© 2019 by FRAN MAY PHOTOGRAPHY                                                                         Social Documentary Photography

From the book:

 
In the beginning......

 

When considering my life I look again at those “forks in the road” – the serendipitous choices that took a Canadian girl via Hawaii, New Zealand and the Suez Canal to Yorkshire and London to become a documentary photographer.

 

Enraged by a sadistic nun at school, I escape to become a painting student at Sheffield Art School. On a six-week subsidiary course, my tutor, Ken Phillips, first explains how a camera works. Film, aperture numbers, shutter-speeds, focus and light-metering. He tells us to get out and “see.” I am full of confidence. I understand photography – as I wander the back streets. We learn darkroom techniques, paper, developer, fixer. We each experience that incredible first time when a bare sheet of paper transforms into the memory captured a short time ago.

Roger Taylor introduces us to the history of photography. He is a collector of old cameras, photographs and books. Well-known as an authority, he shows us early Pictorialist images by Peter Henry Emerson, Clarence H. White, Robert Demachy and Alfred Stieglitz. Roger teaches us old techniques. We mix our own developers, we print on uncoated papers and bleach them and create a surface for bromoil. We practice every technique possible and I know what it must have been like in the early 1900s to be painting with light. Ken’s role becomes more profound for me. He has been a staff photographer for an international company. Despite his commercial experience he surprises me with a sense of the mystic. He introduces me to the writings of Carlos Castaneda. I am fascinated by the energy in these books and become receptive, more aware of my surroundings.

On buses and the occasional train, I travel to twenty-five destinations to take my pictures. I see an old woman behind a plate-glass window. Her hands screwed together, her stare far off and a handmade sign on the window invites us to “Step Inside”. A second woman strolls home against a backdrop of factories and smoke. A third struggles to the top of a hill. A child alone, three years old, saunters as if he owns the town. A woman walks towards me clutching a vinyl shopping bag. Her lined face shows a distressed downward expression. Grimesthorpe is full of emotional darkness in the winter light as I hop back on my bus.

Over the next eighteen months, I slip in amongst gigantic sheets of metal to photograph ship-building in Sunderland. Stand in freezing winter weather for a day of whippet racing in North Yorkshire. Document the absurdity of bed racing in Knaresborough and tug o’war at a Spring Fayre near Wakefield. Visit many small South Yorkshire stone villages that have not changed and Blackpool preparing for a season of summer fun. I find Belle Vue Zoo in Manchester empty, heading towards closure. I photograph streets of boarded, closed shops and the regeneration of urban areas. Recording everyday life becomes addictive. Curiosity leads to a travellers’ camp in Leeds, welcomed by the smiling mothers, their children and their dogs. Determined, I enter their caravans and watch them care for their babies. I shoot a second day and a third. When I return on a fourth, the men say no.

Working at the cutting edge of art, the experience is exhilarating and gives my life meaning. At age twenty, the Royal College of Art, London, offers me a place on the MA course. I photograph in homeless hostels for men and women, one for single mothers and a night shelter for children. In my first year they award me the Junior Travel Scholarship as the most promising student. I use the money to go to Ennis in Southern Ireland where I find a group of travellers seated on up-turned milk crates. A man laughs as he supports the sway of an intoxicated old woman and two anxious children look on with dismay.

I take a bus from South Kensington to Whitechapel. I become invisible as I pick my way along the streets and wander around the stalls and bustle of people in Brick Lane. An old man tries to sell me a watch from the several dozen displayed on the inside of his coat; people are buying valuable antiques, goldfish in plastic bags, puppy dogs, rabbits and discarded clothes. I go several times, with my unobtrusive camera and one lens. I blend in with my surroundings. Nobody notices me in my duffle coat and unkempt long hair. A group of men huddle together in a side street. I wonder about their conversation. A man walks past with a bent nose. I imagine him to be a boxer or a thug. The group of men huddle closer at the sight of him. A woman sits motionless among piles and piles of second-hand garments and knickknacks. I walk another twenty minutes. When I pass her again, she has not moved an inch. The remains of a poster glued to a corrugated fence state “Biggest Ever Pension Rise”. In front stand two dejected individuals trying to sell a few items out of a suitcase. An unshaven, unkempt, old man leans against a low wall. He is toothless. A worn, broken belt holds up his trousers. A few items are spread on the wall. An acoustic guitar leans against the brickwork. A second old man approaches. He is wearing a long overcoat and a flat cap. He is licking an ice cream cone. I look through the viewfinder when everything is perfectly composed. Click!

In 1977 Bill Brandt receives an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art. Bill Brandt is famous for being one of the most diverse and dramatic photographers of the twentieth century. His documentary pictures include haunting images of the Blitz with sleeping families in the tube stations, the domestic life of industrial labourers as well as the rich with their servants. As part of his doctorate, he agrees teaching duties and becomes my personal tutor. Bill Brandt is old and frail, so I go to his home near High Street Kensington. I find his building and press the telecom bell. “I am Fran from College, here for Bill Brandt”. A woman’s muffled voice replies “Come up stairs”. The woman disappears and a man’s voice calls through an open door. In the dark interior, Bill sits before a fire burning in the grate. The flames lick the ceiling and light his face. It is cosy.

“Sit down, sit down. What is your name? What have you brought me?”

 

I show him the street photographs made while at Sheffield Art College and more recent images of the East End of London. This is the first time I show anyone these images. With slow deliberate moves, he considers each of my photographs. He glances at me over the top of his glasses and resumes. I watch the light dance in his eyes.


“Tell me”, he asks, “where were these pictures taken?”

 

I reply “That one is Sheffield, the one before was in Leeds; the next, I took last week in Brick Lane”

 

He takes his time looking at these photographs. I am nervous. He draws his lamp closer, then settles back into his chair. After studying them, he turns towards me.

 

“Ah! Fran, I will tell you something. Promise me you will look after these pictures for they will have social significance one day”.

These photographs form my Master’s degree show in the summer of 1978. Barney Wan, then art editor of Vogue magazine, awards me the Vogue Prize for my social documentary photography. I feel honoured when we meet in Hanover Square. He offers me an opportunity at Vogue but the week before, the Brooklyn Museum in New York commissioned me as the Theban Royal Tomb Project Photographer in Egypt. This fork in the road leads me to live in the same house as a Harry Burton, the photographer who documented the discovery of King Tutankhamun, and follow in his footsteps.

My early photographs of those smiling travellers, the shop windows, the signs for Typhoo Tea and the characters in Brick Lane are photographs of life in flux. They are moments captured in the endless river of time, strange spaces and people, not yet familiar to this girl from a sunnier land. I had made a promise to Bill Brandt. Yes, I looked after them and I decided now is the right time to share them with you in this book.

Fran May