Jason Wilde / Vera & John
July 2017 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Vera, the youngest of three girls, was born on July 7th 1940 in Somers Town in the London Borough of Camden. A few days after her 14th birthday she started her first full time job on a production line in a biscuit factory. Vera then went on to work in a needle factory, a lightbulb factory and after a short stint checking football pools, she juggled a number of part-time cleaning jobs with motherhood.
John, the second youngest of 9 children, was born on September 28th 1938 in Penrith, Cumbria. In 1942 his parents divorced and John was sent to a boys’ home where he stayed until 1953. In the same year John started full time employment cleaning steam engines for British Rail. At 21 he transferred from Carlisle to London where he was promoted to a railway Fireman, shovelling up to three tonnes of coal a day into a steam locomotive’s firebox. After five years as a Fireman, John became a Train Driver, retiring in 2004 as a Train Driver / Train Driver Instructor.
Three years after they met in 1960, Vera and John married and moved into their first home in Somers Town; a ‘two room gas & electric’ in Polygon Buildings that shared a doorless washroom housing three concrete sinks, three cold taps and three toilets, with five other homes on their landing. Their second home was on the same street as Polygon Buildings, while their third and current home is a stone’s throw from both, and this is where their three children grew up.
Vera and John are Jason Wilde’s mum and dad and the idea of making a project about them came to him while visiting their house in 2005, when he noticed a message written on the back of a used envelope. That first note became ‘Vera & John’, a collection of still-life montages made with a photograph of a note layered over a photograph of a paving stone. Without Vera’s knowledge and with the help of John, between 2005 and 2014 Jason collected 112 similar notes that focus on the general comings and goings of their day-to-day lives and offer a intimate take on London’s working class culture as well as Vera and John’s mutually supportive roles within a close-knit family.
Below, Photomonitor recently caught up with Jason Wilde to find out more about the background to this highly personal, yet universally appealing photobook.
CM: What made you decide to start collecting the source material for Vera and John?
JW: The idea of making a project about Vera & John, my mum and dad, has been with me since I was at college in 1997 – 2002, where my photography projects were based on themes of community, family and social housing, with mum and dad being the subjects of numerous images within those projects. I often thought about developing those images into a larger project that focused on them and their/our relationship but even though they were happy to take part in my projects, they were very uncomfortable knowing complete strangers would view their images. Coupled with the fact that I was slowly learning ‘photography’ and I didn’t know how to approach my mum and dad as subject matter, I never really nailed an idea that could be developed.
Fast forward to 2005 and to a day when I was visiting their house – we live at the opposite ends of Camden Street in London. With no one home I had a rummage through the fridge and food cupboards before making a cup of tea. Leaning against the wall next to the kettle was a message from Vera to John written on the back of a used envelope outlining that evening’s dinner arrangements. That note prompted the idea that a collection of similar notes was possibly a way of telling a story about my mum and dad without including them in the images. So this project came out of a desire to make a project about them and their reluctance to be part of a photo project.
CM: It’s interesting that you say that Vera and John would be reluctant to be involved in a photo project, yet here we are seeing and reading possibly even more than what is visible in a photo, their thoughts, handwriting, spelling, grammar, moods, the things we could easily hide even in the glare of the flash. How did they feel when they realised you were collecting these notes?
JW: Like many other people of my parents’ generation and social background, throughout their lives, art/photography was never high up on the list of things to do; so when my mum found out I was pilfering her notes in 2014, her reaction was a mixture of confusion and amusement. With no experience of this type of project she found it hard to believe her notes were a worthy subject, asking questions like “who is interested in us”, “why do they want to know about us” and “haven’t they got their own lives to worry about” etc. My dad was in it from the start, he liked the idea and helped me collect the notes.
