Friday, 14 September 2012

Dench Diary : April - May 2012

April 7th It’s 6.30pm and I’m the first to arrive at The Lazy Lizard (a cafe and bar with a rustic image, with home made food and service with a smile) in my home town of Weymouth, I order a beer and scan the entrance. Russell Stainer is next to arrive all the way from Leicester; we grab a seat and discuss the wiry bearded man sat opposite wearing a fluorescent jacket and sipping half a lager. We call the wiry bearded man over; it’s Mr ‘Speedy’ Clarke who taught us maths. I’m at the ‘Class of 1988’ Weymouth Grammar School reunion. Forty minutes into the reunion it feels more like a bad date, or three men whose dates have failed to materialize, then they start to arrive, a portal from history: Adrian Bratt looks well (well fed); David Short looks tall; Justin Measures short. Lisa Walbridge reminisces how I threw a ‘tizzy fit’ when she tipped the box of Maltesers I had bought for our cinema date onto the floor; I don’t remember. Stuart Lloyd still blames me for being knocked over by a car when I called out his name and he ran unchecked into the road; I don’t remember. We all blame ourselves for the relentless singing of the surname of another Stuart (who stuttered) to the  theme tune for the British cinema advertising company Pearl & Dean; Babababababababababababababababa..........BOWDEN! That I shamefully do rememememememememememem.......BER! New photographs are posed for and old ones passed around; class portraits of all-white mainly working-class kids; the girls in white knee-high socks and the boys with slick hair flicks, fixed bad-teeth smiles and brown National Health specs. I came equipped with camera kit to film the reunion but it feels inappropriate and a lot more interesting on paper; as the updated class photograph head for dinner, I head for home, content in the knowledge that I won’t be attending the next reunion.

16th  There’s a white line; It’s less than a millimeter thick but it’s definitely there; It shouldn’t be there. It’s the end on a long day at EBS printers in the Italian city of Verona; the printers want to go home and I would like a drink. I’m advised there are two options; let the mistake go and negotiate a discount or reject the plate costing the printers a significant sum of money and a delay to the printing. Along to the lyrics of Grandmaster Melle Mel’s White Lines I rapidly asses the pros and cons; the cons go a long way. England Uncensored is my first book, my creative legacy on which my early career will be judged; it would be the first page I’d turn to for the rest of my life; I wouldn’t be able to confidently promote the book; my daughter to whom the book is dedicated will one day be visually savvy enough to see the mistake; It’s a fine white line but not one I’m willing to tread; Melle Mel sings me the answer “Don’t Do It” I point my finger in the air and pronounce “reject the plate!”

19th Sat in Jamie’s Kitchen in Leeds, September 2011, the concept sounded simple; we would open a photography + film gallery and events space in the heart of this thriving city. Seven months later we have. Tonight is the official launch of White Cloth Gallery opening with The Family, an exhibition by Jocelyn Bain Hogg. BBC Radio have had their interview, the PR company are on patrol at the door and the numbers start to come; more than 240 names are ticked off the list.

23rd I’ve always been acutely aware of my own mortality, many of Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ generation is. Watching the video for the 1984 single Dancing With Tears in My Eyes by Ultravox on the music television programme Top of the Pops about a nuclear power plant meltdown and imminent explosion, I had to sit at the front of the lounge so my parents wouldn’t see the tears in mine. I lay awake at night imagining the flesh peeling from Ultravox lead singer Midge Ure; sometimes I still do. I’ve never been able to watch Threads; the British television documentary-style drama account (also from 1984) of a nuclear war and it’s effects on the British city of Sheffield. Today I am 40 years old and ponder how long I have left; four football World Cups? One monarch? One World War? 7,300 bottles of red wine? I always assumed I would drink hard until I turned 40 then turn my back on the booze and live a life of vitality and health; turns out I’m a big fat liar; “Hello, I’m Peter Dench and today, the Villiers Terrace have introduced me to the Jaeger Bomb!”

28 - 29th It’s the wettest April on record and today is the wettest day of April. The proprietor of the pub in which I am meeting the six participants on the ‘This is London Workshop’ went out on a bender and fancied a lie-in instead. I send the cold and grey half-dozen to the coffee shop to warm up and wait.

May 2nd My daughter Grace lost her first tooth today, she is seven years old. We found the tooth and placed it in her specially made ‘I’ve lost my first tooth pouch’ that she got from Santa Clause who I’m informed is in cahoots with the Tooth Fairy. When she’s  asleep I gently reach under her pillow and replace the tooth with a five pound note and sit down in the lounge to absorb the news, reconsider, grab the note back and nip out to buy a four-pack of Scrumpy Jack cider and place the change in the pouch; children prefer shiny coins.

