampton Art Gallery (read BJP’s interview with Myers on the Luton show here http://www.bjp-online.com/2018/05/the-world-is-not-beautiful-john-myers/).
In 2017 his photographs of the Black Country were exhibited at Foto/Industria, the prestigious festival curated by ex-Arles head honcho François Hébel. Now Myers is showing at Photo London for the first time, with the gallery Clementine de la Feronniere presenting a portfolio of work; RBB Books has just published a book of his portraits, The Portraits, and is planning to publish another monograph of his work in the near future. Myers will be signing copies of The Portraits at Photo London on 19 May.
It’s a considerable turn-around – and, like the 2011 exhibition, the RBB connection came about almost by chance. Meeting bookseller and publisher Rudi Thoemmes at the Martin Parr Foundation opening, Myers asked if he’d like to stock the catalogue of The World Is Not Beautiful; Thoemmes said no as there are “too many words in it” – including essays by luminaries such as Alison Nordstrom, Matthew Shaul, and Clive Phillpot – but offered to publish his portraits.
For Myers it was a chance to take stock and revisit his negatives, some of which he had never previously printed. As he was working full time teaching fine art his photography was squeezed into the evenings and at the weekend, he says, which meant he usually processed the images on a separate day. He would read the negatives as they were finished, “just hold them up to the light, and some of them I might reject at that stage”.
“Seeing them now for first time nearly 40 years later, it’s almost as if they were done by someone else,” he adds. “I can remember taking them, but the photographs seem quite new and exciting.”
Take his photograph of Olga for example, who lived a few doors down the street and who Myers still sees occasionally now. He never printed this image at the time, rejecting it because it’s a little blurred – except for the boots which, he says, must have been “anchored into the carpet by the stiletto heels”.
“I can remember that particular incident,” says Myers. “I was very impressed with the still life on the table, the tea set and all that. I rejected it because of the slight movement on the figure. Now I think that doesn’t matter.”
Then there’s the shot of the guy with the dogs, which Myers thinks should be “in the Guinness Book of Records”. “It’s quite amazing it was done with a plate camera,” he laughs. “You put the lenses in the front, open the back so you can view the image on the screen, then the image comes up quite watery and faint, and just to make life more difficult it appears upside down and back-to-front.
“You get all the focus than have to open the lens and expose by half a second. You put the blanket over your head, then from under the covers tell the guy and the dogs that when the shutter goes it will click and whirr, and I don’t want you to blink. The image is the first one I took. In the other eight, when the shutter clicked, the dogs moved.”
As this example shows, taking these portraits on the 5×4 wasn’t easy, and one session could easily take two or three hours. This is why quite a few of the portraits are of children, says Myers, because kids usually have more free time than adults and they get “less irritated if it takes more than two or three minutes”. Some of the shots in The Portraits are of his then-partner’s children, others show the kids next door.
The boy with a football was a neighbour, for example – Myers has included two photographs of him in The Portraits, one with the ball and one without, the first time he’s published the latter. “When you put two together there’s a strangeness about it,” he says. “He was the brother of Andrea – I took several pictures of Andrea, she’s the girl looking terrified with the Beano comic on the floor.”
But while it was hard, Myers says it was important to take this time over the portraits, to allow his subjects to “settle” into their everyday selves. Take his portrait of Mr and Mrs Seabourne for example, the last of seven shots he took in his session with them. “I never told people what to do and they expect to be given something to do, so there is always that slight awkwardness,” he says. “I started with Mrs Seabourne under a standard lamp but that was not quite right, so we moved into the living room and they ended up on the sofa.
“I took two of them on the sofa, the first one slightly different, his hand was hanging in a different way. But after the first photograph they both relaxed, they settled – almost if you imagine watching two birds in a garden land on a branch, as they land they have a tenseness and look around, they are concerned, and then suddenly they settle. That’s really what Mr and Mrs Seabourne did. The pipe went into the mouth and the hand went on the knee.”
Myers’ portraits nearly always show the entire body – the hands often “do the talking” he says, “sometimes the feet but the hands are usually more expressive”. And he always shot in the subjects’ own environment, more often than not at home. This too added to the complication, as he tried to fit his unwieldy camera and tripod into their unremarkable, average-sized homes. But it was important to show “the fluid they live in”, he says.
“Take Mr Jackson, for example,” he continues. “I think it’s terrific! It’s almost as if he’s squashed in a very narrow box covered in wallpaper, even the skirting board is covered in wallpaper, which almost flows into the carpet. You have the glass display cabinet in the right hand edge of the photograph. And he’s giving a masterclass in how to hold a cigarette – just before he flicks ash into the carpet. And the clock! I think the clock had stopped. I can’t imagine I was there at 9.15am.”
Given this, he’s bemused by peoples’ attention to the details in his work – the way they fixate on a candlewick bedspread or retro toy, and tell him they used to have one too. For him, these details are part of the whole, he says, and “you have to see it as a whole”. And, he adds, it’s important to see the image as an image – not as a part of a narrative, and not as a slice of the world.
“I think one of kind of great problems in a lot of photography is that photographers think they’re creating a story,” he says. “For me, too many photographs are full of chatter and noise and movement – newspapers are sold on the basis of noise, the more noise you can generate the better, and photographers go down that route. But what I enjoy is work that is silent. August Sander, Eugene Atget, even Walker Evans, the photographs are silent.
“For me photography isn’t about the world, it’s more like a stage,” he adds. “Too many people think that a photograph is about the world – it is in a way, but it’s also about photography, and there’s a limit to what photography is about. That’s why the 5×4 was so essential to what I did, because it allows you to do so little.”
www.johnmyersphotographs.com The Portraits by John Myers is published by RBB Photobooks, priced £75 www.rrbphotobooks.com/pages/john-myers-the-portraits
Read BJP’s previous article on John Myers http://www.bjp-online.com/2018/05/the-world-is-not-beautiful-john-myers/