Homer Sykes

An Interview with Homer Sykes, 16 July 2013
The Hyman Collection (HC)

The Hyman Collection includes very rare vintage prints from your most celebrated body of work, Once a Year. We'd love to know more about this series, which was first published in 1977. How did the idea of travelling the country to photograph obscure and peculiar folk customs come about?

Homer Sykes (HS)
I was a photography student at the London College of Printing from 1968 to 1971. A second year Easter holiday project was set, and I didn't really know what I was going to go and photograph. I was in the library at college looking through magazines and there was a picture of the Bacup Coconut Dancers - an ordinary press photograph. It caught my eye - I had never seen anything like it before. I thought, gosh, that looks interesting. These guys are wearing strange costumes and they had blacked-up faces. I knew nothing about folklore and I thought it was something strange and amazing, perfect for a project. It took place on Good Friday in Lancashire. I was a middle class, middle England boy and I thought that it might be fun to go. I went and photographed, originally in colour, although almost no colour works exist now.

I was 20, I was influenced by Robert Frank and his book The Americans, and decided that during the coming summmer holidays I would do a road trip around America. I was able to get a summer holiday job as a janitor in Princeton, New Jersey. After work and at weekends I made pictures and went up to New York, and of course I visited the Museum of Modern Art. There I saw the work of Friedlander, Winogrand, Davidson and co. I thought I could do that, and wanted too. The holiday job was over and I travelled around American on a Greyhound bus, shooting stuff where ever I dropped off and then catching another Greyhound bus that night, so I had somewhere to sleep. The project was later called On the Road Again, and was published in 2001. But all the time I was travelling, I was thinking about extending the Coconut Dancers project, and shooting other traditional country customs. So that is how I started.


(HC)
So it sounds like the aesthetics of American street photography were an inspiration
.

(HS)
You're right, what inspired me to try to make it more than a one-off, was seeing American street photography and humanitarian Magnum photography exhibited in New York. Composition has always been very important to me, I like space and visual formality. I was trying to create my own graphic language by combining these two aesthetics.

(HC)
In a previous interview, you had said that your goal was to make photographs that were good enough that they didn't need text for meaning.

(HS)
That's true today when I shoot editorial stock pictures, but in Once a Year I tried to document what was going on, in a visually interesting way, not just make an ordinary press photograph. I wanted people to ask questions about what each picture was about, rather than just make a picture that told you everything in one go. I was trying to make pictures that left stuff to the imagination.

(HC)
I'm interested in your own relationship with these subjects. You are Canadian by birth but grew up in England, so I'm interested in how attached you felt to these peculiarly English customs.

(HS)
Being a Canadian made no difference. I am interested in people doing their own thing. I'm a photographer, I tend to poke my nose into the people's lives I am photographing, make my pictures and then move on. I've spent my life in England. I was at a boarding school from the age of 7, until I went to college in London.
What was interesting for me, what I thought was the most important thing in documentary photography, was that if the work was good enough it would last forever. That seemed to me to be the main point of doing it.


(HC)
Were you trying to say something about English Identity?

(HS)
Yes, but not consciously. What I was trying to do was document something that I thought no one else was doing. I wanted to make my own pictures, the way I wanted, which is what I've always done. When I was shooting magazine assignments, I always considered that I was working for myself: they were paying the bills, and I was always busy, because they liked the way I saw things, the way I edited and I could deliver on time.
I remember thinking when I first came to London, I wanted to photograph the top hat, flat cap aspect of British society. I was a stranger, coming from a middle class boarding school background, I had seen nothing. Then suddenly I arrive in London and everything was completely new and amazing.

(HC)
At what point did you discover Benjamin Stone's early twentieth century photographs of similar folk customs?

(HS)
I first became aware of his work in Album magazine, published by Bill Jay around 1970. Then I had a joint exhibition with him at the ICA in 1971. Bill Jay's Customs and Faces: Photographs of Sir Benjamin Stone was published by Academy Editions in 1972. I bought that book, but he was never really a visual influence. But I did love the detail in the pictures, and the formality of composition. We were photographing the same subject matter, he worked at the turn of the 20th century, and I made my pictures seventy years later.

(HC)
When you were doing Once a Year were you very aware that these customs were dying out or anachronistic, or did they feel like living customs?

(HS)
I tried to avoid the new and re-created customs that were organised by local folk clubs, and the town hall. I focused on traditional village community events that had a long local history. I was aware that village society was changing, many more newcomers were moving into rural communities and life in those communities was going to be different. And that some village customs might not go on in the same way for much longer.

(HC)
You've subsequently re-photographed some of these customs. Did you find things had changed?

(HS)
When I started to go back and re-photograph these events in 2001 and 2002, what surprised me was, that I was not the only photographer anymore. Also it seemed that everyone was in 'medieval' costume, and probably with painted faces too. In the 1970s these traditional events took place on a Saints' Day for example, or were fixed in the annual calendar in some other way, so many took place mid week. That does not happen so much now. No one can afford to take the time off work, as they used to be able too, so many more annual village customs now take place on the nearest Saturday to the true date.

