Born and raised in Basildon in Essex, CJ Clarke grew up assuming he’d leave. “Just to stand on any street on a warm summer a ernoon is to become engulfed by a silence – a silence so vast that time seems to have disappeared,” he explains in the afterword to his book, Magic Party Place. “On such days, it really does appear like nothing has ever happened or will ever happen in the town.”
His escape route was image-making, and he moved to London years ago to study documentary photography at the London College of Communication. Like many, he had been politicised by Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, and his first thought was to pursue photojournalism in the Middle East, in an attempt to understand Britain’s ignoble part in its history. But travelling to Lebanon in 2005 to cover the elections, he met Judah Passow, a photojournalist born in Israel, who encouraged him to think again, and in particular to believe “that there was something worth exploring at the heart of my unremarkable hometown”.
Publications we loved, and the big news stories from the last month in photobooks – featuring work by Peng Ke, Tom Wood, Paul Reas, Vivian Maier and the post-war PROVOKE group
If you don’t get the reference, it’s a curious title for a photobook – Fables of Faubus, the 30-year retrospective by British documentary photographer Paul Reas. But if you’re a jazz fan you’ll know it’s taken from a song by Charles Mingus, written after Arkansas governor Orval Faubus decided to bar the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
To Mingus, and many others, Faubus stood for a dark force holding back progressive social change. For Reas, the title suggests the metanarrative that runs behind the many stories he’s shot in the UK on heavy industry, consumer culture, the heritage industry, and more – namely, the disenfranchisement of the British working class, “the years of decline of industry and the fall out from that, communities being de-centred and levelled”.
Multiple jigsaws, almost completed, are laid out in the living room. On the sideboard, porcelain creatures jostle for space with family photos – a marriage scene, a smiling elderly couple, kids in the park. Dolls are piled high on a chair in the corner, arranged in a chaotic arc. White masks, like those from the Venice Carnival, are positioned across one wall. The wallpaper is a scene from a seaside town – spinning Ferris wheels, winding rollercoasters, fairground murals – yet the paper itself is pockmarked with holes and stains.
Richard Billingham, who grew up in this environment, describes the room as “carnivalesque”. When he lived here, in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands, he did so with his mother Liz and, after she moved out, his father Ray. This jam of decorative stuff was all Liz. She had winding, flowering roots and flowers tattooed across her arms. She wore floral dresses and she smoked until the ashtrays overflowed.
When Billingham was 10 years old, Ray was laid off from a job as a machinist. The family sold their home for two grand – a cash-in- hand job to a local conman – and moved here, to what was quaintly referred to as public housing. Ray, who until this point only drank in the pub, began his life as a committed alcoholic and a full-time hermit.