Museum of London / Recent acquisition of Conrad Atkinson’s ‘Garbage Strike: Hackney’, 1970
Continuing in the series of features in Photomonitor’s ‘Collections’ section, Francis Marshall, Senior Curator of Art & New Media at the Museum of London examines Conrad Atkinson’s series ‘Garbage Strike: Hackney’ (1970), a recent acquisition made by the museum which embodies the “photography as art” debate it helped spawn four decades ago that still reverberates today.
Conrad Atkinson, Garbage Strike: Hackney, 1970
We do not usually associate the 1960s with industrial unrest. Yet, between 1968 and 1970, ‘Swinging’ London experienced a series of huge strikes by refuse collectors that left the city’s streets piled high with decaying rubbish. It is this less familiar Sixties that forms the background to a major new acquisition for the Museum of London’s photography collection, Garbage Strike by Conrad Atkinson (b.1940). A deadpan record of the rubbish-strewn streets of Hackney during the bin-men’s strike of winter 1970, it is one of the first post-Second World War British works to use industrial relations as a subject within fine art.
On November 7th 1970, Atkinson took a series of photographs over a three-hour period in Hackney, recording the heaps of refuse rotting in the streets. On the finished prints, he wrote precisely when and where he took each shot, even down to the A-Z street map reference. Within the space of a week, these small-scale prints were pasted together to create two montages, which were then re-photographed to make two large-format prints, creating a four-panel polyptych. Although all four are black and white prints, Atkinson applied vivid acrylic washes to the large-format panels. In part, this was a comment on the idea that documentary photography should be black and white but there is also a nod, in the high-key colours, to the psychedelic hues characteristic of the Swinging Sixties. Indeed, the piece undercuts the myth of the Sixties as a carefree, hedonistic period and can be read as a rough-hewn elegy for the idealism of that time.
Formally, Garbage Strike developed from the artist’s growing dissatisfaction with the ‘well-crafted painted consumer object’ which did not engage with social issues. In this respect, Atkinson’s work is closely related to the anti-art/anti-commercial tactics of the fluxus movement, which encompassed artists as diverse as Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono, and there are also parallels with the work of Leon Golub and Nancy Spero. Certainly, there is an attempt to utilise art for social change and to foreground material action over theory. It is hardly coincidental that the artist was born into a working class environment in Cumbria, the epicentre of British Romanticism, and that the Romantics’ political radicalism remains important for him.
The opposition to the well-crafted object extended to the slick production values of commercial photography. Consequently, for Garbage Strike, Atkinson employed a deliberately casual, off-hand approach to composition, focus and finish, resulting in a raw, abrasive image well suited to the subject. His use of photography within a fine art context was, in itself, contentious at that time. Around 1970-71, when he was preparing to first exhibit Garbage Strike, at the Sigi Krauss Gallery in Covent Garden, he was refused Arts Council assistance on the grounds that neither photography nor video constituted art. Indeed, it was not until 1973 that the Arts Council finally employed its first full-time officer to support photography.
The strategy of using photography to record an activity has always been common amongst avant-garde artists, especially those associated with Conceptualism and Performance art. For instance, in the late-1960s, artists such as Hamish Fulton and Richard Long were beginning to document their walks through the countryside in this way. But, whereas they were exploring the rural landscape and revisiting a traditional subject in British art, Atkinson was intent on tackling subjects outside art’s traditional boundaries. Certainly, the mounds of bulging plastic sacks spilling litter across grimy pavements provide a sardonic, alternative vision of the British landscape. The image of the inner city as an urban wasteland would become increasingly common in the 1970s as the collapse of traditional industry, repeated strikes and rising inflation affected the country.
Garbage Strike: Hackney, 1970
Four panel photomontage, each panel: 750 x 500; 762 x 486; 732 x 496; 796 x 502 mm
Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund and the V&A Purchase Grant Fund
© Conrad Atkinson courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Art NY
 Atkinson, Conrad, email to author, 12 March 2012. I am indebted to both Conrad Atkinson and Margaret Harrison for much of the information which forms the basis of this article.
 Atkinson, Conrad, statement in Eiblmayr, Sylvia (ed.). Arbeit. Innsbruck: Galerie im Taxispalais, 2005, p60.
 Rinder, Lawrence. Conrad Atkinson: Matrix/Berkeley. Berkeley, California: University Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, 1995. Unnumbered exhibition brochure. Uploaded 21 March 2012 from www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/exhibition/167. Atkinson’s interest in Wordsworth is also discussed in the Tate catalogue entry for the sixteen panel photowork For Wordsworth; For West Cumbria, 1980. See this Tate webpage
Francis Marshall is Senior Curator of Art & New Media at the Museum of London. He is interested in all aspects of visual culture from the mid-20th century to the present day and particularly the links between painting, photography and film. Amongst other projects, he is currently working on a DPhil about the American painter RB Kitaj.