However, many village traditions in a 21st century way are more popular now than when I first started to photograph them in the 1970s. Then some seemed to be dying out or just limping along. But now there has been a resurgence of community, but a different type of community, you get people who travel around the world together and from all over Britain to take part in some of these events. For example, Cheese Rolling at Copopers Hill in Gloucestershire, or the Haxey Hood Game in Lincolnshire. When I went in the 1970s, it was really just the local people who took part and were involved.

(HC)
You were very young, just at the start of your career, when Once a Year was published. So how did the idea of publishing the work as book come about?

(HS)
At college the emphasis was on commercial, studio and industrial photography. The college wanted their students to be able to get jobs in industry. Documentary and reportage photography was not a serious option. There really wasn't a living to be made. But I always wanted to do my own thing. The Magnum photographer David Hurn came into college occasionally to give lectures and look at students work, he was encouraging. As it happened I lived in a bedsit with my girl-friend down the road from him, and I used to go around to his flat, often. Through David, I met Ian Berry, Josef Koudelka, as well as many other reportage photographers who passed through town and stayed at David's place. They inspired me. David suggested I apply for an Arts Council photography grant, so I would have some money to work on my country customs project. I went to America for the second time to work on my America project in 1971, and then when I came back, I had no money or work. And once again David helped me get a second Arts Council grant. Having received two Arts Council grants, I was put in touch with James Fraser at Gordon Fraser, the greeting cards company: James Fraser ran the newly formed publishing side. A book project was proposed, I was very fortunate, I was eased into this situation. I was making these pictures and people were helping me move forward.

(HC)
So as a young photographer in the mid-1970s, did you prize being published over having your work exhibited?

(HS)
I wanted a publication more than an exhibition. The inspiration was seeing great work exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but exhibitions come and go. There is a permanence when you have a book. I do love really great prints, but a beautifully published book is the best way for the work to live on for most people.

(HC)
Was there a sense of community amongst photographers?

(HS)
Not really, no. The opening of the Photographers' Gallery in 1971 helped a little bit. We were all in competition, which was the problem. Obviously, I would go around and see David Hurn and soak up the atmosphere. When the Photographers' Gallery opened, I got to know, one other photographer really well Chris Steele-Perkins. And I have always kept in touch with the photographer Geoff Howard, a great friend from college. But there was never a lot of camaraderie between competing 22, 24 year-old photographers. We were all after those few magazine assignments.

I remember I saw Tony Ray-Jones once. I was walking around Crufts Dog show at Earl's Court photographing, and there was a guy with a droopy moustache and a Leica. We didn't speak, but naturally I wondered, who he was. I later discovered. It was an interesting period, when all of a sudden young photographers were doing something different and for themselves.

(HC)
What about older photographers? You've mentioned David Hurn's support early on. What about people like Bert Hardy and Roger Mayne?



(HS)
You have to remember that in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were very, very few publications promoting and publishing personal documentary photography, Creative Camera, then Album and that's about it. I was aware of Bert Hardy, because the Arts Council were helping to publish a monograph on him. It was published in 1975. Also, George Rodger and Thurston Hopkins - they were all published by Gordon Fraser around that time.

(HC)
Since those early days there have been several other publications of your photographs, but much of your work has been for magazines. How does this magazine work relate to Once A Year?

(HS)
When I was working as a magazine photographer, I was getting really nice jobs that also allowed me to navigate around all walks of British society. I never did corporate work, advertising or PR. I wanted to photograph real people doing real things and make my living from that type of work.

You Magazine
, Now!, New Society, the Express Magazine and to a lesser extent The Sunday Times and The Observer, employed me because they liked the way I saw things. I like to think that I added my own personality and my own aesthetic to the imagery, but also it worked well for them. It has to be a marriage of those two. I always tried to do a tight edit my work, I was very particular about what editors got to look at. In my mind they were always my pictures. One of things I found very difficult when I worked for Newsweek and Time, was because of the tight deadlines you shipped the film unprocessed to New York. That was just a complete nightmare, because actually I am doing my stuff and they are getting to look at it before I did, so how were they going to choose the right pictures? I didn't want to be a press photographer. Publication in magazines helps create books, books create exhibitions, exhibitions create a higher profile and get you more work. I tried to see all that together, as I am sure everyone does. The focus was just about getting more interesting real life magazine assignments, that allowed me to finance my family, the Once a Year project and other work that interested me.

(HC)
But in your case, what unites Once a Year with your later magazine work is your interest in British society.



(HS)
Absolutely, as I have said, I have always tried to shoot pictures the way I see the subject. I never tried to shoot in a particular magazine style. Of course I have had to do some of that. But not much really and I have never been interested in celebrity or joining the press pack. I tried to get assignment about British society and then put my own spin on the way I made the pictures and edited them. Those pictures were mine, just as the work I did on Once a Year was for me. Luckily it worked out.




Homer Sykes

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