The Wonder of Documentary Photography

Last week we all went to check out The Last Ships by Chris Killip, a fantastic series of black and white photographs that present the viewer with a multifaceted insight into the declining ship-building industry on the Tyne in the 1970s. (If you haven’t listened to it check it out here). This was an exhibition that really exemplified the power a photograph has to freeze a time in place, and offer a remarkable point of reference for future generations.

Immediately after seeing this exhibition myself and Amy got the Metro over to Byker to check out the opening of another documentary photography series, titled Byker from the 80s by Tom Ingham, who lived in the area at the time and has recently returned. This too was a black and white series, photographed on film I’m assuming given the decade, and sought to document Byker upon the completion of the Byker wall which was a massive change for the area. During the Great Exhibition of the North the BALTIC had a great exhibition called Idea of the North (which we did an episode about), and as a part of it there were several photographs by documentary photographers of the Amber Collective. One of the series here portraits of residents who lived in the wall in around the same time as the 1980s, and I recall reading some information about the intention of the wall’s construction and what it meant to the residents of the Byker area, who lived as a close-knit community in Victorian-era terraced houses (much like the ones seen in Killip’s photographs). The idea was to offer the current Byker residents a modern and nice place to live and to remain as a community, however after the wall’s and the surrounding estates completion only around 20% of the original residents remained in the area, breaking up the community.

The remarkable thing with this series of photographs compared to that of The Last Ships is that I recognise the Byker area very well through them, as it hasn’t really changed at all since Ingham’s images were taken. And it is this that makes me marvel at documentary photography, and indeed any kind of photography of people and places: the images we take today are documenting what we do and where we live, and future generations might see them in a variety of contexts, able to compare and contrast them with whatever comes after us. The capacity to entirely freeze a moment or an era in time is something I adore about photography, and it is something I endeavor to do whenever I take my camera out and start shooting.

I really hope you go check out these fab exhibitions, The Last Ships is on at the Laing Art Gallery until 23rd December, and Byker from the 80s is on at Byker Community Centre, but you might have to get in touch with them to find out when you can visit (here’s a link with some more info).

Thanks for reading!

-Alice

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