“I am here, in a time of stress, to look at the face of England, however blank or bleak that face may chance to appear, and to report truthfully what I see there.” J.B. Priestley, English Journey, 1934.
J.B. Priestley’s English Journey is a portrait of England in crisis, a unique document made at the point in history when the prosperity of the Victorian age which had been propelled through the second decade of the Twentieth Century by a war economy, tumbled into the abyss of worldwide economic depression.
Political extremism stalked the south while mass unemployment and the grim desolation of boarded up factories and silent shipyards haunted England’s northern regions.
Priestley’s account of a nation in decline was to influence political thought in Britain for decades and inspire photographers as important as Bill Brandt and Humphrey Spender to venture to the unfashionable north to capture on film the industrial landscapes and the lives of the working people.
In February 2008 photographer John Angerson began his own journey. Just as J.B. Priestley had done seventy-five years earlier, Angerson started in the south before traveling to the Cotswolds, the midland cities, then the north and finally England’s east coast.
In Jarrow Priestley had found mean streets “heavy with enforced idleness, poverty and misery,” in Liverpool he found tenements where “the open doorways gave out the reek of unwashed humanity.”
Priestley became a major voice in the campaign for the state welfare which began to transform the social landscape of Britain after the Second World War. Angerson’s English journey encountered a landscape which was in its turn being threatened by the greatest financial crisis since the the depression of the 1930s.
With recession hitting England in 2008 John Angerson shows us a country that has nevertheless been pasteurised in the intervening years, its edges softened and the regional identities which Priestly captured so well in English Journey, often blurred into the “dead uniformity” predicted from the book’s pages.
John Angerson cements his visual argument by using a 5×4” Wista Field camera. In an age when the purveyors of information through TV and increasingly through the internet, believe movement is essential to hold a viewer’s attention, John makes a statement in favour of the carefully composed still image.
J.B. Priestley was a prolific writer producing some 200 books, countless essays, plus 50 plays and dramatic adaptations in 89 years.
At his best this son of a schoolmaster makes the reader stop for a moment and think for themselves, makes them pause and consider an observation. Much as a good photographer does.
John Boynton Priestley was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, in 1894. Bored with school he left at the age of 16 and began work as a junior clerk in a wool office. At the outbreak of the First World War Priestley enlisted as a private soldier and spent most of the war on the Western Front, where he was twice injured.
Many of Priestley’s boyhood friends were slaughtered on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The carnage of the trenches, the “dark madness of the age,” was to mark Priestley for the rest of his long life, driving him to campaign against militarism, to depression, and most often to his writing.
Indeed, on Ernest Hemmingway’s single minded devotion to the art of literature that produced A Farewell to Arms, Priestley wrote, as he could of himself, “This long-sustained effort, for which he deserves the highest praise, not only made him as a writer, but probably saved him as a man from the results of some trauma, some open war wound in his inner life.” ( Literature and Western Man , 1960)
On demobilization J.B. Priestly went up to Cambridge on an ex-serviceman’s grant where he studied history and political science. From Cambridge he moved to London and established himself as a commentator and critic.
Priestley’s fortunes were transformed when he was given a sizeable amount of money by his great friend the novelist Hugh Walpole in 1929.
Walpole’s gift afforded Priestley the time to write The Good Companions, a novel concerning a troop of players touring depression hit middle-England. The Good Companions became one of the best selling books in twentieth century English literature, and established Priestley as a national figure.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
In the autumn of 1933 the now famous author stepped aboard a coach bound for the port of Southampton and “like so many of the most satisfying figures in fiction, whether Ulysses or Don Quixote, Tom Jones or Mr Pickwick,” J.B. Priestley took to the road.
The first stop on Priestley’s English journey was Southampton where he paused to contemplate the West Gate through which English armies had marched on their way to Agincourt and Crecy, but sniffed at the port’s threepenny and sixpenny stores that touted “the brittle spoils of Czechoslovakia and Japan.”
Next stop was Bristol where he attended a fascist meeting at which communists sang, he thought, the International, and approved of a city that had not become, “one of our museum pieces, living on tourists and the sale of bogus antiques.”
