Tuesday evening talk 25 August 2020
Fifty years ago, at the age of 18 and a self-confessed ‘D’ stream student at school, Daniel went on a visit to the Hayward Gallery in London to see an exhibition of Bill Brandt’s photography. It turned out to be a life changing event. Brandt’s work spoke to him, it showed the contrasts in society and he learnt everything about photography during that early summer visit. He saw the way you can talk about issues through photography and how photography can be a passport to slipping through social classes.
He was soon enrolled onto a photography course at Manchester Polytechnic with the likes of Martin Parr, Peter Fraser, Brian Griffin and Charlie Meecham. This was the era of the counter-culture and the alternative lifestyle and, probably just as important, no tuition fees to pay and government higher education grants for students. At the ‘Poly’ Daniel was influenced by lecturers such as Bill Jay who introduce him to the work of Benjamin Stone and Diane Arbus. He was also introduced to Irvine Penn’s Worlds in a Small Room which Daniel says may be now a contested piece of work was but none the less very influential.
The advice he got was ‘you decide what you want to do’, and so he did.
Nearby Moss Side, with its mix of mix of Afro-Caribbeans, South Asians and Poles, was being demolished in a massive urban regeneration project and Daniel wanted to record this. His idea was simple but radical. Instead of going out to photograph people he would get people to come to him. He hired an disused barber’s shop and offered free portraits to anyone who wanted them. He also recorded people stories along with taking their portraits. The result was The Shop on Graeme Street. Not bad for a second-year student.
Subsequently Daniel has returned and has spoken to many of the people who he photographed and recorded their thoughts of the time.
He then decided to take the idea on the road and in his final year at college crowdfunded in old way by writing 10 letters a day to raise money for this audacious project. He would buy a double decker bus, make it into a mobile home, a darkroom and use the windows as a gallery and he would travel the country offering people portraits without charge in the Free Photographic Omnibus.
As a naïve 21-year-old he didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. Getting permits to park his bus required writing to local councils and waiting for a response by post. But the address he had was in Manchester and he would have to phone the college for them to relay any responses to him. Once he got two parking tickets in Sheffield, one stuck to the front of the bus, the other to the back.
It was cold, it rained a lot and he felt isolated but despite all this he managed to capture uniquely a time in Britain that is now long gone – and to do all this as a collaborator not a predator. He said ‘once I was at the wheel I didn’t realise I was just another passenger’.
Twenty-five later he revisited the images by getting local media in the towns he had visited to hunt down the people in the photos. He then photographed the people who came forward and put them side by side. The result was Then and Now: England 1970-2015, a body of work that speaks volumes about who we are and where we have come from.
His archive is an important source of what life was like in those days and was at one time with the Birmingham Library but now has been acquired by the Bodleian in Oxford and last year at the Weston Library there was an exhibition of his work Then and Now. He wants to keep his archive alive by sending out updates on his website and for as little as £1.20 a month you can help him by being a ‘patreon’ https://www.patreon.com/danielmeadows
Daniel described his work as ‘engineering encounters with strangers and recording what happens’ and ‘celebrating wonder’. He does not describe himself as a photographer per se but as a ‘documentarist’. He has worked in photography, in film, in TV and radio and he has also taught. And on the evidence of his enthusiasm and commitment displayed at his talk the spark that was ignited in that Bill Brandt exhibition 50 years ago still shines brightly.
At the end Daniel set us a fitting challenge:
Reconnect with an acquaintance (not a close
friend or family member), someone you haven’t
seen since before lockdown.
Work with that person to make a ‘special picture’
about something which is important to them.
When it’s done, print the picture (not bigger than
10 x 8 inches).
Before submitting the print, get your participant
to write on the back a short explanation of its
meaning. (Note: use a pen whose ink is suitable
for the paper, e.g. a fine-point Sharpie.)