John Walmsley catch up
Storm approaching bridge, Wester Hailes, Edinburgh, 1979
How has the past year been for you?
Working from home for so many years meant I was used to it and the lockdowns weren’t that different. What was different was not popping out for coffees with people or meeting up at all. I could finally set about my archive and make it useful and available. I’ve been shooting for myself since 1968 so had a huge number of negatives to scan and retouch.
You have been busy working on some books! Tell us a little bit more.
Three sets of photos lent themselves to becoming books which I’m now self-publishing. I find working with Design students is brilliant. I get the book designed at a rate I can afford. They get real world experience plus a book in their folio with their name in. It’s a win-win situation. I did this about three years ago and that book ended up in the National Art Library at the V&A.
The first was work done in Wester Hailes, Edinburgh, in 1979 on a grant from the Scottish Arts Council. I lived on the new housing scheme and worked with the kids in the new Education Centre as well as wandering the neighbourhood talking to people and shooting. This will be published by end of Oct 2021 to coincide with the exhibition in Edinburgh. It also contains reminiscences from those, including a couple of the kids, who were there at the time. The launch event for this book will take place on 23rd November, at the Photobook Cafe in London. You can RSVP to attend here.
The second is what it was like to work in repertory theatre in 1973. I lived and worked with the Salisbury Playhouse company for six weeks and photographed one production all the way through from First read-through to First Night plus learning lines in their digs and then all the free time, shopping, laundrette, in the pub and boating on the river. In those days, each town/city had its own rep company and locals would meet the actors in the pub. But, rep died out with the advent of TV and so robbed young actors of this vital experience. Many of our big name actors today readily acknowledge their debt to the training in rep and the book has contributions from at least three Dames and one Sir. Although most theatres have Front of House photos, I don’t think anyone else has the breadth of this material.
The third will be a celebration of the first 100 years of A.S. Neill’s democratic school, Summerhill. I first worked there when still at art school and those photos were published as a Penguin Education Special in 1969. Summerhill is a school where you don’t have to go to lessons if you didn’t want to. Everyone, kids and adults, has an equal say in the rules. Their GCSE results are above average.
You donated a set of prints to the Liverpool Museum - how did that come about?
I’m generally looking at what will happen to my archive when I’m gone so I contacted the Museum and asked if they be interested. The Community History section is staffed by volunteers so it was a long and fairly arduous process but we got there in the end. I’d wanted them to have a complete set of digital image files so they could make prints as and when but, much to my surprise, they said they never deal in digital, it had to be real prints. So, I had about 10 made and donated them.
This was work I did shooting the Scottie Road Free School in the city in the 70s. It was set up by two teachers for kids who really didn’t fit well into regular school but were energetic, bright, entrepreneurial and interested in almost everything. They weren’t the types to sit quietly in class and follow the lesson.
You will be exhibiting at the ING Discerning Eye 11-21 November. What work are you showing and how did this come about?
I’ve joined a few sites which put curators and artists in touch. One of them highlighted the DI show so I submitted 6 and 4 were accepted. Here is the link for the event.
I know you are passionate about copyright issues, and have done quite a lot of research on the topic. Can you share some useful insights with us?
So many young artists, writers and photographers suffer these days from people copying our work (so easy on the web) without asking or paying. They all seem to feel that, if it’s on the web, it’s free to copy. This is quite wrong but seems to be glossed over in the art world. Nothing wrong with basing a new work on an existing one but, in most cases, you do need to ask the original artist’s permission. To do it without permission is just plain unlawful. How are modern-day artists to pay their bills if other artists use their work for free?
This is the story of what happened when an artist made exact hand-drawn copies of four of my Summerhill photos, exhibited them in a New York gallery priced between $2,000 and $3,000, and all without a word to me. One was bought by the Whitney Museum.
I have also given several Zoom talks on the subject. Mostly for beginning artists and photographers, about being business-like from the off and getting their ducks in a row so they have some protection against companies, governments or individuals who lay claim to the artists’ copyright or feel it’s OK to use the images without asking. What do you do when you see your design on a T-shirt selling on eBay? The scale of this problem is mind-blowing and, I believe, involves so many of us. As one example, over the years I supplied loads of photos to government departments with the limitations to their use clearly agreed. Usual fees were £70 to £100 per use. Then I found several uses not covered by the agreements but they’d not told me about. There were so many that, by the time I’d finished, HMG had to pay me £45,000. That’s an enormous number of unlawful uses, each denying me my income. So, one of my Zoom talks is about what you can do to protect your income from this practice and what you could do when your copyright is infringed.
What are you looking forward to over the next 6 months?
Self-publishing two more books and learning how to do eBooks of images. The next book is on what it was like to work in repertory theatre in the 70s. It follows one play all the way through from first read-through to first-night including: learning lines in their digs, finding and collecting all the props, learning the songs, all the rehearsals plus time off shopping, the laundrette and Sundays boating on the river to wind down. Several of our theatre Dames & Sirs have contributed pieces acknowledging the debt they owe to their training in rep’. The third one is to celebrate the 100th anniversary of A S Neill’s democratic school, Summerhill. This is a school where you don’t have to go to lessons if you don’t want to and where they get higher than average GCSE results.