The Ffotogallery Gallery, Turner House, Penarth, near Cardiff, Wales
I arrive before the talk at Ffotogallery near Cardiff to have a brief look at the “Daniel Meadows: Early Years” exhibition.
Downstairs, there is an audio-visual room, which is showing short movies about Daniel Meadows and his work. As a student, he hired a studio for several weeks and photographed local people at his own expense while later on, he bought a bus and went around the country photographing people while using the bus as a darkroom, allowing him to photograph people one day and present them with a print soon after. The Arts Council supported him in this.
upstairs at the Ffotogallery
While there are some photographs from Mosside in the 1970’s, upstairs there is a much larger group of photographs largely of people from ordinary walks of life.
coloured photos of Butlins
One section is about Butlins and in colour prints of the time when colour photography was beginning to gain respectability as a form of photographic expression although it’s initial tackiness is perhaps being used by Meadows (also Parr) to comment on a perceived tacky nature of Butlins. Most of the photographs however, are in black and white and made in a straightforward documentary style.
An interesting aspect to this work is the way Daniel Meadows has gone back and found the people he photographed almost a quarter of a century ago; rephotographing them and then putting the old and new photographs side by side does create a fascinating insight into the way people age and the way British society has changed over that period.
I have a booked seat but arrive early since there are people who have come without bookings! Before the talk begins, I go to the toilet but someone pushes past and enters before me; as I wait the photographer Paul Reas (have a copy of his book Can I help?) comes up also wanting the loo and I wonder if I should let him go before me. We say “hello!” and both wait; I decide not to let him go in front as that might be psychophantic!
Val Williams, the curator of the exhibition, is not here tonight; she has however, been very influential in putting it together, choosing the photographs herself. She has a special interest in 1970’s British photography (apart from her book on Meadows, she has also done one on his friend, Martin Parr). Birmingham City?? Gallery are also an interested party. Meadows himself does not understand the “art” gallery world. There was an extensive search to find photographs for this exhibition such as inquiries being made to now defunct regional arts bodies.
Raul Reas and Daniel Meadows (right) seated
Paul Reas interviews and introduces Daniel Meadows; he is himself a documentary photographer but of the next generation to Meadows. Reas has a retrospective in Bradford next year, the town in which he grew up. He cites Meadows as an early influence and studied under him at Newport; he has known him for about 30 years. Along with contemporaries such as Anna Fox, Paul Graham and Paul Seawright, he not only learnt from Meadows but also challenged his approach.
The late photographer and teacher Bill Jay cited Daniel Meadows in his book Photographers Photographed, describing him as a peripatetic photographer; Meadows had bought his own bus, converted it into a studio and gone around England photographing ordinary people. He is regarded as being part of the development of 1970’s photography in Britain.
Daniel Meadows was sent away to boarding school at the age of 8, a place he hated. The school did once allow the boys to see TV, the programme being the funeral of WInston Churchill. He was aware that the 1960’s was happening outside the confines of his school where cruel treatment was commonplace particularly from other boys. Art was only a possible option when you had failed at everything else. It was on an art trip from school to the Hayward Gallery in London where there was a Bill Brandt exhibition on that Meadows, aged 18, experienced the possibilities of photography as a viable medium. Bill Brandt impressed him by his ability to move through the class system, from workng miners to old boys at their club in London. Women took their clothes off for him, another source of inspiration for an 18 year old!
memorablia from Meadows career posted on a wall of the gallery
A lot of the portraits and following prints Daniel Meadows made in his early days, were given as gifts to the sitters; in turn, they would invite him into their homes and to events that he was happy to photograph. His book “Living Like This” from this era sold as many as 17,000 copies. He deliberately tried to copy the approach of not only Brandt but also Tony Ray Jones and Benjamin Stone. These days photographers are not encouraged to copy but to be more original and different.
He saw much of his personal work, work that came from him rather than work he was paid to do, as not being serious; now it is the more important. There was a time when he had to photograph Margaret Thatcher who was busy with the Lockerbie disaster and so turned up late. While waiting, he asked permission to do a few test exposures and security eventually said that he could; it was not until sometime later that he received a call congratulating him on photographing Mrs.Thatcher’s handbag, something no one else had managed. Photography is full of coincidences.
He started out working with Martin Parr, his contemporary, who has gone on to radically alter the general perspective of photography; Meadows however, has taken a different route and one quality of his documentary style photographs is that they show what people featured are like. He is a story-teller and also used a tape recorder to record audio-diaries.
When he bought his bus and set out to photograph what people were really like, he expected them to be “rotten” but was surprised to find them “fantastic”. His documents are of time and place, slightly melancholic. Meadows himself often felt nervous, seldom had much cash (it took him a year and a half to raise the money for the trip). People sometimes tried to break into his bus and were surprised to find there was someone inside.
