The touring exhibition Daniel Meadows: Early Photographic Works, curated by Val Williams, launched last week at The Gallery, The Library of Birmingham. To understand Daniel Meadows’ influences we must look further back into the Birmingham photographic archive. The photographs and albums of the Victorian photographer Sir Benjamin Stone form the largest collection within the Birmingham photographic archive. Stone was passionate about capturing English customs and festivals and recording a comprehensive pictorial survey of Englishness at the turn of the century.
In the beginning of the 70s Meadows studied photography at Manchester Polytechnic and his contemporaries included Martin Parr and Brian Griffin, who together formed a network of critical discussions outside of academia about American photographers such as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Walker Evans. Whilst on his touring lecture series Bill Jay, Editor of Creative Camera, introduced the images of Sir Benjamin Stone and Tony Ray Jones to the students. Ray-Jones had also been inspired by Stone a decade earlier, producing his project A Day Off- An English Journal traveling around England in a VW Doormobile. An exhibition which also inspired Meadows, and many other new independent photographers at the time, was the 1970 Bill Brandt touring exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, photographing the juxtapositions in the English classes – some of Brandt’s and Tony Ray-Jones’ work is available to study within the Library of Birmingham archive.
Subsequently in 1972 Meadows opened a free photographic studio in a former barber’s shop on Greame Street in Moss Side, Manchester. Inspired by the engagement in Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street project from America. The shop was open on a Saturday, and the photographs were free, given out by local children the following Monday evening. It was highly important to Meadows that the photographs were free, giving the residents of Moss Side an invaluable item to send to relations or to document their way of life. After eight weeks the free studio closed due to lack of funding, but the lessons Daniel learnt during that time; interacting with the public, gaining visitors’ trust and his entrepreneurial spirit started his career as a documentary photographer.
In the summer of 1972, Daniel Meadows and Martin Parr became ‘walkies’ in Butlins holiday camp Filey, Yorkshire. This entailed photographing visitors to the camp in the hope they would later purchase the prints as a souvenir. At the same time Meadows and Parr could also develop their own documentary projects, in contrast to John Hinde’s picture perfect postcards. The series exhibited within the exhibition at the Library shows Meadows’ colour vintage prints, a rarity amongst the black and white documentary photography of the time. The time at Butlins also enabled Meadows to save money to produce fundraising leaflets for his renowned Free Photographic Omnibus project.
Returning to Manchester after the summer, Meadows and Parr decided to be collaborators photographing the ‘real’ Granada TVs Coronation Street. They chose the soon to be demolished June Street in Salford. The photographs are an amazing document of the styles of the time, yet poignant in that the care and attention in decorating their homes would soon be destroyed – but through the photographs at least never forgotten. For Daniel in particular it marked a turning point in social change, the openness and serendipity of living in a street would soon disappear into the fearfulness and solidarity of living in high rise blocks.
‘There is no straight record of the English and their environment and there has been none since Sir Benjamin Stone travelled the country at the turn of the century. It seemed to me that it was high time someone photographed a cross-section of the English people, not only from all walks of life, but also from all corners of the country.’[i]
In the autumn of 1973, in culmination of Meadows’ influences and to create a portrait of British life in the 70s, Daniel Meadows set off in The Free Photographic Omnibus with the aim of capturing the ordinary in a country on the cusp of social change. The Shop on Greame Street was a precursor for the bus, the bus becoming a free travelling photographic studio. The bus was brought from Barton Transport Ltd for the value of £360.20, and converted by Meadows into an on-board living space, darkroom and the windows acted as a traveling gallery. In contrast to the easy living of the hippy lifestyle, the Free Photographic Omnibus was a highly organised and testing project, with no telephones (all correspondence was via letters with regional arts centers), the challenges of parking the vehicle in a public place, and of course the many breakdowns that come with such a vehicle. However, the project was a huge success and Meadows photographed a total of 958 people on his 14-month journey across England.