Priestley admired Bristol’s civic pride and its lively spirit of independence, a spirit caught in the work of Bristol photographer Reece Winstone (1909-91) who documented his home town for 45 years and who was the first person in the country to publish books of historic photographs.
Another photographer with a strong link to Bristol is Martin Parr who has lived with his partner Susie in a Georgian house in Clifton for over 20 years. Parr’s interest in photography was sparked by his grandfather, an amateur who’s home was a stone’s throw from Priestley’s Bradford. Parr’s latter career has shown an equal love of photography books and the history of photography as did Winstone’s.
John Angerson is also a Bristolian with a love of photo books. Born in the city in 1969 John moved with his parents to Northampton in 1974, but still sees Bristol as home.
Like J.B.Priestley, Angerson left school at an early age. John did not return to a formal education as Priestley did, but began his career in photography brewing tea for the darkroom staff on his local newspaper, the Northampton Chronicle and Echo.
In 1984 the Chronicle and Echo gave the 15 year old Angerson his first photographic assignment and he has been working professionally ever since. “Cut Angerson, and he probably haemorrhages developing fluid,” noted Design Week in 2007.
John has won a hat-full of photographic awards and been a freelance contributor to Der Spiegel, El Pais, The Guardian magazine, The Sunday Times Magazine and, most prolifically, to the Times Magazine for which he has worked since 1992.
Angerson’s books include Entertaining Angels and Love, Power, Sacrifice, Life with the Jesus Army, a project which took John 25 years to wrap up. We should not expect the completion of his English journey just yet.
REPORTING NOT PROSELYTISING
When John Angerson’s book Love, Power, Sacrifice was published by Dewi Lewis in 2007, John found it difficult to sell the story to the magazines normally happy to publish his work.
“The Jesus Army pictures seem to be misunderstood,” says Angerson. “There is a prejudice against images of religion, a lack of understanding that as a photographer you are reporting and not proselytising.”
“To a society that understands itself as secular, all belief becomes strange, alien and hostile,” suggests William Shaw (author of Spying in Guru Land) in the introduction to John’s book.
Thankfully for John, publisher Dewi Lewis was one of the few who saw the photographer’s work not as a religious statement but as a valuable document.
The Times Magazine columnist Robert Crampton with whom Angerson has worked on 95 stories, talks of John’s calmness and acceptance as being key to his prolonged access to the reclusive Jesus Army.
“John was brought up a Quaker, and he has a Quaker tranquility,” explains Crampton, who admires the photographer for his visual intelligence and for his lack of cynicism, “which comes back to accepting.”
“He does not judge people, which is a real gift, and very attractive in him and in him as a photographer.”
J.B. Priestley’s next port of call after Bristol in the autumn of 1933 was the rural Cotswolds, which was to the author “the most English and least spoiled of our countrysides.” Priestley warmed to the spirits of the region, but thought Burford looked self-conscious, “as if too many people had been buying picture-postcards of it.”
After Burford, Priestley visited the midland cities of Coventry, Birmingham, Nottingham and Leicester, In Nottingham he watched a football match and attended the annual Goose Fair where he found no geese but did find a laughing machine “hooting and bellowing with satanic mirth,” either for him or at him, he wasn’t certain.
In Birmingham the author took note of the efficiency and social care of the Bournville chocolate factory, built by George Cadbury, a Quaker. And in Coventry he appreciated the organisation of the Daimler factory where his own car had been built, and the new Morris works, “a tower of steel and glass, flashing above the city of gears and crank-shafts.”
Priestley’s mood changes on reaching the Pennines, and the reader senses the Yorkshireman’s homecoming,
Priestley wrote, “The factories might be roaring and steaming in the valleys, their lighted windows glaring at us as we passed, but behind were those high, remote skylines, stern enough and yet still suggesting to me a brooding tenderness.”
The Bradford of Priestley’s youth had been a prosperous and cultured place. The textile industry which boomed in Victorian times had turned the town into the wool capital of the world. Period photographs of Bradford in the Francis Frith Collection show the wide streets and monumental architecture of a proud city.
