Yam Doctor and other mysteries

posted in: News | 2

Back in 1984 I was young man with a burning ambition and I began my first attempts at taking pictures that would be seen by other people.

I started walking the streets of northern cities looking for the great shots that would make me a famous documentary photographer.  I learned very quickly that this is a difficult profession in which to make a living and that at every end and turn there would be obstacles and difficulties that had to be overcome.

I spent about a year jumping on trains to the next town, keen to explore and learn something about photography and life.  This was an entirely solo affair and apart from a few college lecturers the resulting images have remained firmly locked away.

The pictures did get me on a college course, although this was to study scientific rather than documentary photography.  Having passed that course I used them for an interview at Newport College of Art for their HND documentary photography course, but David Hearn told me they were a a bit immature and that I should keep working at it and re-apply the following year.

This I failed to do.  I did however re-apply 20 years later and was successful in completing a Masters in documentary photography.

And so to the present day.

My photographer friends have a habit of sharing old pictures on Facebook, which prompted me to find the old folder of street photography, just to see what was in there.

I have to admit that David Hearn was right.  These pictures are a little immature and the printing style is clearly inspired by Don McCullin’s Homecoming.  Not a bad thing in its self, but the style does show a lack of free thinking for a 1984 wannabe.

Looking through them with fresh eyes I am struck by a number of images that are now almost impossible to make.  Pointing a camera at children playing in the streets (if you can find any) is likely to result a call to the rozzers.  I’m also struck by the the things I didn’t, and still don’t, understand.

Over 30 years later I am still yet to find out what a Yam Doctor is.  With more experience, I would have gone in and asked them shop owner, but at just 21 years old and in an alien environment this was never going to happen.  But I'm not sure I really want to know anymore.  I think the mystery is probably more important that then truth.

The Kelly who's freedom was demanded on the walls of Liverpool is less of a mystery.  Dennis Kelly was convicted of murder is 1982 and his wife launched a campaign to get him freed.  The campaigners painted slogans across the city as well s taking more direct action at public events.  After release Kelly continued his life of crime and was eventually sentenced to 27 years for conspiracy to import £166 million of pure cocaine from Peru.

God Bless our Pope is no mystery to me now, but back in 1984 and having only left South Yorkshire for holidays it certainly was.  Religious graffiti was something I was not expecting to find on the UK mainland - sectarianism was known to me from the news reports of The Troubles, but on an English street is was alien and a mystery.

Many of the pictures from Sheffield, the gypsy children, the cooling towers, the biker boys, the tyre shop, were shot along Attercliffe.  This was the steel making area of the city and was in rapid decline in 1984.  It is now the home to the Meadow Hall shopping centre, trading estates, a new police headquarters and an arena.  The painful transition from manufacturing to retail and services can be seen in some of these images.

The most surprising character I met on my travels was a homeless man in Bradford.  He was sat on a bench with his blanket spread out on the pavement and as soon as I pointed the camera at him he jumped and posed. 

These are just a few shots scanned from the prints I have.  The next thing is get a film scanner and revisit the negatives.  It would be interesting to see how they shape up with a new edit, or if the patina of time has created something more interesting.

2 Responses

  1. David
    | Reply

    The 80’s didn’t look much different to the 60’s did it? These were considered immature? You were 21! The two kids on the bike though is a fantastic shot by any standards. And all of them are fascinating, photos age well don’t they? Why do I have to do arithmetic to be allowed to post a comment on your blog?

    • Stuart Bingham
      | Reply

      Well I never knew you ran a blog, let alone one this that detailed – looks like I have a lot of reading to do! You have to do sums to comment otherwise I get inundated with spam and dodgy links to suspicious web sites, which is why I also moderate everything, which to be honest is not very much.

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