So yes it is a little contradictory considering that both parents do not like to be at the centre of anyone’s attention but because Vera & John was deviously developed over 10 years without my mum’s knowledge, by the time she found out what I was doing I had an almost fully formed project. This meant that I was able to simply articulate my idea, with the aid of photographs and photobooks, in terms of the need to record our collective social history and how her (our) story is an essential part of that narrative – which is unusual for me as I’m normally fumbling to explain a project to potential participants before any images are made. I also explained that a published book may help advance my photography career and believe that this, rather than any desire to have their story recorded, was the deciding factor in them allowing me to use the notes.
CM: Parental instinct for their photographer son, wanting to assist in his getting a published book, this makes a lot of sense to me. I’d love to meet them. Turning now to the physical layout, did they have input in how you photograph the notes or the presentation of background?
JW: Vera & John is part 1 of my Camden Folks Tales ‘note’ trilogy – parts 2 and 3 are Silly Arse Broke It and Luminous Beings Are We (working title) respectively. I have been collecting notes for all three projects simultaneously, photographing them against a white background in a studio under the same lighting/camera set up, as they were found. As each project developed I began to look for backgrounds that were more visually interesting than a plain white background and one that would also create some kind of relationship to the foreground. With Silly Arse Broke It I used photographs of wallpaper while the background search for Luminous Beings Are We is a work in progress.
The idea to use York Stone paving slabs as backgrounds for Vera & John arrived about a year after mum found out about me collecting her notes. In that time we had a few (humorous) discussions about the project but it never occurred to me to ask for her help or input. I’m now thinking that getting her involved would have been an entertaining and enlightening experience – a missed opportunity on my part. The upshot is that after photographing 4,000+ York Stone paving slabs and using 43 of them for backgrounds I had a project that we all really liked and one that didn’t need any input from the parents. Mum especially liked the colours in the backgrounds and the fact that they traced our family’s history in the London Borough of Camden.
CM: It’s an interesting idea, your parents being involved in your creative process; do you think she ever had an idea of editing her notes, knowing you would be collecting them?
JW: Mum never new I was collecting them and when she found out she did write one or two more notes but they were different, kind of playing to the audience, so the collecting stopped.
CM: Did John ever write back?
JW: He did but not as many as Vera. I thought about including his notes but collecting them without him knowing was problematic and I also wanted to focus on my mum’s role within the family. I feel this edit is a fair representation of how it works with mum at the centre and dad happy to fill in when needed.
CM: Could you tell me more about the photographic and artistic expression you put into this series, in particular the backgrounds?
JW: A white background is used in still-life photography to suggest objectivity and to create a blank space around the object for the viewer to fill with their own narrative. Initially I made the images for all three projects using this aesthetic and although some worked as stand alone images, as larger projects within the pages of a book they became too repetitive and visually very bland. I then used the evocative power of wallpaper in Silly Arse Broke It to fill that empty space and to develop a relationship between note and background. Wallpaper’s inherent associations with domestic life and notions of class and taste create an interplay between notes found on streets and walkways of the Clarence Way estate to the idea of individual households on that estate.
The York Stone paving slab backgrounds in Vera & John are also used to distance the images from an objective aesthetic and to anchor the notes to the idea of a place. Each stone was photographed on a Camden street that has a connection to my family; places where we were born, schooled, worked and played etc. This idea of a place is complimented by an historic component that maps the streets where the lives of five (possibly more) generations of my family have played-out over the last 100 years. On a more personal note, and this may be a connection too far, like the York Stones my dad is imported from the north (Carlisle); so the note/background arrangement reflect my parents family roles with mum at the hub pulling the strings and dad in the background.
About the artist:
Jason Wilde is a photographer born and based in London. His work has been exhibited in the Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery and in the Museum of London. Growing up in central London has been an important impetus for his interest in the small dramas of city life and as a photographer, Jason’s primary topic is England’s rapidly shifting social landscape reflected in the people that inhabit its diverse communities. Working from within the documentary tradition, he uses a mixed genre approach to produce projects that reflect the social flux and cultural (dis)integration that characterises English communities in the 21st century. www.jasonwilde.com
Vera & John, an 88 page book by Jason Wilde, was published in 2017 and is available from Butchers Hook Books