As Bradford merchants ventured to the ends of the earth to buy wool and sell yarn, the textile industry attracted immigrants to the city, mostly affluent Jewish Germans, who gave the municipality a distinctly cosmopolitan air. The artists Sichel and Rothenstein, writer Wolf and composer Frederick Delius, were all born into the cultured community of Bradford; but it wasn’t to last.
Violent anti-German feeling during the 1914-18 war destroyed the Jewish German community. Many of the educated, liberal minded Europeans left the city and the textile trade for good.
“Bradford is really more provincial now than it was twenty years ago,” wrote Priestley lamenting the lost Edwardian city of his youth. “But so, I suspect, is the whole world. It must be when there is less and less tolerance in it, less free speech, less liberalism.”
THE GREAT SLUMP
The stock market crash of 1929 had followed a period of intense speculation in the United States when the availability of easy credit encouraged the purchase of mass produced consumer products and of stocks in cutting-edge technology.
For five years the market had been rising, bringing in huge amounts of cash. The banks grew in power but were unregulated, and when the crash came it was so precipitous that nothing could be done to correct the markets. In 24 hours 22% of US industry was lost.
Faith in the US banking system collapsed. With no infrastructure of support thousands of small banks closed leaving many ordinary citizens destitute. The large banks called in their loans. A globalised economy meant the crash in America spread round the world.
In the UK a nosedive in manufacturing led to mass unemployment. Shipping, cotton and wool, northern industries already in decline, bore the brunt.
“Wool merchants, whose names seemed to us like the Bank of England, have vanished. Not one or two of them, but dozens of them. The great slump swept them away,” wrote Priestley of Bradford’s fate.
On May 8th 2009 Don McCullin told a packed audience at the National Media Museum he thought Bradford had always had a bit of a raw deal.
In the city that supplied the gritty backdrop to some of the best of British cinema, Room at the Top (1958) and Billy Liar (1963), McCullin discovered a new generation of immigrants and poverty beyond the poverty he had himself grown up with in Finsbury Park, London.
“I kept returning to the north and Bradford in particular,” McCullin writes in his book In England (2007). “There were many Polish and Hungarian refugees as well as the Asians. There was the unthinkable poverty. I was struck that this country, one of the richest nations in the world, had attracted those looking for the promised land, only to leave them destitute.”
“What could I bring to those people I photographed? Who benefited from these pictures I was taking? I hoped that I could do some good through the pictures if those in power could see them.”
To his Bradford audience McCullin admitted the inescapable ambiguity at the heart of photojournalism: because parts of the city were so impoverished, “I could have come here blindfold and come away with amazing pictures.”
When John Angerson first saw the looming statue of J.B. Priestley watching over Prince’s Way beneath the National Media Museum, he wondered what Priestley had written to deserve such an honor. The next day John went to the Bradford Central Library and took out one of Priestley’s books. It was English Journey.
“After one page, I felt as though I already knew him,” says Angerson. “A friendly uncle who could engage immediately, and converse while at the same time drawing on a deep well of knowledge.”
Here was as good a traveling companion as any photographer could find.
In Bradford a stretch Humvee, a counter in a restaurant and a new housing estate catch the photographer’s eye, but John worries about the story becoming “Bradford heavy” and moves on.
A GRIM, CRAGGY PLACE
“Factories seem to be sticking out at all mad angles. The trams groaning desperately, go mountaineering; and at night they look like luminous beetles swarming up and down a black wall. It is a grim, craggy place, piercingly cold in winter,” wrote J.B. Priestley of Halifax, his imagery filling the reader’s mind.
The photographs published under the title Hail, Hell and Halifax, was blank">Bill Brandt’s response to the industrial town. Shot in the 1930s but not published until February 1948 in _Lilliput, the black and white images are among Brandt’s most dark and graphic work, and they match J.B. Priestley the writer at his descriptive best.
Like McCullin three decades later, Bandt was shocked by the hardships he encountered in northern England, but inspired by the industrial landscape and the coal-black Victorian architecture.
