“However much I may, at the time, have admired the skill of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston or the pastoral quality of Fay Godwin – they were photographing another world,” writes John Myers in his new book, The Guide. “When I opened my front door I was confronted with Tarmac (asphalt), houses, a telegraph pole and a substation.”
And, as The Guide shows, that’s what he photographed, plus friends, neighbours, shops, roads, gardens, TVs, a bed, a giraffe at a local zoo, and, later on, the declining industrial landscape. It’s a new monograph being published by RRB Photobooks that gathers photos Myers took in England in the 1970s and 80s. This work focused on the unremarkable, the unspectacular, and the plain boring. Most of the images were shot a few minutes’ walk from Myers’ home in Stourbridge, in the middle of England, where he taught fine art and painting. Born in Bradford in 1944 and studying art in the mid-60s, Myers took up photography in 1972 and worked with a 5×4 Gandolfi camera, which had to be set on a tripod and used under a cloth.
His work soon found success, exhibited at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 1973 and winning an Arts Council publishing award in 1974, but then, though he kept shooting until 1988, it somehow laid largely forgotten while he focused on his paintings. In 2011, a chance encounter led to a solo show at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery and helped kickstart a reappraisal that’s still ongoing, with other outings following such as a place at the 2017 Foto/Industria festival, curated by Francois Hébel, plus exhibition catalogues and monographs. The Guide is his latest book and the first to mix images from across his oeuvre; that’s something that’s made him happy because, while he too has pulled out themes such as “televisions”, “substations”, or “houses”, he says he doesn’t really think of his work that way. To do so almost misses the point.
“They were all taken at the same time – the televisions date from 1973, as do many of the portraits, the substations were taken in 1974, the furniture store was 1974 I think or 75,” he explains by phone. “The reality is that there is a spread of work from the 1970s and 80s which goes right across the spectrum, but that’s a difficult thing to sell because people like to pigeonhole artists. This is the way journalists work – the editor decides ‘We’re going to do a feature on 70s television’ and you get in and you realise you’re the person who did televisions in 1970s.”
Myers’ approach runs counter to the exotic, the special, or even to working with an agenda in mind, as he explains in a fascinating text that runs through in The Guide. At art college he was involved with Icteric, a group interested in Dada, Surrealism, and Guy Debord’s rejection of “the spectacle” in consumer culture; his images show the unspectacular, but he also never deliberately sought out “the mundane” as a topic. “There was no project, no checklist, no business plan, no written proposal to a funding body, no outcomes planned,” he writes, adding that he shot his local supermarket because he went there every week, and his portraits show his subjects’ surroundings because that was “the fluid in which they are living”.
Myers is dismissive of artists who want to establish a trademark and “sell something”, and of a photography world awash with “clickbait”; he’s also suspicious of journalists, and their urge to push a particular angle. It’s an urge he sees all too often in photography, he says, and in the way that photographs are interpreted, and he explains it in terms of “oxygen”. “If you think of the world of journalism it’s about oxygen, it puts oxygen into everything,” he says. “The tragic case of the baby that was killed [in a recent car crash in the UK], the journalist will push oxygen in and try to get an interview with the parents, and a photograph of the parents, and a photograph of the child. They make it into a story.”
“There is constantly this kind of magnetic pull that the media are exerting, to pump oxygen into the world so that we don’t see the everyday,” he continues. “My photographs are actually of a world without oxygen.”
Myers likes to think his images are generic, writing in The Guide that when he used titles referencing specific places, such as The Labour in Vain pub or The Gardens road, it was “solely for the purpose of negative retrieval”. He likes the photograph Lift doors at Waitrose, 1974 because it’s, what he terms, “uncompromising”; perhaps he means it could have been taken pretty much anywhere, at any time in the last 50 years. In The Guide he writes he’s “not interested in any historic dimension others seek to impose on the work or in the quirks of details or aspects of the time that viewers often alight upon”, and he says his images still show the everyday, via houses that are still standing in Stourbridge, for example, and across the UK, and beyond.
But it’s a hard road to hoe with photography, a medium that records particular examples, and it’s maybe especially hard now, nearly 50 years after the event. Many of Myers’ images show details that look extraordinary to 21st century eyes, from platform shoes to flares to retro technology and truly dated décor, and that’s something not lost on his audience. A few years ago a UK magazine ran a spread of his portraits with a text that focused on the 1970s styles, he sighs; when he shows photographs such as The Labour in Vain, 1975 or The Bed, 1976 at talks, people always comment on the overwhelming wallpaper and old-fashioned bedspread. “They instantly see the narrative,” he says.
Myers adds he just doesn’t get it, laughing maybe he’s just “wired differently”, but if it’s an issue, it’s one he perhaps raises in The Guide. About a quarter of the way he quotes American photographer Eve Arnold, and her observation that, “It’s the hardest thing in the world to take the mundane and try to show how special it is”. “I think Eve Arnold got it wrong,” he writes. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to take the mundane and try to show how boring it is.”
By Diane Smyth
Diane Smyth is a freelance writer based in London, who works with photographers and with publications such as The Guardian, FOAM and The British Journal of Photography. She edited at the BJP for 15 years. Diane has also curated exhibitions for The Photographers’ Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. Her instagram is @dismy.
John Myers, The Guide, published by RRB Photobooks, £35. Available here.