“The New Topographics has to some extent had the effect of ‘steamrollering’ people into believing that the American model was the progenitor of lots of current photographic approaches.”
John Myers – Interviewed by Eugenie Shinkle, ASX, June 2015
John Myers studied fine art – painting, printmaking, and sculpture – under Richard Hamilton in Newcastle, England in the mid 1960s. In 1972, while working at Stourbridge College of Art, he bought a Gandalfi 5×4 camera, and spent the next seven years recording the local landscape: housing developments, industrial estates, garden centers, domestic interiors, roads, electricity substations and shops. Although Myers was photographing in a densely populated area of the West Midlands, his images contain no people – just the repeated, monolithic shapes of locked doors and shuttered windows, institutional architecture and blank television screens. The atmosphere is still and silent. It’s tempting to ascribe the look of Myers’ cool, distanced landscape images to the influence of the New Topographics exhibition. But much of Myers’ work was produced, in relative isolation, several years before the latter exhibition took place.
If there is an American influence at work in Myers’ images, its source is the nineteenth century, and the monumental landscapes of the American West produced by photographers like William Jackson, Carleton Watkins, Edward Muybridge, and Timothy O’Sullivan. The airless, deadpan aesthetic of these images appealed to Myers. He was also drawn to the work of European photographers like August Sander and Eugene Atget, and to the vernacular imagery used, in various ways, by artists and writers such as Andre Breton and Ed Ruscha. As a painter and sculptor, Myers’ aesthetic was also shaped by the minimalist art of the 1960s and 70s.
Though they share many of the formal and broad political concerns of the New Topographics work, Myers’ photographs articulate a thoroughly English sensibility. In 1955, architecture critic Ian Nairn coined the term ‘subtopia’ to describe the landscape of new housing estates that had appeared across England after the war. Subtopia, he wrote, ‘is the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern.’ The subtopian lifestyle was a mean and middling one: culturally and politically conservative, emotionally impoverished and banal. Much of Myers’ landscape work appears to echo these sentiments. Shot between 1973 and 1979, his ‘Landscapes without Incident’ offer a sardonic commentary on the new suburbs. Ring Road Gardens, with its blank concrete facades and uninspiring planting schemes, make subtle mockery of the urban planner’s vision. In other images, like Lutley Drive, the identical terraced homes, standing shoulder to shoulder on their meagre plots, epitomize the claustrophobia and the stifling homogeneity of the suburban landscape – ‘’half-alive towns’ filled with ‘half alive people’, as Nairn commented bitterly: “The world is not beautiful – it is there.”
ES: When I first saw your photographs, I immediately assumed that you’d been influenced by American photographers like Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams, but you weren’t aware of their work until much later on.
JM: The New Topographics has to some extent had the effect of ‘steamrollering’ people into believing that the American model was the progenitor of lots of current photographic approaches. I tend to think that there is a mix of influences that created something which was particularly British – a different scale and a different relationship to what was being photographed. In a lot of Baltz’s photographs, you actually just simply see a modernist painting. And I don’t think you can say that about any of these, in that kind of direct sense.
ES: Were you trying to do something photographic?
JM: I was never a photographer in that sense. One phrase of Diane Arbus’s that always stuck, when she was asked about technique, she said ‘It’s adequate.’ That for me, was always significant, because I’m not a tecchie, and I didn’t study photography. In a way, that becomes one’s strength, because there are only certain things I can do. I could never print like Ansel Adams, and I could never take photographs using the zone system.
I also made a conscious effort in these urban scenes to reject the ‘value added’ approach to photography that was a powerful force at the time. Photography in the Midlands in the 1970s was dominated by people like Thomas Joshua Cooper, John Blakemore – effectively a kind of an anglicized offshoot of the world of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Minor White, committed to darkroom and photographic skills of a high order. But the work of these kinds of photographers such as Ansel Adams and others seemed to me to deliberately eschew the ordinary, the everyday, for the novel and spectacular, orchestrating mood through dramatic lighting, tonal inflexion and the juxtaposition of texture.
I spent a lot of time taking photographs when the light was flat, when there’s basically no shadow. Flat light. Dead. Boring. The angle of view was important, eye level, nothing fancy, deadpan. The absence of people was quite deliberate. But unlike a painting by Hopper with its sense of foreboding and events just beyond the frame – in these photographs there was no hidden story. I thought of them at the time as ‘landscapes without incident’.