Politics does not feature much in Meadow’s work. He has always hated mainstream politics and has a similar disdain for popular TV although he did work for Granada TV for two years – he saw the culture as rubbishy.
It took him a long time to realise he was making his own photographs. Early work in Moss Side, a part of Manchester, was a conscious attempt to record a place that was being destroyed. Some of the photographs made in people’s front rooms could take him and Martin Parr up to 3 months to arrange.
Meadows had to take maths “O” level 6 times before he passed; hence he did not fit in the hold of the photographer who trained to be a professional.
Most photographs that are taken will never be seen yet those that are can have a big effect.
Meadow’s approach is humanitarian; there is greater engagement by the photographer with the subject. Meadows was inspired by Ivan Illich‘s 1973 book, “Tools for conviviality”. We are surrounded by tools and we need to choose and use them carefully.
One of his subjects was Stanley who he met as the man operating Britain’s last steam driven cotton mill. Meadows developed a close relationship that continues to this day. There are 2 videos about Stanley in the audio-visual room accompanying the exhibition.
Meadows spent the second part of his photographic like trying to understand the first part!
His photographs carry stories although these are not made clear in the exhibition. He went back after about a quarter of a century to rephotograph them and this makes a fascinating document part of which is visible on a digital screen at one end of the gallery. Talking to the people he had photographed before bought up interesting memories of the time that are not evident or only hinted at from the images.
Although Meadows has experienced disillusionment, his photographic explorations has helped him discover humanity.
The quality of his work was not always of a professional standard but that did not detract from what he was photographing. He would have liked to have the kind of equipment that exists these days that can make almost anyone into a maker of photographs. His equipment was quite basic in his early years and yet it did the job.
Meadows has had good feedback about his work from people who have gone to see it being able to access views from the internet notably Twitter. There are this who wonder what the wall paper must have looked like in his earlier black and white photos to those who found the images brought back memories of former times for those who had lived through them. Some details found in the images are interesting because of the way things have changed – hence, particular types of jeans or shoes common or fashionable then now are no longer made.
Apart from teaching, Daniel Meadows has worked with the BBC, helping to create digital stories, enableng people to make their own stories. The role of the photographer seems to have changed over the years.
Daniel Meadows signs books after his talk
WHen the talk is over, Daniel Meadows signs books downstairs and I buy one and queue to have him sign it. We do not exchange many words. I might have said how I also suffered years of incarceration in boarding schools while the sixties was raging and furthermore also experienced some kind of release on being taken to The Hayward Gallery though I can not remember what I saw there (it certainly was not photography!). He did sign my book and I left feeling that here was a man who had a sense of humanity and joy which shines through his photographs that appear remarkably ordinary and yet have been staged quite brilliantly.
A few weeks later I am back with a group from the OCA and we are met by Helen Warburton of Ffotogallery who gives us a talk about the exhibition and Daniel Meadows as a whole. Much of this can be found in my record of the evening with Daniel Meadows above.
Helen Warburton from The Ffotogallery
One of the striking things about Daniel Meadows is his ability to engage with his subjects; there is a genuine relationship between photographer and sitter. This was not the case when I photographed him signing books at the end of his talk and yet, as Jesse points out, there is a case for keeping a certain distance. There is discussion about Meadows and his old friend Martin Parr, about their differences rather than their similarities; Meadows laughs with while a more satirical Parr laughs at !? I wonder if Meadows really is a more humanistic photographer though since Parr is often misjudged and misunderstood, apparently possessed of a different kind of humanistic outlook.
visitors to the gallery looking at The Free Photographic Omnibus Revisited
One interesting project of Meadows is his re-engagement with earlier work in “The Free Photographic Omnibus Revisited” in which he sought out and found people he had photographed about a quarter of a century before. A video presentation shows what these people were like in the past and what they look like now; there is also text about them while before they were nameless. The bus that Meadows used in his travels was later bought as an antique and restored at expense to it’s former condition so what might have proved to have been an even more priceless antique has been lost!
Meadow’s colour negative photographs of Butlins from the early 1970’s
Meadows and Parr spent time together at a Butlins holiday camp. Apart from doing their required photographic work, they also found time to make their own photographs of the place with Parr later going on to make a book called The Last Resort of this kind of touristic culture. Meadows photographs show much of the kind of life that went on at a Butlins. Colour photography at this time was new and only just starting to take off.
layout of Butlins colour negative prints
One of the remarkable things about this exhibition and Meadows too, is the way his archive has been preserved along with a wealth of information relating to it. This is largely thanks to Val Williams who has curated the exhibition which was first shown at Bradford; it was Val Williams who decided exactly what went into the exhibition which is unusual since it is the photographer who usually does this. However, it is thanks to Val Williams that this valuable archive exists.