/ Sir Benjamin Stone and Homer Sykes: Two compelling photographic historians
A RECORD OF ENGLAND: Sir Benjamin Stone and The National Photographic Record Association
by Elizabeth Edwards & Peter James
Introduced by Martin Barnes
Hardback, 156 pages
122 duotone photographs
225mm x 245mm
Dewi Lewis Publishing
ONCE A YEAR: Some Traditional British Customs
by Homer Sykes
Hardback with dustjacket
290mm x 235mm, 216 pages
134 duotone photographs
Dewi Lewis Publishing
This handsome edition of Homer Sykes’ Once A Year (Dewi Lewis Publishing 2016) belongs in any photobook collection. Not only do the photographs remain powerfully attractive but, since their first publication in 1977, photography has changed immeasurably, so Sykes’ images yield new meanings; who would have thought, then, that the substances and surfaces of photography would be changed so rapidly by mass-marketed digital cameras? And, in the 21st century, film photography, once the tool of archivists, is now itself a subject for archivists. Furthermore, with contemporary scrutiny of interactions between photographer and subject, Sykes’ essay embodies changes in the photographer’s role, as well as documenting cultural traditions.
Reading Once A Year is enriched by viewing the book alongside Sir Benjamin Stone’s A Record Of England (Dewi Lewis Publishing 2006). Both texts offer enjoyment; juxtaposed – especially because of their overlapping subject areas – they illuminate changes of photographic practice following changed technology. Combined, these two essays offer a discourse that travels across time, taking us from frozen stasis to the flow of movement.
Elizabeth Edwards’ and Peter James’ lucid introduction contextualises the ethos of the National Photographic Record Association, of which Stone was a founder member. The NPRA shared that 19th Century drive for acquisition not purely economic and imperial, but part of scientific expansion, impelled to catalogue the known world and to share knowledge for social and educational benefits. This cogent selection of Stone’s photographs illuminates his intention to capture and memorialise for future generations. Portraits of Stone show the paraphernalia: black cloth, 8 x 10 plate camera mounted on a tripod (following the NPRA protocol). And Stone himself, in frock coat and top hat, as monumental as some of his photographic subjects. (And observe who else in his photographs is similarly attired…)
Obviously, the long exposure times required then created an atmosphere of pause. This slower technology imposed a distance between Stone and his (human) subjects that, combined with his procedures and formal dress code, also suggests a hierarchical distance. In Stone’s work, movement blur is rare indeed whereas for Sykes, movement is the norm. Eighty years later, with far faster film and a 35mm camera, Sykes collapsed the distance between photographer and subject; he creates a partnership, the camera moving with the subject. The speed of his responses is matched by the speed of film and lens, often bringing him shoulder-to-shoulder with his subjects, close enough to help raise the maypole (1972 Barwick-in-Elmet), or catch sweets scattered at the cheese-rolling (Cooper’s Hill 1975). So an outstanding characteristic of Once A Year is an immediacy, born of faster technology, connecting him intimately with his subjects. Comparing how each photographer shows the Helston Floral Dance shows photography evolving.
A key element in Sykes’ work is the sense of engagement, far removed from Stone’s ethnological stance. London in 1968, when Sykes enrolled at the London College of Printing, resonated with student activism; the anti-Vietnam protests, and strong sympathies with the Paris evenements were formative elements for artists then.
Though aware of Stone’s work (show-cased by Bill Jay’s Album magazine, 1st issue 1970) Sykes’ main photographic influences came from US street photography. As a student, he photographed the Bacup coconut dancers (like Tony Ray Jones) so beginning his years of photographing traditional customs, to which he brought the humane sensibility valued by Magnum photographers, rather than Stone’s inventory-making approach.
Stone engages more with his cataloguing mission and his belief in the camera as an instrument of “truth,” than with his (human) subjects. He establishes a subtle equivalence between society’s monuments – churches, barns, the stocks – and the people living among them. With long exposure times, his static subjects fuse with their environments, such as doorways framing single subjects at the Palace of Westminster, while a smocked alms-man propped on walking sticks becomes a monument of architectural symmetry.
Though the NPRA sought objectivity above expressiveness and aestheticism, Stone’s work betrays sensibility, and his compositions are often unexpectedly dynamic despite the cumbersome equipment. Diagonal lines – drain pipes, gable ends, a statue’s raised arm – animate various compositions. His attention to the slant of light energises some images, as with Avebury Stone Circle (1896). Though far from Sykes’ surging images, this strategy mitigates the static, older technology. Stone had to work with pause, with held poses, whereas Sykes chases around hills and streets, joining the dancers sharing their energies. His night shots of dangerous fooling with tar-barrels and flaming torches are hugely compelling and entertaining.
Another contrast between Stone and Sykes, underlining their differing ethos, is the issue of gaze. Though he looks straight-on, Stone seems uninvolved with his human subjects. He positions and directs them with evident care, while maintaining separation, whereas in Sykes’ photographs we recognise his empathy. Yes, decades ago there was novelty in being before a camera, a sense of wonder long since lost. But, repeatedly, among the people stolidly facing Stone while they are being “catalogued,” we find a recurrent expression – the chin lowered, while the eyes look upwards, creating an effect of reproach. See, for example, the vicar at a country funeral in Cheshire (1902), or the child on the right of the Corby Pole Fair 1901. Does this “look” towards the photographer signal resistance? And to what? Whereas in Sykes’ images, the gaze, either within the image towards each other or outwards towards the photographer, signals acceptance and participation. People accommodate his approach, yet remain engrossed in their actions. Nor is there any stolid blankness of patient posing. Sykes captures spontaneous expressions, often an air of knowing good humour, far from either cynicism or touristic kitsch. Whatever they do – impersonate trees, parade wearing antlers, tussle for wooden “bottles”- they are totally absorbed, and also cheerfully self-aware, knowing the seriousness of rituals is balanced by an inherent absurdity. And this wonderful poise makes Once A Year In England a richly rewarding essay.
– text by Patricia Baker-Cassidy