19th A financially successful photographer used to live at the end of my road; he moved to a bigger house to accommodate a cinema screen for his burgeoning family. Our daughters, who were in the same class have remained friends, and today we take the train out to the London suburb for a birthday party; the plan is to drop Grace off then find a country pub for lunch as it’s too far to return home. After depositing Grace at the front door I ask about the nearest pub and am advised to “tap it into Satnav.” Satnav? I haven’t got a car, and march in the general direction of The Cock Tavern; half an hour later I arrive too late for lunch. After filling up on booze, bus back to pick Grace up and chug a beer taking in the signed Terry O’Neill prints on the stair walls before Grace bounces over with her party bag; I check to see if it includes return train fare home; it does not.

21st 10.19am the first box of England Uncensored arrives at my home. As giddy as a five-year old expecting the postman on their birthday, I’ve been peering out of the window for hours. Opening the box there’s a few pleasant surprises; along with five of my books there’s a copy of William Daniels Faded Tulips and a copy of Pantelleria - da Armani a Zzibibbu by Walter Tjantele. All books went to press at the same time and we were all there to watch; it’s a touching gesture. I inhale the ink from an unwrapped copy of England Uncensored and apprehensively begin to check each page for the inevitable cock-up. The photographs were taken over 12 years, shot on three different cameras of three different formats using countless film stock scanned by several scanners; I turn the final page without regret. In triumphant mood I take a copy of the book to Lord’s cricket ground and the company of international thriller writer Tom Knox and celebrity photographer and photographer of celebrities, Chris Floyd (apologies Chris). There are five photographs taken at Lord’s in the book and I take a tour of the locations. I recognize the man sat in the same place where I snapped him four years previous and say hello to John C Page. John has been a Marylebone Cricket Club member or 43 years, he wishes me luck with the book and signs his page; then drops the book down the concrete steps.

International Thriller Writer Tom Knox (left) & Chris Floyd

25th Nip to the Villiers Terrace for an afternoon glass and am delighted to discover an envelope has been left in the till with my name on it. Inside the envelope is a postcard with a portrait, the card reads; “Hello Peter. Coming back from a job, realised I was in the vicinity of the legendary Villiers Crouch End. Sadly you weren’t here when we got here! Next time though. Hope all’s well with you. Looking forward to your book arriving. Best regards Niall PS. I bought you a drink. Ask the barman.” I ask the barman. Niall has bought me a drink; cheers Niall.

28th - 2nd June. I take a look around my hotel room; it’s so small I only use one eye, the lazy one. I open the window hoping for a view across one of the Venetion canals that dissect the city; there’s a brick wall. The room is cold and the air-conditioning jammed on so I pull over a blanket. The smoke alarm has a flashing light so I snap on an eye-mask. The elevator strains so I pop in some ear-plugs. If there’s an evacuation I’m not hopeful; in the morning an earthquake shakes me awake. I’m on assignment in Venice for an American travel magazine. They have seen thousands of photographs of the watery city and want to see a “Dench take on it” and I take myself into the city. Slow walking couples gently touch marveling at the shops selling world-famous Murano glass, gondoliers shout there availability and waiters try to keep tables from wobbling.

31st I’m mentioned in a tweet from my old university @DerbyUni; Congrats @peterdench! First monograph this year ‘England Uncensored’ @DerbyUniADT grad & @formatfestival photographer. It’s all true, but I’m irked; it’s been 17 years since that graduation and I haven’t heard a peep from the course since, no mention, no aftercare, no invite to return.

2nd - 5th Arriving back into Gatwick Airport, thousands of miles of bunting has been stitched across the fabric of the land for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. I’m nonplussed; after the 2011 Royal Wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton, I’m bunting’d out and decide to let this four-day celebration march past and retreat home with a bottle of vodka and enough cooked chicken to feed an infantry of Grenadier Guards. Gazing across the resting urban foxes towards Villiers Terrace, the customers are in jubilant and jubilee mood; the bunting is strung like a child’s game of cats cradle. My decision to abstain starts to niggle; as a photojournalist shouldn’t I be documenting the present in an attempt to preserve the past? I drop a piri-piri chicken wing in the trash, drain my glass and button my shirt; “Betty I’m coming!!!”

9th I have been married ten years X

A version of this feature first appeared in issue 7 of Hungry Eye magazine, available to buy here

England Uncensored is available to buy here

In Conversation With Homer Sykes

I’m sat in the local Camden pub of international thriller writer Tom Knox (Sean Thomas). We are drinking a second bottle of rosé discussing success; his father is the critically acclaimed English poet, translator and novelist D M Thomas; he lives in a decent house in Cornwall with his current wife who is younger than us both; we think that is success. Knox has defeated heroin addiction, is a best selling author of archaeological and religious thrillers published in over 25 countries; he owns a flat, drives a mini cooper and has lent me £1000; we agree that is success. Success for me at the moment would be finding a way to say “Hello” to the fancy flock of young women that have settled around the adjacent table. I’m about to turn 40 years old and Knox is strutting towards 50; we take a rosé-tinted moment to suck back the idea of success.