I’ve never regarded them as a portrait or documents about where I was living at the time. Middle England does of course have certain connotations, but the photographs could have been taken almost anywhere in the UK. On a fundamental level there is a boring sameness about the urban environment. The place I was in could be exactly the same anywhere in England. If it’s the bed, it’s the bed in your bedroom or the bed in my bedroom. If it’s the dual carriageway, it could be the road leading out of Oxford, or it could be the road leading into Newcastle. In that sense they’re not meant to be about where I lived.
Dual Carriageway, 1974
Lift Doors, Waitrose, 1975
Tye Gardens, Stourbridge, 1973
“I spent a lot of time taking photographs when the light was flat, when there’s basically no shadow. Flat light. Dead. Boring. The angle of view was important, eye level, nothing fancy, deadpan.”
ES: Were you familiar with that quote by Iain Nairn about the endless character of Subtopia – in which the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle?
JM: I can recall reading Nairn’s reviews in The New Statesman in the 60’s but I didn’t take the photographs as a critique of urban planning or the suburban environment. That was the world I lived in – there wasn’t anything else. I lived on the edge of this sprawling West Midlands conurbation, it was heavily industrialized, though there’s less of that now, it’s a kind of sprawl of suburbia. So it’s all very well looking at Ansel Adams, but Yosemite’s not in the back garden. The world that I lived in was very different.
ES: Was it a deliberate decision to take almost all of your photographs within walking distance of where you lived?
JM: No. I never thought about it. I never felt that it was a limitation. The area that I worked in was really quite small, about a square mile or thereabouts. I never dreamt of undertaking an expedition to take photographs. I would see things I wanted to photograph when I was out and about and then I would return with my camera.
ES: You have said elsewhere that many of your landscape photographs came out of your interest in 19th century American photography. What did you see in that photography that interested you?
JM: Well, they just bowled me over, and they still do. I was particularly interested in the work of W.H. Jackson, T.H. O’Sullivan, Muybridge, Watkins and others because they seemed to capture that moment of stumbling across new chunks of the American west – of discovery. And artifice in their photographs from the 1860’s and 70’s is somehow subordinated to the gaze of the onlooker. O’Sullivan’s Soda Lake, Carson Desert (1867) was a particular revelation. It was the first photograph in MOMA’s The Photographer and the American Landscape, a book that I bought in 1973. It seemed to me to be a declaration: ‘The world is not beautiful – it is there’. I tried to take my own photographs as though you were the first person to come across that particular place – the dual carriageway, the lift doors at Waitrose, the houses in Tye Gardens.
It’s also, in a way, comparable with a lot of the concerns of painting at the time. If you take a painting by Clyfford Still, or even early Stella with the stripe paintings, the whole basis was that every part of the painting had the same weight as any other part. In my photographs, there’s no one part of that image that’s more important than any other. That was what I found exciting about these Americans. The images are artless to the point where they become something else, and that is a very difficult thing to achieve.
ES: What other kinds of photographic work were you looking at?
JM: The work of Diane Arbus, and Walker Evans was gradually becoming available. It was difficult to see any number of Arbus’ photographs until about 1974, and the same with Walker Evans in any kind of depth. It was only when the catalogue from the Library of Congress was published, that you could actually see the full extent of his stuff. People like Friedlander were also beginning to be known.
Books were actually coming onto the market in the early 1970s, quite a flood of new stuff. So it was an exciting time as you were suddenly able to see a photographer’s output rather than just relying on scattered individual images in the Gernsheim or Beaumont Newhall histories. There was a show of Eugene Atget prints by Berenice Abbot at Nigel Greenwood, and I actually bought one of those. Sander’s book was published in 1973, by Thames & Hudson. So there was a lot of new stuff coming through, and some of the early French and early British photographers. I was looking at a lot of work, but one thing that I can still recall being quite excited by, were estate agents pictures of houses for sale, in their windows. In fact I actually collected some at one point.
Unidentified Substation, 1975
19 Swincross Road, Stourbridge, 1979
“The area that I worked in was really quite small, about a square mile or thereabouts. I never dreamt of undertaking an expedition to take photographs.”
ES: Many of your images pare the landscape back to its most minimal, almost brutal, aspects. Although you are photographing objects, or buildings, or infrastructure designed to facilitate the movement or the comfort of people, you’ve photographed it in such a way that it doesn’t seem to be about humans at all.