The project has synergies with other photographic surveying projects including: Robert Frank’s 1958 seminal project The Americans, the work of Homer Sykes Calender Customs, and John Myers Middle England (produced with the support for emerging photographers from the Arts Council of England in the early 70s). Work by both Sykes and Myers can also be found in the photographic archive in the Library.
The photographs are a stunning reminder of a colourful era and illustrate Meadows’ enthusiasm and ability to relate to everyday people. What is not often celebrated is Meadows passion for storytelling, the first publication of the bus series Living Like This (1975) could be deemed a collection of stories as much as a photobook. By interviewing and listening to his photographic subjects Meadows combined a pictorial with an oral history, sharing the stories of the common man. The mission of the bus was to create the opportunity for a chance encounter to meet people. Meadows often cites the work of broadcaster Charles Parker as an influence, much of whose work is also contained within the Library of Birmingham archives.
The bus portraits were revived in 1997 with the publication National Portraits by curator Val Williams following her research into Meadows’ archive . This was the catalyst for Meadows to retrace the subjects of his 1973/4 journey to be re-photographed. Producing his Now & Then series, published in 2001 in the book The Bus: The Free Photographic Omnibus 1973-2001.
After the Free Photographic Omnibus project, Meadows became Artist-in-Residence between 1975-1977 for the Borough of Pendle, photographing the decline in the cotton industry before it disappeared into history. Supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation, Mid-Pennine Arts Association, Nelson and Colne College and Pendle Borough Council. Whist undertaking the residency there wasn’t enough money to support the provision of photographic materials, so as a solution Meadows created picture stories for Lancashire Life and photographed covers for New Society, photographing local workers, festivities, and everyday lives of the North-West. Meadows had to gain trust and respect from those he photographed. From 1976 to 1983 Meadows photographed the spectacular performance theatre art group Welfare Stare International, termed ‘engineers of the imagination’, producing documentary photographs of their interactive performances.
‘The privilege of being photographer-in-residence was that I was able to live by my imagination, that is to say I could imagine myself doing something and then go out and do it. What was special about this particular time and place was that I’d begun to meet other people who were also used to living life by their imagination, albeit in a slightly different way. These were the people who knew the work that they were doing came from an old world that was rapidly dying, yet they imagined it alive. Their imaginings made them great storytellers. I felt an affinity with them.’[ii]
In the mid-80s Meadows followed the progression of independent British photographers moving from working class culture to investigating Suburbia. Looking into the culture as experienced under Margret Thatcher, in comparison to the hardships Meadows had seen and lived with. Focusing on the London Borough of Bromley, Meadows captured the scenes and past-times of this culture, culminating in the book Nattering in Paradise: A Word from the Surburbs in 1988, which combined Meadows’ photographs, interviews and writing. A different layout to other photobooks of the time, Meadows placed an equal value on both oral history and photographic quality.
Between the years of 1978 and 1981, Meadows worked as a researcher and presenter for Granada TV, a catalyst for his later Digital Stories work. He left there to commence teaching first in Hull, and then as a lecturer on the Documentary Photography Course at Newport. In 2001 a commission by BBC Wales saw him create digital stories with locals, combining oral and pictorial history into one output. To this day Meadows still loves to create these snapshot videos, telling short stories in a multimedia way.
Later this year the Library of Birmingham will acquire the archives of both Daniel Meadows and curator Val Williams. Perfectly matching the influences and connections already held within the archive, and a place where these stories can be researched and told for generations to come.
The exhibition Daniel Meadows: Early Photographic Works continues in The Gallery on Floor 3, The Library of Birmingham until 17th of August.
[i] Daniel Meadows. Living Like This. Arrow 1975 pg 12. Repeated in: Daniel Meadows: Edited Photographs from the 70s and 80s, Val Williams. Photoworks. 2011. PP. 125.
[ii] Daniel Meadows, Daniel Meadows archive, 2009. Repeated in: Daniel Meadows: Edited Photographs from the 70s and 80s, Val Williams. Photoworks. 2011. PP. 217.