When Derek Bishton, John Reardon, and Brian Homer set up a photography and design agency in the late 1970s in Handsworth, a multicultural, inner-city district of Birmingham, they were viewed with suspicion. “I lived in Handsworth and walked to work with my camera, and I felt people were looking at me as if to say ’Who is this white guy, is he working for the police?’” says Bishton. “As I started to take photographs I was aware of this problem.”
Their agency, Sidelines, had been set up to work with community groups on issues such as social justice housing, unemployment and immigration though, so the photographers were keen to win the locals’ trust. Discussing it in their office, a converted terraced house on a busy shopping street in Handsworth, Bishton happened to find a photograph in Camerawork Magazine, showing a Ukranian woman who had photographed herself in a portrait studio set up by American photographer David Attie. It was, he realised, the perfect solution – and one which their office was seemingly built for.
“People say that John was brilliant but tricky, but he was only difficult if you were being mediocre,” says Sacha Lehrfreund, John Reardon’s long term partner and one-time colleague. “In a professional capacity he wanted to be excellent. He pushed it beyond a point that was comfortable for lots of people, but he made you better than you might otherwise be.”
“John Reardon was an artist,” says Greg Whitmore, picture editor of The Observer and another former colleague. “You can see it the photographs of Handsworth cricket fans, the Kosovan woman and baby, the portrait of Fergus Henderson…John was one of the greats of his generation.” John Reardon, a celebrated photojournalist who went on to shoot equally celebrated celebrity portraits for The Observer, has died aged 66.
Peter James was an instrumental figure in British photography, establishing an outstanding collection of photography at the Library of Birmingham over his 26-year career at the institution, and researching and curating exhibitions at the V&A, National Portrait Gallery, Somerset House, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Ikon Galley, the Library of Birmingham, and many more. He was also a modest and affable man, universally known as Pete and as at home over a curry as in a lecture hall delivering an academic paper. As Hilary Roberts, research curator at the Imperial War Museum, put it in a tribute on James’ Facebook page: “Pete has been a wonderful friend and exceptional colleague for more years than I can remember. His contribution to the world of photography cannot be overstated. It was a privilege to work with him and I will miss him more than I can say.”