Bill Brandt said it was J.B. Priestley’s English Journey which made him travel to the north of England in search of new material. The son of a wealthy merchant, Brandt had already documented home counties upper-middle class life in a brooding light. His journey north was to result in work, darker and more profound.
Perhaps the archetypical image of life on the edge in the north east is Brandt’s photograph of an unemployed Durham miner carrying a sack of coal on his bicycle, taken in the 1930s.
In the winter of 1964 Don McCullin matched Brandt with a photograph of two unemployed men transporting sacks of coal on their bicycles in Sutherland.
Unlike Brandt, McCullin knew what it was like to experience the grip of poverty. Where Brant was looking at a romanticised struggle, McCullin was looking in a mirror.
“The photographer must have and keep in him something of the perceptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time,” said Bill Brandt in 1948. “We are most of us too busy, too worried, too intent on proving ourselves right, too obsessed with ideas to stand and stare.”
“We look at a thing and think we have seen it, and yet what we see is only after what our prejudices tell us should be seen, or what our desires want to see,” said Brandt.
“Very rarely are we able to free our minds of thought and emotions and just see for the simple pleasure of seeing, and so long as we fail to do this, so long will the essence of things be hidden from us.”
THE NORTH WEST
Liverpool was not at its best when J.B. Priestley arrived in the city in the autumn of 1933, nor did the author want to find the city at its best. Liverpool he found imposing and dark, “like a city in a rather gloomy Victorian novel,” and it was foggy, the streets slippery and a little dangerous.
Priestley eschewed the hospitality of the surgeons of Rodney Street where Gladstone was born, and where for forty years until 1988 the Irish-born portrait photographer Edward Chambré Hardman had his home and studio. (No 59 Rodney Street is now a National Trust property.)
And Priestley eschewed the company of Liverpool’s other professionals, its journalists, its professors, barristers and shipping men.
Instead the writer headed for the Liverpool slums, “populated by the human flotsam and jetsam of a great old seaport,” and for Chinatown in particular, which Bert Hardy was to photograph so evocatively in 1942. But even in 1933 Priestley found Liverpool’s Chinatown was a dwindling place.
Of the brothels Priestley wondered where the women came from and how “they could allow themselves to be smuggled into these holes and could consider a life behind yellowed lace curtains a career.”
For once Priestley’s outlook is uncharacteristically dated. Earlier he mentions women taking jobs from men, and of their relative contentment in monotonous employment, now in Liverpool it does not occur to him that the women in the brothels of Liverpool’s Chinatown almost certainly had no choice in the life they led.
NEITHER DAY NOR NIGHT
J.B. Priestley found his next great northern city, Manchester, no less gloomy than Liverpool. “We crawled to the Midland Hotel through a turgid sooty gloom that was neither day nor night,” he writes.
“When I was a boy,” Priestley tells the reader. “Manchester had the best newspaper and the best orchestra in the country.”
“Its citizens, who could read The Manchester Guardian in the morning and listen to the Hallé under Richter in the evening, were not badly off and could be said to be in touch with civilisation.”
In 1933 the forerunner of today’s London-based newspaper The Guardian was located on Cross Street and staffed by photographers Walter Doughty and Tom Stuttard.
A pioneer in aerial photography, blank">Walter Doughty worked for _The Manchester Guardian from 1908 until 1949, and as far as his successor Dennis Thrope can ascertain, Doughty was never once credited by the newspaper. But nor perhaps, were many of it’s foreign or city correspondents ever named. There was some sort of equality in the anonymity in the great days of hot metal.
UNOBSERVED IN WORKTOWN
“Between Manchester and Bolton the ugliness is so complete that it is almost exhilarating,” wrote J.B. Priestley in English Journey. “It challenges you to live there”
Bolton had been a boomtown in the nineteenth century, its cotton mills, and its bleaching and drying works had made it a world centre for cotton, much as Bradford (30 miles away over the Pennines) had been the wool capital of the world.
“The whole landscape, the townscape was severe and made me apprehensive,” said photographer Humphrey Spender of Bolton in the spring of 1937.