JM: Quite a lot of photography in the 70’s seemed preoccupied with taking photographs where the incongruous or the unexpected are brought together – and then there is often something deliberately missing from the image, that is completed in the viewer’s mind. It’s a kind of trick and it works like a visual ‘tic’. It always struck me that it was a conceit. And I found it interesting that it propagated a view that the world was ‘strange and quirky’ (or at least England was). There always seemed to be lots of photographs where the everyday tends to be disrupted: life at the seaside, strange customs, race meetings and such like. So when you take out the human presence – real or implied – you’re occasionally left with a visual silence where there are no tags or story lines.
A lot of the photographs are also strongly influenced by Atget whose work was only just becoming available around 1972-73. What greatly struck me was the silence in the photographs, even those that contain figures, and the genuine sense of this ‘flaneur’ wandering the streets of the city. Photography is bedevilled with narrative. You take away that core of narrative, and then you’ve got to get it right in terms of where you are, in terms of relationships with the subject, in the way that Atget does. He doesn’t do it in all of his photographs but in the great photographs he does, there’s that very tangible physical sense that the chair, or the table, or the work surface or the part of the room, is not something that is perceived visually, it’s perceived and its actually understood as something that you use, that you have a use relationship with. So when people talk about Atget’s photographs of Old Paris, they see all these worn entrances and balustrades, and they think of it in visual terms, whereas I think that Atget saw them as being things that we use, tactile elements. And the best of my own photographs were not just constructed visually, but they have a kind of physical use element. It’s not just about how the eye selects and composes but about where you are physically. It’s a subtle difference. The Labour in Vain is really about the table in the public house where I am about to sit and have a drink. There is no side story, no mise en scene, or half-empty glass of someone who has left…It is what it is.
ES: The idea of tactility comes through very strongly in a lot of the images ¬– there’s something really sculptural about them. Were you consciously aware of this at the time?
JM: It’s only been recently that the references to Minimal art have become apparent to me. A lot of the things I photographed could almost be sculptures by artist such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris or Sol Le Witt. It’s hardly surprising because from 1969 onwards I was teaching Fine Art to students who were very interested and influenced by American art. Stourbridge College’s Fine Art course was a new degree course when I arrived there. At other art colleges in the 1970s, there were still staff who were really, sometimes quite hostile towards what was new and coming out of America. I was just fortunate in that I studied at Newcastle, with Richard Hamilton, who was, for many of the students, the dominant kind of influence and who promoted the new. At Stourbridge, there was David Bainbridge, who was a member of Art and Language, so there was that influence, and there was John Mitchell and Barrie Cook, who were very much influenced by what was going on in the States, particularly in minimal art.
ES: What strikes me about the body of work as a whole is that although certain themes – televisions, electricity substations, suburban homes – are repeated, they don’t conform to our current notions of a series or a project.
JM: There was no project in that sense, no exhibition or book was planned, no funding application was being considered. It gives one an enormous amount of freedom not to be constantly worrying whether a picture editor will be able to do a feature. When I got the shot that I wanted then there seemed no point in doing a series of photographs of roads or beds for example. There is only one negative of the bed, and whilst I took several photographs of roads there was only one shot that fitted the bill. I suppose they became, for me, generic images: The Bed, Dual-Carriageway, Garage.
ES: Yet you’ve always exhibited the Ten Televisions and the Substations as discrete sets. How do they relate to the rest of the work?
JM: The Ten Televisions date from 1973, and the Substations were taken in 1974. They developed in different areas the notion of ‘looking at the overlooked’. In the television photographs the flickering cathode images are replaced by the reflections in a dead screen. The TV becomes just another object in a still life. The sub stations that are crucial for electricity supply always struck me as being looked over and almost invisible. They never figured as a part of the lexicon of urban subject matter or made it into Bernd and Hilla Becher’s overview of industrial installations.
I had a kind of eureka moment recently. Themes that I had been photographing in 1972/3 reappear in the mid 70’s and again at the end of the decade. I realised that what I was doing right throughout the 1970s, was actually going back and redoing stuff again and again – albeit sometimes in a slightly different way.
Dr Eugenie Shinkle is a Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster
(All rights reserved. Text @ Eugenie Shinkle. Images @ John Myers.)