I have just listened to a fascinating podcast with Daniel Meadows in which he talks at length about his career and his thoughts on photography – A Small Voice – episode 116. All the quotes here are from that podcast.
Meadows talks about his upbringing, how he was brought up in a very typecast structure, class related, boarding school, had a housekeeper. This led to interest in other people. He struggled with authority and argued in school which led to him spending much of his final year in the art department where he saw Bill Brandt exhibition – when he realised that Brandt moved across the class structure and showed it was possible to do so in photography.
Meadows met Martin Parr at Manchester Polytechnic, they would meet up regularly and immerse themselves in contemporary photography via magazines and films. This led on to Graeme Street project. ‘How do I respond to them tearing down the middle of the city?’. He invited people into a rented shop and ask them to tell their stories and take images. He then heard about and was influenced by the Irving Penn work that went on to become Worlds in a Small Room. Meadows said that in those days ‘Kids came first, and then they would bring their parents’.
My work has been about a way of generating chance encounters with strangers…. what came through the door was so inspiring…..a brilliant portrait of Britain’. To make money he spent the summer as a photographer in Butlins, taking images both at random in the camp and at formal events ‘The walkie photographers….. there I started using colour, Ektachrome slides.’ At that point he hadn’t seen much colour work, as most of the inspiring work was still black and white.
June Street with Martin Parr came about following a visit to the Coronation Street sets. The streets were being torn down so they looked for the last remaining street and photographed everybody in there. They were done as a typology, looking towards the sofa, with every living creature in the photo.
Then came the Omnibus Project, which had multiple problems, the bus was always breaking down, it was difficult to find places to stop. He talked about working on my own. ‘You are lonely….you are scared….I slept in places where people tried to break in in the night….but generally people would open up ….. you listened to people…… I was beginning to think about what is documentary all about….I was a beginning to say “I will put you in the history books”’. Many years later these images were put on as an exhibition, he then reconnected with as many of the people as possible via local newspapers and re-photographed the people and put the new with the original images. Meadows is very definite that the story is about the individual people and not a typology.
Nowadays he says, you need to learn how to listen, that there is a story to be had on every street. Then a camera was novel, this is now not the case. How do you work now? ‘You are different from the people you are working with…. so, what can you add? Can you get other people to tell their own story?’ Now many people do on Facebook etc. But this can be very ‘dismissive of other people’ and often very ‘shouty’. ‘Can you write things without swearing and make people cry?’
“I spent a lot of my life wishing that I’d taken pictures like Cartier-Bresson or Diane Arbus or Bill Brandt. And it took me a long while to learn that I’d actually taken pictures like Daniel Meadows.” He says he has a loathing of advertising photography. Meadows then talks about the perceived differences between art and documentary and that galleries want ‘art’ not documentary – why is documentary a ‘second-class thing’? His work has now gone to the Bodleian Library at Oxford where they have taken everything – all the pieces of writing, all the journals, all the recordings, all the history.
Meadows ends by saying ‘Everybody has to invent their own way…You have to sit down and say to yourself why do I want to take pictures… who am I doing it for…what is my subject matter… I you don’t know your subject matter you are never going to make good pictures, important ones’.