The following day I’m on a 25-stop Northern Line underground train odyssey to meet a man; a successful man? I arrive early at the lines southern tip to take the edge off the previous nights imbibing and search for a bar. I can’t find one so I opt for a can of Carlsberg Export and a ‘grab bag’ of Quavers and sit on the wall of the Saint Martin’s Way Methodist Church; the ‘Brewers’ decorating materials shop mocks me with it’s title. As I watch the children’s club depart from the church, I think of what questions I should ask Homer Sykes; an independent documentary and portrait photographer of over 40 years. He has also produced one of the most extensive and comprehensive visual archives on the British. I’m visiting for two main reasons; there is something I want to ask and something I want to buy. The anticipation of achieving both in one day is making the can shake. Probably.

The semi-detached home of Homer is situated on a quiet quintessentially British suburban street. The trees are starting to bud and purple recycle bins present their neatly flattened offerings on the edge of clipped lawns. There are no clues that a photographer lives behind door number 51. Four chewed tennis balls are scattered around the pampas grass plants gesticulating at the entrance. Pampas grass!!! Isn’t that the plant used by swingers to advertise their presence to other swingers? I dismiss it as a widespread urban myth and rattle the knocker that hangs next to the bamboo wind chime perched over an old Collins road map of Britain.

©Homer Sykes

Homer Sykes looks like one of those people you expect him to look like. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he arrived in the world with his shock of white hair. His demeanor is warm but firm and his manner comparable with a Victorian explorer. I follow him past some of his most iconic prints from the 2007 Tate Britain show ‘How We Are : Photographing Britain’ the first major exhibition of photography at the premier gallery for British art. Arriving in the kitchen I present a bottle of Italian red wine and suggest a tipple; “Serious photographers don’t drink alcohol during the day or on a job.” Ah.

We take a coffee to the south facing garden and a seat at the table amongst the spiky plants an thorny roses; singing from his Greek neighbour plucks at the crisp spring air. Homer can track his first ‘proper’ photograph back to a camping holiday in 1966. While his friends watched England beat Germany in the football world cup final, Homer, who has never really been interested in watching sport, walked the backstreets of Nice. A shot that captured a woman washing clothes in an enormous stone tub that squatted among the tenements, won him a Birmingham Post photo competition.

Arguably best known for documenting British pursuits and customs, Homer never shied from gritty assignments. I ask about his time as a conflict photographer which saw him dispatched by hard news magazines to Israel, Lebanon, West Africa and Belfast where he found himself jumping in a car with Black Star photographer, James Nachtwey, before racing towards The Troubles. Homer balks at the modern term ‘conflict photographer’ and explains with a shrug that he was simply fulfilling a magazine commission that was paying him to take pictures. Toby, the chihuahua he is looking after for his daughter Tallulah vigorously humps my foot.

©Homer Sykes

Homer is a disciplined man. He rises at 7am, usually alone (the wife is ex, children Theo, Jacob and Tallulah have all grown and flown) and dresses smartly. Today his coral tank top compliments the thin lines running through his blue cuff-linked shirt that is tucked into faded jeans; a red elastic band fixes his watch in place. His constant companion, is Brendan, a Jack Russell X Smooth Haired Fox Terrier who is then taken on the first of three or four daily walks; Homer is breakfasted and at the computer screen for 9am, diligently checking Google Analytics through the screens dust; 160 non-bounced visits a day would satisfy his stat-lust.

He admits his commissioned days are behind him; the era that saw him regularly board a plane for TIME, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Telegraph and The Observer are gone. His last magazine commission was over three years ago; a photo illustration of a bereaved family for a German magazine. At 63 years old, Homer has taken stock of his options and his options are stock, a keyword or theme will be enough of a nudge to get him out taking pictures; laugh; laughing; laughter.

Homer is a salesman and has always had to be; marrying at 24 and raising a family made it necessary. Driven by the thrill of making a sale, his business is the business of making a living from flogging his archive. The past six years have largely comprised scanning; burgeoning his online archive to 12,000-13,000 images. He is currently shooting a digital colour project and trying to promote his rock and pop archive which includes intimate shots of the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney with his band, Wings. For Homer it’s all about income streams as is it for many photographers trying to sustain a living; a fine art print sale here; a book or stock sale there - it all adds up. The solitary day suits him; despite 15 years with Network Photographers, he is no longer interested in being part of a group and generally avoids bouncing around in the photo industry bubble.

