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From an early age, Homer Sykes was inspired by the work of the then-current photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank – and it was their photos that moved him to seriously pursue photography, starting in the late 1960s. Homer has always been intent on capturing the folklore and traditions of the UK, where he spent the majority of his childhood and adult life. “I have really stuck to the same subject: ‘British Society and England,'” says Homer, “shooting in a similar way, applying the same visual disciplines for the last forty years.”
Throughout his career, Homer was invited to photograph some of the biggest rock legends of the 1960s and ’70s, including The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney & Wings. Looking at Homer’s images is like taking a step back in time – the simple but wonderfully composed photos are a reminder of the days of small-format and black & white photography.
Homer now sells and licenses his archive on PhotoShelter. With such a vast collection, we asked him to give us an idea of what it was like to shoot before new technologies and digital took over the world.
How did you get your start in photography?
My father and stepfather were both keen amateur photographers. I used to go on family holidays as a child, and later sit through family slide shows of holiday snaps of Italy and France: “This is us here and there and almost everywhere.” It was very boring.
My stepfather gave me my first camera and I used it on our holidays together. At boarding school I was a keen amateur photographer, and as the school darkrooms were in a crumbling, damp outbuilding in the gardens, I built myself a darkroom in the eves of the roof of the art school. I was reading Creative Camera magazine, edited by Bill Jay, and looking at the glossy 1960’s news reportage and fashion magazines, mainly Town and Queen. I was collecting images from the newspapers of fashion models, wondering – for example – how Jeanloup Sieff got that effect, that shape, and was he using a 24 or 28 mm lens? I was thinking about composition.
On weekends I walked around Bristol (the nearest town) shooting reportage pictures, and experimenting. In 1966 I went to the south of France on a camping summer holiday with friends. That summer I spent wandering the back streets of Nice, shooting real life. Something of my parents had rubbed off on me.
What was your first major photography project?
In 1969 it was my second year at college, and during the summer vacation I travelled to the U.S. I was inspired by a show I saw at MoMA with Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Burk Uzzle, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson and Lee Friedlander. I knew that’s what I wanted to do – and didn’t see why I couldn’t. I was inspired by the great early Magnum humanitarian photographers, and the visual street freedom of Winograd, Uzzle, Frank and Davidson. I set about trying to mix that vision and blend it into my own way of seeing.
My first real project lasted thirty years: my book, On the Road Again, was started in 1969 when I travelled across America by Greyhound bus. I repeated that journey in 1971, and then put the pictures away for thirty years. In 1999 and 2001, I retraced my trip again by Greyhound bus – the overall mental and visual journey of writing a diary this time, making words and pictures, and shooting with just a Leica with a 50 mm lens and twenty rolls of TriX as I had done thirty years previously. On the Road Again was published by Mansion Editions in 2002 and is the compilation of these four trips.
What makes your photos stand out from your peers’?
Well I hope they do…If so, it may because on the whole, I have really stuck to the same subject, shooting in a similar way, and applying the same visual disciplines for the last forty years…using a 35 and 50 mm lens usually shot at about 8-15 feet depending on the lens. Very occasionally something longer and something wider, but only if I have too.
None of my pictures are posed; I don’t do pictures of people looking into camera. I feel that I am an observer of what they are doing…the images are about them, what they wear, how they look, and how they interact with each other, against a background that sets the scene. They are not about me. I don’t edit cruel or funny images into my final take; no easy laughs at other people’s expense, which as a photographer is often all too easy to do.
How did you get access to some of the biggest rock legends of our time?
I am not a rock and pop photographer – I photograph people. Very occasionally they are musicians and go on to become seriously famous. I have never been star-struck – I just do the job required. With the Rolling Stones, I was in a London gallery looking at a hanging that was being prepared of my work, and I heard some rock music going on in the background down a corridor in another room. I wandered in and took only half a role of film of a Rolling Stones’ rehearsal. Only half, because Keith Richards collapsed. Drunk, spaced out. The whole rehearsal was then called off.
In the early 1970s, I was asked if I wanted to do a book on one of three topics: Chelsea Football Club, London Heathrow Airport, or Paul McCartney & Wings. It was for a children’s series on how organisations work and what makes them tick. I have almost no interest in football or airplanes, but I remember thinking that Paul and Linda McCartney might be the best option. Linda liked my work, and understood that I wanted to just hang out and observe, and they let me do pretty much what I wanted. Which was nothing more than watch them live.
What cameras were you using at the time?
In the 1970s for B&W, I was using a Leica M2 and M3 fitted with a 35 and 50 mm lens. TriX at 400 ASA. For colour, always a Nikon and nearly always a 35mm lens on my main camera, and then 80-200 zoom for those longer shots if I was shooting for a magazine.
However, I always believed that I got employed because clients liked my work and my visual approach. I was always able to pull something out of the bag – give them something real and a little different. And so mentally I always shot for myself. They were – they are – my pictures, not theirs. They just got to use them and pay the bills. That approach seemed to work then. Of course nowadays, it’s essential that you have a visual signature. Back then it was not so important.
Did you ever get into shooting annual reports or advertising campaigns?
No, almost never. In forty years I have shot two annual reports, totaling 10 days work and probably not more than half a dozen other PR days. I have never shot an ad in my life. Never made a fashion shoot. I made my living and always have done so as an editorial magazine and news feature photographer, and author and co-author of ten books. I now make my living by marketing and selling my archive. Of course, I am still shooting and trying to put contemporary picture story ideas together as editorial stock.
How do you feel about where the photography business is today compared to when you first starting shooting, especially the transition to digital?
It’s a much better business than it ever has been. In the old days, you might have a select few clients in your home country, an agent in Paris, and another in New York, which kept you busy. For a young photographer today, the competition is tougher, but there are so many more potential clients because everyone uses pictures. The world is literally only a couple of clicks of the [computer] mouse away, provided of course you have a great website, and have interesting work that is distinctively yours.
What are some of your favorite photographs of all time?
This is from my first project, my book On the Road Again. In 1969, I was working as a janitor in Princeton during that summer vacation, and a waitress I fancied and who served me breakfast each morning suggested that I accompany her and some friends to a rock concert in upstate New York. I said I couldn’t go, as I wanted to shoot in Trenton that weekend. The rock concert turned out to be Woodstock. So this image reminds me of what I missed: the girl, and the first and probably the greatest rock concert ever. The child looks sad, waiting for his parents who are in a fast food restaurant.
This took me about twenty minutes to shoot. I made photographs of the woman on the right to start with, and they didn’t seem to work. Walking down the street, I came across the older woman on the left, and thought it would be great to get her and the first woman in the frame together. They were walking towards each other. Twenty minutes later, everything fell into place. Perfectly.
This is a picture I didn’t know I had taken, until I saw the contact sheet. I photographed these women stripping from that back of the tent, and just at the end, as all is revealed, the host of the show, wearing the tuxedo, pulled back the curtain to reveal for a moment. He’s giving a “Humphrey Bogart eye” – looking at us, looking at them, looking.
And finally – this is one of my first pop group pictures. They are relaxed informal, unforced. Just as it was.
Homer Sykes is selling his full archive of social documentary photos on his website, homersykes.photoshelter.com. While Homer’s largest collection features images of traditional British folklore and customs, we’re also enamored with his galleries of the Paul McCartney and Linda Wings tour, 1975 and shots of The Rolling Stones. For more information, visit Homer Sykes stock photography.