The newly founded social research organisation, Mass Observation had invited Spender to join its Worktown Project which was based in Bolton at 85 Davenport Street.
A direct result of J.B. Priestley’s English Journey, Mass Observation was created to document the everyday lives of ordinary people, and to get close to the documentary truth. For his part Humphrey Spender chose to photograph the people of Bolton and of the nearby resort of Blackpool as an “unobserved observer.”
The classic silent film blank">_Berlin: The Symphony of a Great City (1928) by Walthur Ruttmann, much of which was filmed using hidden cameras, was a formative influence on Spender.
To get his pictures, Spender hung around long enough to become a familiar figure on a street or in a market, his Leica or Contax remaining hidden under his coat until something interesting was taking place.
Then Spender would disguise the moment he pressed the shutter of his camera by making his exposure in the middle of a continuous panning movement, or while pretending he was cleaning or changing a lens.
Humphrey Spender was a self effacing man, a slight rain-coated figure who in the 1990s one would only realise had been standing next to you in a lab – picking up prints then slipping away – when someone said, ”So, do you know who that was?”
In keeping with his character, Spender said he never exploited his subjects, but searched for a kind of identification, an empathy with them, even when shooting candidly.
The essence of this approach, even when the subject was in the most dire of circumstances, Spender said, was not to use the camera to identify what people were failing to do, but to capture what they were achieving.
In March 2009, John Angerson, booked into the Big Blue Hotel on Ocean Boulevard, Blackpool. The hotel is a life-sized dolls house dwarfed by the biggest roller coaster in Europe.
A metaphor for the British economy perhaps, the 235-ft high Pepsi Max Big One has a long slow rise to a peak then a precipitous 85 mph fall. Off season at dusk John photographed a dormant scene from the window of his room.
In Newcastle-On-Tyne J.B Priestley attended an “unpleasant” boxing match and met ‘Bob’ the militant communist, who is described in the book’s best character portrait.
Bob, we learn, worked long and hard for just over two pounds a week yet found time to help at a settlement for the unemployed and at a people’s theatre, and even to paint watercolours on his annual holiday.
Priestley does not reveal Bob’s profession but as Tyneside was once England’s great shipbuilding region it might be easy to guess what Bob did for a living.
The Great Slump had given shipbuilding a terrible blow.
In 1920, Priestley tells us, the United Kingdom built 2,056,000 tons of shipping, by 1932 that figure was 188,000 tons. More than ninety percent of British shipbuilding had vanished in twelve years.
Just like the wool firms of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire the shipbuilding companies of Tyneside had been so over-capitalised during the boom years that they “collapsed like pricked bladders” when the boom ended.
One of the first photographers to reach the depression-hit north east of England was the Berlin born French photographer Gisèle Freund (1908-2000) who hitch-hiked round the shipyards of Newcastle and Jarrow and the coalfields of Durham and Cumberland in 1935.
Freund’s work was published in Weekly Illustrated (October 5th, 1935) and in Life magazine, where one of her images of abject poverty was printed without comment opposite an official portrait of the Queen Mother with Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret: liberal America’s response to British moral outrage over the Edward and Mrs Simpson affair.
On June 17th 2009, Gisèle Freund’s hand-made album of her reportage of England’s troubled north east, containing 22 prints, sold at Sotheby’s, Paris for 30,700 Euros. Freund led an extraordinary life, fleeing the Nazis from Berlin and then again from Paris, and seemingly being forced to disassociate from Magnum in 1954 because her name was on a McCarthy blacklist.
A very different photographer who also worked in Newcastle, and in the mining community of Ashington, Northumberland in the 1930s, was Edwin Smith (1912-1971).
Like Humphrey Spender, Edwin Smith had trained as an architect before moving into professional photography. For much of his work Smith preferred to use a vintage Ruby plate camera that had been made of mahogany and brass in Altrincham, Cheshire in 1904. An anachronistic, but for Edwin Smith, a wholly satisfying way to take photographs.
Working without an assistant or a light meter, Smith achieved an extraordinary level of detail, tone and texture with his black and white photography, a process which he believed, re-introduced intelligence at almost every step.
