Homer Sykes Interview for Photography on a Postcard

Homer Sykes is best known for his witty and exploratory photographs of Britain and British culture. Impressed by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Benjamin Stone and Bruce Davidson, Homer's work for outlets such as Sunday Times, Observer and Time has always been creative and poetically composed, leading him on to more personal and artistic projects. With each component placed brilliantly to create satirical, humorous, moving or awe inspiring scenes that present a commentary about society. Starting out in the 60's, and after numerous solo shows in the UK and abroad, Homer has been meticulously telling stories through his lens for nigh on half a century, so we have been very lucky and honoured to have the chance to speak with him and find out more about such a legendary photographer. 

RT: What can documentary photography do that written journalism or documentary films can’t? How is it different? Why is it important?

HS: Well documentary photography can speak to you in your own language, be it English, French or Chinese. Of course some understanding of the subject and culture can be important too. So captions may help. You can pull it off a shelf in book form and read at your leisure, check it out on a computer, or turn over a page and another in your newspaper or magazine; and if you want, throw it way or save it for ever. No hassle. Like any art form, the more you look the deeper your understanding.  As has been said many times, ‘… a picture can be worth a thousand words.’ These are the reasons why it is important.

RT: From music scenes such as punk and new wave to British Folklore you have extensively explored and documented various aspects of modern British life and what the essence of Britishness is. What is it about Britain you wish to say with your photography? What do you think you've said? and why do you enjoy photographing it?

HS: I came to London aged 18yrs; I had been at boarding school from the age of seven and had a pretty typical middle class suburban family life. Until then. On my own for the first time I discovered that life was full of stuff I knew nothing about. I was just very focused and wanted to know more and understand how other people lived. I didn’t see why I had to travel the world to discover stuff and make photographs, when just down the road, really interesting British life was going on and almost nobody was documenting it. The essence of Britishness for me then, and to a lesser degree now was about the, ‘have and have not’s’, the ‘top hat cloth cap’ mentality, those and many other visual contradictions that branded Britain.

British society I found fascinating and still do. I have always tried to document aspects of Britishness that have not been extensively photographed and show life as it really is. I try to do that truthfully, and with respect for my subjects, but sometimes of course with humour too. Do I enjoy doing all this still? Yes, it’s sort of an obsession.

RT: Do you have pre-existing ideas that you would like to explore before setting out with your camera or do the photographs tell their own story? In other words, what is your creative process with documentary photography?

HS: I always go out to shoot a set of pictures with an idea in my mind. This could have arisen from a news item I heard or something I read about. Perhaps something discussed on the radio. If it interested me, I would just go and have a look for myself. So of course I have an idea of what I am looking for, before I start out and what I want to say.  But once there and working, my mind is open to what ever I see, that I feel voices the story I want to tell. I tend to look for, what I call the ‘other picture’, those less obvious spontaneous juxtapositions that give depth and understanding. Of course I am a professional, so I shoot around a subject, I cover the various options and I make an edit carefully when I get home.  I believe in ‘content’, which is one of documentary photography’s great strengths.

RT: Your work has become so legendary and is so vast, photographs such as ‘Striptease tent at Pinner annual fair, 1971’ have become iconic and representative of the best of British photography worldwide, but for you which particular project stands out and why?

HS: Well, in 50 years of documenting Britain, my very first photographs are from 1967, but professionally from 1968. In that period I have covered all sorts, but I have always had a project or two on the go while making a living as a magazine editorial photographer. Big projects have evolved sometimes quite slowly, and over many years.  The picture of the ‘Striptease Tent at Pinner Annual Fair, 1971’, is from my documentary work on traditional British annual events, Once a Year, Some Traditional British Customs, was published in 2016 by Dewi Lewis. That body of work, that project, has to be what I am most well known for producing. However I was shooting another project at the same time, which I started while at college in 1968 on British society and finished in the very early 1980s, when the political landscape and society changed quite considerably. If all goes according to plan it will be published next year.

RT: How has the world of photojournalism been affected by the Internet age since you started in the 70’s?

HS: The world is just different now. Rolling news and instant photojournalism often go hand in hand.  Everything today is ‘now’ and ‘me’ and reported, I sometimes feel at an alarming speed. Often with little research and understanding. Almost everyone is a ‘citizen journalist’ with a photographic devise. But not me. I still use a camera. I compose, consider the ‘content’, and think about how the graphics work within the frame. I ask myself, does it make visual sense? I take my time and then edit carefully. I have never considered myself a photojournalist.

RT: Can you talk us through your photo postcards?

HS: The Widows Son, Hot Cross Bun Ceremony, party food.

It’s the Widows Son pub in London’s east end, their annual Good Friday Hot Cross Bun Ceremony. Party pub food is laid out for their customers.

The Widows Son, Hot Cross Bun Ceremony, party food. ©Homer Sykes My British Archive

The Widows Son, Hot Cross Bun Ceremony, party food.

©Homer Sykes My British Archive

Summer rain Whitstable Kent

A group of parents, with family friends have gathered to listen to their children playing in a steel band on the beach. And guess what, its starts to rain, but they are all well prepared.

Summer rain Whitstable Kent © Homer Sykes My British Archive

Summer rain Whitstable Kent

© Homer Sykes My British Archive

English sunrise motif, fish and chip café Southend on Sea.

Set against a the English sunrise motif, I like the older couple, their quiet contentment with their life and dinner in this traditional fish and chip café.

English sunrise motif, fish and chip café Southend on Sea © Homer Sykes My British Archive

English sunrise motif, fish and chip café Southend on Sea

© Homer Sykes My British Archive

Red shoes at the Cartier International Polo Windsor Great Park.

I have always been grateful as a male that I have never had to worry that my feet might hurt, and if I am wearing the right stylish shoes.  In this case red kitten heels, that go perfectly and are beautifully colour coordinated by this anonymous young woman in a strapless white and red floral patterned summer dress,  and by chance with the seating too.

Red shoes at the Cartier International Polo Windsor Great Park. © Homer Sykes My British Archive

Red shoes at the Cartier International Polo Windsor Great Park.

© Homer Sykes My British Archive

RT: What made you want to get involved with Photography on a Postcard?

HS: I ran into a photographer friend, who has a Glasweeeeegian accent. He scares dogs; they growl at him and bare their teeth. He wears a grin and a pork pie hat, and has the cheek with a camera, of I don’t know what. He makes great photographs of life on London streets, that sometimes are paved in gold and green.  With a slap on the back and a blast of light, he said, “Awright Homer ye ought tae git heavy goin in this stoatin project we wull a' become famous. Tis fur a guid cause.” For the good cause, he is so right.

You can view more of Homer Sykes's work here. For the chance to exhibit next to Homer as well as Martin Parr, Dougie Wallace and many more, go to http://bit.ly/2r0MUE4

 


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About the writer

Rosa Torr has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from University College Dublin, though she herself is from London. Her place of interest is political theory and in particular Gender Studies. Rosa has written for numerous online publications and the University Observer. She is also a theatre maker and is currently co-artistic director of BUMP&GRIND Theatre Company. The show she co-wrote BUMP will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer.