PAST: FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
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ABOUT THE WORK
In John's own words
In the summer of 1968 the students at Guildford School of Art held a sit-in to protest at the quality of their courses. It became the longest ever at a UK educational establishment and led directly to the Dept. for Education instructing that henceforth students and staff must be invited on to the Advisory Boards of schools, colleges and universities. During the sit-in, Surrey County Council sacked the 40+ staff who had supported the students and took 34 of the students to the High Court for repossession of the building.
John Walmsley has been a lifetime, self-employed, documentary photographer specialising in ‘la vie quotidienne’, ordinary people and education in all its forms. His photos, taken while still a student at art school, of A.S. Neill and his democratic school, Summerhill’, were published by Penguin Books as ‘Neill & Summerhill: a man and his work’, 1969. He worked for 35 years alongside the writer, Leila Berg, on books either for children and adults to cuddle up with or were about how society treats young people. His work has appeared in 1,000+ books worldwide and is now, in one form or another, at the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, the V&A, the V&A Museum of Childhood and la Bibliothèque nationale, Paris.
We had a short chat with John to get to know him better
What is your creative background?
In secondary school I started a camera club with a pal. At the time I was doing 2 Maths (pure and applied) and Physics A-Levels. Then I found out I wanted to be a photographer. I read about what photographers do, how broad it was - it could cover absolutely anything, and it involved people. I wanted to go to art school, so I gave up Physics and went into art. My art teacher helped me enormously. I’m still the only person I know who got into art school with 2 Maths A-Levels, purely on the strength of my portfolio.
1968 was a time of turmoil. At the art school we held a long sit-in to try to improve the quality of our courses and I photographed this, start to finish, from the inside. I had said I would submit a certain piece (by comparison, fairly ordinary) of work for my final exam but, instead, submitted the sit-in photos. They failed me because of this. After art school, I worked as a freelancer supplying photos to book publishers mainly, but also magazines and government departments. Some of that work, in one form or another, is now at the National Portrait Gallery, the National Art Library at the V&A, the V&A Museum of Childhood, the Tate Library and la Biblothèque nationale de France.
What stimulates you creatively? What inspires you?
Most of my projects are self-initiated, without a guarantee of a successful outcome. I have a really strong interest in people and what they are doing. I love to listen to people talk about what they do, their enthusiasm. A lot of my work has been for textbooks. I’ve always been interested in why people learn in a certain way: why is it easy for someone to learn one thing but not another? How do you convey this thought to that group of people so that they receive the same thought? It's not easy!
I love how chance affects documentary work, the capturing of life as it is, the on the fly moments.
As a photographer, how do you ensure those “passing by” pictures look good? Is it more practice or chance?
It’s both really. The harder you work, the luckier you get! I have taken a lot of images over my career, so of course I have developed an eye but there’s a lot to say for being at the right place at the right time to catch it.
Also, people react to the person behind the camera. When you are working on the street you must not look furtive. It’s important to look open and almost announce yourself as a photographer. You can make your camera visible, so that everyone has a chance to notice and decide if they want to be in the shots or not.
It allows people to relax and get comfortable, to “forget” that I am there and be natural.
As a street photographer how often do your subjects get to see the images of themselves?
If I talk to them, I offer to send a link to the images. If I haven't spoken to them, then I don't know who they are. Sometimes they do get in touch after seeing the photos somewhere and the reactions are usually positive.
As a student I went on a trip to Ireland and took pictures in a very poor farming area - some of the best work I've ever done. These images ended up on my website 45 years later, and I had people contacting me about them. There was a portrait of a man with a donkey cart on the road. One of his daughters got in touch and she’d never seen this picture of her dad before. Then word got around and more people from that area emailed me. They were all thrilled!
This is a good thing about the web - people can see themselves or their parents as they once were.
What’s been the favourite project that you worked on?
There are quite a few. Most interesting part of my work has always been watching people and interacting with them.
Once I was in the book shop of the Institute of Education in London. All the books had nice pictures on the front covers except the Special Needs section. This just seemed wrong to me so I talked with my local county education service and, with permission from parents, started shooting Special Needs provision in schools. Everyone benefited from this but especially the parents and kids.
One school had been put in Special Measures three times. A new Head was appointed to turn it around and he commissioned me to spend 3 days there photographing the kids. Very large prints were put up in the corridors and, for the first time, the kids could see themselves in a positive light, doing good work and being confident about themselves. They even got their parents to come and see them. The Head later told me he had met parents who had never been through the school gates before.
The thing I enjoy most is showing people that they matter. Most people are never in the paper nor in exhibitions. Taking their photos means that suddenly they are in a book, an exhibition or the newspaper. That is a very special moment, that's the biggest thing for me.