Now lost in today’s digital immediacy is a thrill Edwin Smith loved: the ‘gorgeous’ risk of returning from a difficult and protracted assignment with all his undeveloped film in one precious basket.
An admirer of Eugène Atget, and more of a romantic perhaps, Edwin Smith is nevertheless one of the few English photographers who has reached far enough to touch Atget’s monumental sense of time and place.
TO JARROW AND EAST DURHAM
“These were all mean streets,” wrote J.B. Priestley on the road from Newcastle to Wallsend. “Slatternly women stood at the doors of wretched little houses gossiping with other slatterns or screeching for their small children, who were playing among the filth of the roadside.”
“If T.S. Elliot ever wants to write a poem about a real wasteland instead of a metaphysical one, he should come here.”
In 1933, three years before the hunger march of October 1936, Priestley witnessed hundreds and thousands of workers standing idle on the streets of Jarrow. “The whole town looked as if it had entered a perpetual penniless bleak Sabbath,” wrote Priestley. “The men wore the drawn masks of prisoners of war.”
In East Durham the dark, steaming bulk of Shotton tip lay in wait for the traveling writer, “The atmosphere was thickened with ashes and sulphuric fumes; like that of Pompeii, as we are told, on the eve of its destruction.”
“The whole village and everybody in it was buried in this reek. Wherever I stood made me gasp and cough.”
Today the smoldering tip has gone. Flattened. And John Angerson shows us that much of Shotton’s grim character has been flattened with it.
MONTE CARLO MINDS
When J.B. Priestley turned south towards his London home he called in at the east coast ports of Hull and Grimsby. These he found resisting the slump, even prospering because at the time Hull and Grimsby possessed fish markets and great fishing fleets.
Then he made his final stop in Norwich.
Norwich, had benefited from being an antique metropolis which had prospered from its rural hinterland, and from welcoming Flemish and Huguenot and Dutch migrants.
Norwich was also a city of Quaker bankers who had become prominent during the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, a time when the city developed as a literary and publishing centre and even enjoyed its own school of landscape painters.
The original Barclays Bank was founded in London by Quakers who’s network of friends instilled the Quaker values of honesty, integrity and plain dealing throughout the business.
Bank deposits were held on a conditional trust that fellow men and women could be helped to advance their lives. Much of Scottish banking was built on similar sound principles. Somewhere along the line this went wrong.
Where are those nice safe, mutual societies we grew up with in the 1960s and 70s? Where are the comfortable pensions we were encouraged to subscribe to?
In January 2009 the gap between loans and deposits held by Britain’s banks reached £720 billion – half of Britain’s GDP. Unemployment touched almost two million, and Government borrowing reached its highest level ever.
So where did it go wrong this time? As with the Great Slump shoulders were shrugged and fingers were pointed towards the United States. But until the present crunch Britain seemed happy enough to ride a 15 year bull market and forget about the future.
In English Journey J.B. Priestley tells us the blame rests closer to home. “Until they are openly proved to be crooks, our own financial jugglers are regarded as distinguished if somewhat mysterious figures, so many benevolent wizards.”
“It would be better to set up a Monte Carlo of our own than to let men with Monte Carlo minds, men with “a system,” loose upon the city, there to play with the nation’s wealth.”
WHAT ARE WE LEFT WITH?
In summing up his journey around England in the autumn of 1933 J.B. Priestley concluded that there existed three different Englands, “variously and most fascinatingly mingled” into every part of the country he had visited.
There was the Old England of “cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns;” and there was the Industrial England of mills, foundries, railways, back to back houses, and philosophical societies. Then Priestley tells us, there was New England.
The New England of the 1930s was a cleaner, healthier, saner and less class-ridden place; but it was also more standardised and increasingly influenced by America. This New England, Priestley observed, was beginning to lack the character and spontaneity he so often wrote about, and lack something of its old independence.
And business was tough. “They snatch at every crumb of business,” said Priestly about the textile industry in Bradford. “Every man has to do not only a day’s work but a very canny day’s work, using his wits all the time.”
For freelance photographers in twenty-first century Britain, business is also getting tough.
