In 1973 student photographers, of Manchester Polytechnic, Martin Parr and Daniel Meadows set out to photograph the residents of June Street (please see footnotes for further on this) in Salford. This area of Ordsall had been earmarked for re-development which involved the eminent demolition of existing Victorian terraces and the relocation of their residents. The pari drafted a letter to post through the letterboxes of residents in hopes of engaging them in the project of documenting the changing environment of Salford.
The series of images both captures several views of the exterior of the homes , including a group photograph of the residents together in the street, as well as the main focus of the collection, portraits of the families in their homes.
These portraits are typically in what we now call the living room. Often portraying a group of two adults with their various family members including children and pets, but also includes singular parents, couples without children or pets and singular older participants.
The series itself presents, at least in it’s current viewable format, no contextual captions or descriptions beyond a copy of the draft letter of invite and the unanimous title ‘June Street, Salford’.
Whilst I don’t really set out to focus on the compositional and technical prowess of any photographer I write about, I do feel that it is worth mentioning the fact that as students in their field I feel that Parr and Meadows have created not only thematically interesting series but one which shows maturity through it’s understated technical execution. Too often in modern photography we see the discover of the power of editing undermine the purpose or over-inflate the value of a project through visual triggers copied and adopted from commercial media. Here though the style adopted by Parr and Meadows is one of mid-century documentary albeit with a distinct lack of drama, something which as a creative choice allows the images a more open reading of what we see. The choice to frame each family within the confines of corner is a clever composition decision as it achieves several effects; first it focuses the eye on the subject, allowing movement from the edges of the frame to the centre which, with the subjects posed slightly off centre, gives us a sense of their environment and home without distracting us from the projects purpose; second, the use of the diagonal in these rooms gives more room for both the photographer and subjects to work in, we get to see and recognise the overly tall, by todays standards, ceilings with never ending walls and the wide array of objects with which the subjects decorate them.
Two subsequent results of the compositional choices made are more subjective observations but ones I feel link back to the premise of the project. The first point is the how we perceive the environment, one could argue that Parr and Meadows purpose in documenting the lives of June Street is one of social responsibility, one in which they are urging a response to the destruction of the home of these residents and one in which no doubt every working class family of the North can relate to but, I feel that the composition lends a perception of the rooms as one of claustrophobia. Whilst the fairly ‘standard’ focal length lens is enough to capture the scene as a whole, it is the face that within this narrow field of view we see the surrounding objects poking into frame showing us that despite careful placement of the camera and no doubt some scurried shifting of the odd table and chair there is barely enough room to squeeze into the living room for this shot. This feeling is exaggerated by the almost vertigo inspiring ceilings, the sheer high of which compresses the subjects down in relative height and presence to a small corner of the frame.
Aside from the compositional influence on the images, I’ve only shown one here but each is fairly typical, we see all the kitsch trappings of a 1970’s home. Heavily floral and geometrically printed wallpaper, carpets and furniture. I frequently find myself thinking of my grandparents who never seemed to move beyond this era of decorating. We also see the indicators of the heritage of these properties in the Art Deco style tiled fireplaces surround electric fires, often gas was not an option in council owned terraces. In many we see objects of imperialism, the Scots Guard statues, Japanese inspired art, Kukri knives and the such mixed in with symbols of working culture such as the horse brasses and working dogs. It’s a strange juxtaposition of British symbols of overseas power, a belief in personal cultural appreciation and recognition of ones own ‘place’ in the structure of British class systems.
Finally addressing the subjects of the images, each in presented posed closely together, side by side, on a knee, stood up and sat down, all no don’t reflective of each personal interaction at the time of capture. Whilst at first each would seem to be nonchalant and representative of each subject it is in the similarity of each pose that the influence of the photographer is found. Parr and Meadows no doubt had good intentions when setting out to complete this project, I see it reflected in the way each subject is treated, but the posing is what reveals that despite utilising compositional and technical choices to present an apparently impartial story, the totality of those choices is tipped by the final straw of positioning.
Each family seems joyous and happy, embracing laughing, smiling, well dressed and groomed. It’s almost as if we have just walked to catch up before heading out to church on Sunday with each family. Only the odd thing out of place gives away some of the story, the half smoked cigarette in one hand, the thick tights drying on a fireplace, or the drying clothes hanging from a ceiling and the half hidden ashtray behind a sofa of another.