©Homer Sykes

This famous photographer of Britain arrived from Canada aged five years old in 1954 when his mother remarried (his father was killed in China before he was born). As an only child at the co-educational Quaker boarding school in Somerset he built a darkroom, consumed copies of Camera Owner (later Creative Camera) and permanently lost hearing in one ear. In 1968, the calling of photography was unabated and he enrolled for a three-year course at the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication). He continued to be inspired and formed a friendship with Magnum photographer David Hurn who lectured there. On his first summer vacation he visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York and witnessed the accepted ‘art of photography’ by modern masters; Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank and Burk Uzzle; Homers career was cast; four decades later he completed his own Iliad and returns occasionally to LCC to teach a new generation of potential modern masters.

Homer suggests we move up to the bedroom, I peek out at the pampas bending in the breeze. He reaches under the bed in his spare room and pulls out boxes of prints from his great British archive. There are are 40 mounted prints from his book; Shanghai Odyssey, (Dewi Lewis 2002); a stack of “16x20” fine prints from his self published book; On The Road Again, (Mansion Editions 2002); and a box of Rolleiflex-shot square format work from his book; Hunting With Hounds, (Mansion Editions 2004).

He lifts the lid on what I’ve waited an adult life to see, work from his book; Once a Year - Some Traditional British Customs, (Gordon Fraser 1977). The photographs were taken in the 1970’s at more than 80 of Britain’s most fabulous, dark, historic and plain bonkers traditional annual practices; a large straw effigy known as ‘Bartle’ is carried in procession through the streets of West Witton, North Yorkshire; Blacked up Britannia Coconut Dancers stand on a rain-soaked street, smoking in their barrel skirts, Bacup, Lancashire; manic crowds surge forward during Hare Pie Scrambling and Bottle Kicking, Hallaton, Leicestershire.

England Uncensored is my own book attempt at documenting Britain; I ask the question I have come here to ask; “Is there anyone currently documenting the English in a way that interests or inspires you?” “No.” That’s that then! Then I ask to buy what I have come here to buy; a copy of Once a Year. There are copies of various prices of varying quality; copies Homer has reclaimed over the years. I reject the one that has a library stamp in the front and the mint conditioned one which is out of my price range. I flourish a (post dated) cheque and choose the one inscribed; “from Rachael and Nigel Xmas 1978.” The Christmas I unwrapped Star Wars toys to the sound of Bony M’s Mary’s Boy Child - Oh My Lord.

At 5pm Homer declares the afternoon is over and it’s time for wine. We push my passion for his work back under the bed and I’m waved into the lounge to be presented with his; modern British painting from between the wars. When Homer wines he does so with gusto; two bottles of Stamford Brook Chardonnay are quickly sloshed back as he tours me through the art. There’s an Eric Malthouse portraying a naked woman held aloft and paraded down an urban street (Malthouse can be seen in the foreground taking a photograph). Homer hooks his infected plaster-protected thumb towards an Anna Zinkeisen; a blind cherub carries a bloody arrow. There’s a John Armstrong; a Hans Tisdall; a Sine Mackinnon; a painting of Christ by Tom Nash; a John Elwyn and a painting by self-taught artist Francis Coudrill bought for £200 from a shop in Marlborough. Coudrill is perhaps more fondly remembered for creating children’s comic character ’Hank the Cowboy’, the subject of Homer’s painting is a little more adult; Coudrill’s wife as a mermaid with her breasts thrust out.

As I unscrew the red wine; lamb chops, mushrooms, potatoes and carrots are cooked. Homer would usually eat a meal then head over to The Chelsea Arts Club for a pint of London Pride and chat with fellow photographers; Roger Hutchings, Neil Libbert or Leo Mason. The chat would not be about photography; the talk would more likely be what it is likely to be by men in bars the world over; women, clothes, beer. Weekends may often find him selling Fosse Meadows Farm free-range chickens at a farmer’s market in Kensington on behalf of his son Jacob. The perfect date with his girlfriend would be a visit to an out of the way old English church, light a candle, maybe say a prayer, walk around the grounds looking at the architecture then a pint in the pub.

I dab the lamb juice from my chewing the chops, pull on my coat and ask Homer if he is pleased with how photographic history has acknowledged him and if he considers his career a success? “I’m not finished yet!” On the the tube train home, the northern bound passengers play games Tetris and Angry Birds on their phones; I flick through Once a Year; there’s a newly penned homage from Homer. I must be cackling like crazy and the eyes of the carriage level at my contorted face. I meet the gaze of my inquisitors, raise the book aloft, jab a finger at the cover, and much to their surprise, and mine; shriek out loud; “SUCCESS”!

More of Homer Sykes extensive archive can be found here

A version of this feature first appeared in issue 7 of Hungry Eye magazine available to buy here