The system of advertising revenue supporting editorial enterprise which in turn facilitated creative editorial photography has now all but gone.
The realities of the internet age have also seen the photographic stock market controlled by fewer and fewer agencies competing in a ever more saturated market.
The craft of photography epitomised by the luminous work of Edwin Smith, that once required years of accumulated knowledge and experience and therefor had real value, is today simply replaced by a technology available to all.
The present recession, the worst since J.B. Priestley took his English journey in the autumn of 1933, means both commercial and editorial budgets are being slashed, and good photography is a very easy thing to cut back on when the internet opens up a vast marketplace of material available for next to nothing, and increasingly for nothing at all.
The old securities in photography have been swept away as comprehensively as the heavy industries of northern England were swept away in the 1930s.
To maintain a profile in the profession today photographers have increasingly to look elsewhere for an income. And to use their wits all the time.
Some sources of finance have been available for many years to those who can fill in forms with alacrity.
To date John Angerson has been supported by a grant from Arts Council England for his English journey, much as Daniel Meadows was supported by a grant for his Free Photographic Omnibus tour of England back in 1973.
Commercial projects like the book Celebrating Seafood undertaken to mark the bicentenary of Young’s Seafood, for which John visited seventeen countries in 2004-5, are less likely, however. “There was talk of doing another one,” says Angerson. “Before the downturn hit.”
As J.B. Priestley was driven to write, photographers like John Angerson are driven to take photographs. And as any creative professional will tell you, being successful is not about the difficulties encountered so much as how those difficulties are engaged.
It seems non-photographers sometimes forget how photographers can be motivated not just by a simple enjoyment of taking pictures, but by a considered desire to capture a moment that resonates (John recognises and documents the traces of lives, for example), or in the hope of creating something fresh and profound just as much as any painter or musician does.
That in itself can be a long and difficult journey. With challenges at every turn.
“On family holidays I was often told by my father to look at the beautiful view,” says John Angerson. “Now I question what a beautiful view is.”
J.B. Priestley, the stubbornly non-conformist author did just that in English Journey when he looked down on the factories and smoking chimneys of the Black Country in the autumn of 1933, and saw how the smouldering carpet laid out before him nevertheless embraced, “a sombre beauty of its own.”
“The self-sacrifice of a god for men, seems to me too good to be true,” wrote J.B. Priestley in English Journey. But Priestley would choose the incense-swinging Catholics or the noisy Salvation Army if he had to choose any Christian group. For Quakers, John Angerson says, “God is what you want him to be.”
• Following photographic expeditions to Egypt, Palestine and Syria in the 1850s, Francis Frith (1822-1898) a Quaker, began photographing all the towns and villages of Britain, a task he eventually hired other photographers to complete. Within a few years his company, Francis Frith and Co., of Reigate became one of the the largest publishers of picture post cards in the world.
Frith who became a Quaker minister in 1872, was a leading figure in the liberalisation of the Quaker movement and so instrumental in the Religious Society of Friends becoming the philanthropic, non-secular organisation it is today.
In 1971 photo historian Bill Jay (1940-2009) persuaded Rothmans Tobacco to save the Frith archive. Now owned by former Rothmans executive John Buck, the on-line digitised collection francisfrith.com receives four million visitors anually.
• When Robert Capa was killed by a land mine in Indochina in 1954, Magnum Chief Executive John Morris organised a funeral for the photographer, a non-religious Jew, at the Quaker Meeting House in Purchase, Westchester County, New York.
Capa was later buried on a hillside in the cemetary at Amawalk, 20 miles north of Purchase. On May 28th, 2008 Cornell Capa founder of the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York, was laid to rest beside his brother, Robert. Cornell Capa’s funeral was followed by a gathering at the Amawalk Meeting House.
“We wish we had a Cornell Capa on this side of the Atlantic,” Don McCullin is quoted as saying. “Somebody who gave photography a kind of respect on a spiritual level.”
Link to John Angerson’s English journey on his web site johnangerson.com. Above: The Newport Inn, Southampton. Photo © John Angerson.