So, in conclusion, whilst I enjoy bathing in the nostalgia of this series, I also recognise in these photos two things which I feel can be overlooked without the effort of consideration.
The first thing I recognise is the inherent sense of pride within human beings. Those with a Northern working class upbringing will instantly understand and recognise this trait. The identity of each person represented in these image is built up from the visual cues displayed. whilst the singular frame is representative of the identity that is desired by each subject it is inherently tainted by the presence of the photographer. Each subject wants to project and maintain their sense of self in a way which they feel shows them at their best. The ‘Sunday’ dress, groomed and styled hair, the cultural trinkets and tidy homes are all eerily similar. A shared idea of what it means to be ‘doing well’ in a working class environment. Unfortunately the downside to this project is the truths it belies, the family struggles, the financial struggles and even the fear of the impending relocation are all placed out of sight and out of mind. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to look ones best for the camera in doing so the subjects almost undermine their own agency, they deny the pressures of the capitalistic social class structures and instead look to adopt, in the hopes of allying with, bourgeois lifestyles which unbeknownst to them is no more unique and individual that the mass produced trinkets on their shelves.
The second point is that of the power of the photographer. Here the power of Parr and Meadows is not necessarily found in the method of photography but rather through their position as the photographer, the arbiter of inclusion and exclusion. Each frame is a box in which the photographer must put the totality of his or her perceptions of a scene or subject, what is inside that box is, at the end of the day down to the final choice of the photographer. We see this in the images which the ‘breaking of the fourth wall’ occurs with the arm of a chair, a wheel of bicycle, a hand or an ashtray. There is a deliberate choice by the photograph to leave these objects in the final image, a choice made knowing that those objects break up the sense of space or identity. Parr and Meadows chose to leave those ‘errors’ in the frame a sign of both authenticity and of the breaking of the veneer of representation. In doing so they have taken the power of representation away from those who strove the most to construct an identity of prosperity. The issues with the reversal of power is that the dynamic no longer reflects the purpose, these are no longer individuals who are being hard done by, they are objects themselves to be examined. The composition mentioned earlier which creates a focal point and vertigo inducing ceilings also creates a notable distance between us, the viewer, and the subject. This distance is the same we share with the main attraction at a zoo, all the correct accoutrement are in place but there is an invisible piece of glass between us. We see, through Parr and Meadows eyes, scene of those who pretend to be in a social class they don’t belong but we can’t be part of their world as we, the viewer, are not of their world. This objectification is somewhat a trait of Parr’s work, he reflects on obsessions with product and as identity or self-worth, throughout his career to varying degrees of success and here, as I mentioned whilst the nostalgia is sublime, his work is verging on the belittling.
In conclusion, Parr and meadows have done a fantastic job of capturing what it ‘looks’ like to be working class in the 1970’s, but in their effort to reveal some kind of hidden identity they have created images which treat the subjects as what is commonly called ‘the other’ that is subjects of an unknown or perceived exotic place. In the 19th century portraits of the smiling and happy working classes where extremely popular amongst wealth elites to hang on their walls and share around as both entertainment and proof of their philanthropic successes, unfortunately when armed with that same knowledge a working class critic smells a photo series which seems to exploit a situation not to raise awareness of the issues but awareness of their art.
I did want to make one small notation on the subject of June Street. Parr and Meadows are said to have selected June St for this project partly due to it’s pending demolition but also as they describe, it was used as an exterior location on Coronation Street the TV show. Now, I don’t have reason to doubt their motivations but I do doubt the existence of ‘June St’. After extensive researching of maps of Salford from the 1900’s through to 1975, the year of demolition, I can not find any reference to an actual street of that name. The streets used by ITV were in existence and correlate with the map and with set photo’s but they do not list ‘June St’ as a location. In essence it makes no difference to the series and my reading of it but it is an example of another tool of control, the creation of a non existent place for the purpose of creating a categorised group n which to fit narrative.
Now, if anyone can find the original location of June Street I would really appreciate knowing where it was and where you verified it from. I assume it was close to Ordsall Hall as both e the named Coronation St locations were next that and map data confirms it so if June St was a true location I would assume it would be rather local to those main locations.