A new exhibition captures the feel of the Black Country in the 1970s perfectly, says Lorne Jackson.
The past is a foreign country,” wrote L.P. Hartley in his novel, The Go Between.
“They do things differently there.”
John Myers makes the same point with far less words – none, to be precise – in a series of disturbing, yet somehow achingly normal photographs, taken in the far off land of the 1970s.
The images are on display at the Ikon Gallery from the end of this month, and are exactly the kind of pictures you would expect from a decade beset by all kinds of industrial unrest.
They’re striking, in other words. Very.
Yet they come from a place that isn’t far away. In geographical terms, at least.
In Middle England, Myers produced portraits of individuals and families close to him, all living in and around Stourbridge.
The artist has been based in the Black Country town since graduating from art school in Newcastle in 1969.
Originally from Bradford, his initial impression of his new Midland home was that it was very different from where he grew up.
“Stourbridge isn’t like Bradford, at all,” he says. “Until moving here, I’d never really lived in a small town, which has a dynamic very much its own.”
A sense of otherness comes through in the series of black and white photographs.
Myers takes everyday people in unremarkable locations, poses them in a formal, awkward manner. Then something weird happens. Suddenly we are in an alien landscape, as exotic as any faraway continent.
Which makes Myers more than an artist.
He is a David Livingstone of the unblinking lens, trudging through the dark continent of the Black Country, tracing natives to their natural habitat, then freezing them in all their Seventies finery.
There’s a dry sense of humour at work, too.
Whether accidental or the crafty composition of the artist, I’m not sure. But Myers’ images are often subtly undermined by almost insignificant signs or messages, lurking in the corners.
There’s a picture of a young salesgirl, in flowery minidress, saucily posing next to a shoe rack. Above the rack is the sign “look here”. The viewer appears to be receiving an order to tear his gaze from the female, and look at the shoes instead.
It’s a photograph of a more innocent, less glamorous age, as are most of the photos.
A time has been captured when the hard sell was softer and squishier. When beauty fell short and the magical was limited to make do.
The salesgirl’s grasping little attempt at razzle dazzle is undermined by the drab spiral carpet beneath her feet, and the sad-sack shoe display looming over her in baleful bad taste.
Another picture, of an elderly couple outside their sturdy house, is an English American Gothic.
The street sign next to their home proudly proclaims this to be Green Lane, though house, landscape and couple are all granite grey.
Continuing the Gothic theme, Myers photo of a severe little madam in a claustrophobic, fiercely formal room borders on the macabre, and brings to mind Edward Gorey’s series of creepy illustrations.
Even the flowers and stern glass decanters behind the girl stand rigidly to attention.
Myers, it seems, was made to take such photos. To shine a light on the often ignored, humdrum, yet strikingly strange moments of a faded England.
Though it turns out that he only stumbled into the art form due to convenience.
“I was employed full time as an art teacher,” he explains. “And I’d never really taken photographs before, other than snaps on holiday.
“However, with photography I could fit it in very well with my work commitments, because you can break up the process.
“You can take the photograph, you can process the negatives, you can print. And all on separate days. That was certainly one of the initial attractions.”
Myers quickly became passionate about the art form, though collecting his pictures was never easy. He chose to use an old fashioned Gandolfi camera, one of those cumbersome beasts that photographers stumbled around with in the dim and distant past.
“It’s like those cameras they used in old Western films,” he explains. “Where the photographer would have a stovepipe hat and a wood and brass camera, and he’d get under his cloth to take the picture. “That was the process I was using.
“You’ve got to get under the cloth, because it cuts down on the light, so you can actually see what’s on the back glass screen of the camera.
“The image you see is upside down, and it’s quite faint. It’s also back to front. But you get used to it in time, if you take enough photos.
“It’s not just the size of the camera that makes it unpractical. They take time to assemble, though they’re more flexible than you might think.
“Using it meant that I couldn’t go out on a job like press photographer guys do, and take two or three hundred shots in an hour or so.
“If I wanted to take someone’s photograph in an afternoon, I’d only get to take four or five shots. So it does tend to concentrate your mind. This type of photography attracted me because it was difficult and slow. It made me slow down, and think about the images that would come out best.”
* The John Myers’ Exhibition, including Middle England, is at the Ikon Gallery from Nov 30 until Feb 5, 2012. For more information www.ikon-gallery.co.uk Ten portraits from Myers’ Middle England series will also be displayed on the hoardings surrounding the Library of Birmingham, outside the Rep Theatre for the duration of the exhibition.