Homer Sykes – British Customs and US Street Photography

by Julian Jackson

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, England 1973

Homer Sykes started as a photographer by grabbing his father’s camera and shooting in the backstreets of Nice in France, where they were holidaying in the 1960s. Streetlife and cultures of the UK have remained a major feature of his work. He is almost an anthropologist who instead of studying distant cultures, turns a penetrating gaze on our own people here in Britain. Street photography of the USA is another major strand of his work.

After his first teenage images of backstreets France won a local newspaper competition, he decided that social documentary photography was going to be his genre. In 1967 went to the prestigious London College of Printing (LCP) to study photography under Jorge Lewinski, Bill Jay and David Hurn, the Magnum photographer.

In 1969 he then went on the first of four photographic road trips round the USA. When his money ran out he briefly served as a janitor for Princeton University. It was there he first realised the power of documentary photography when he saw the work of Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winograd, Lee Friedlander, Bruce Davidson at the Museum of Modern Art. He thought that similar, important work should be done in the UK.

Homer says, “It was from those great photographers I learnt the mechanics of photography, not the technical processes, but the aesthetics of creating powerful images, which I used in my own images. When I left college in 1971 Bill Jay had started Creative Camera Magazine, which was at the forefront of independent, freethinking photography, looking at Britain similarly to US street photography.”

An English “sunrise” motif in a cafe Southend on Sea, Essex. England. 2006. Baileys Fish and Chip shop.

Although he had always liked black & white, he was using colour film, but realised that monochrome was superior for his type of imaging. At that time the main outlet in the UK for this sort of work was the colour supplements of the three upmarket newspapers The Times, The Telegraph and The Observer.

He had some pictures published in Creative Camera, and this led to his first joint exhibition in London in 1971 with images from Benjamin Stone (a Victorian photographer) and his contemporary Tony Ray Jones at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts).

After his second US road trip in 1971 he got married, and the necessities of earning a regular income meant he did a lot of editorial work in the UK, as well as creating his personal depiction of “UK customs” – which does include people hunting foxes in red coats, but all sorts of other cultural phenomena such a punk rock, musicians, the Notting Hill Riots, mining communities, and all types of other, some would say oddball, British pastimes. “Once a Year: Some Traditional British Customs” is his compilation of eccentric customs, first published in 1977, which was republished last year by Dewi Lewis Publishing – including more images than the original edition.

Druids celebrate the summer solstice at Stonehenge Wiltshire June 21st dawn sunrise. England. Perform traditional rituals and rites.

For the last 15 years or so he has been updating and collating his archive, with 17,500 edited images online, and regularly publishing books on his chosen subjects. His book “On the Road Again” documents 30 years of his penetrating, yet whimsical social documentary pictures of American street life.

Evanston Wyoming USA 1971. Two young cowboys, preparing for a rodeo in the car park. One sits on a horse saddle that is on the ground and pretends he is on a horse while another lights a cigarette sitting in the trunk of their automobile.

Suddenly the New Romantics of the London Blitz Club scene in 1980s are having a media revival. These music and fashionistas were a reaction against the grunge of punk at the time. A French publisher is reissuing his collection from the 1980s, launching a book called Blitz Club Blitz Kids1980, available here: http://www.poursuite-editions.org/index.php?/parutions/blitz-club-blitz-kids/

Homer is using a digital camera these days. He regards this as an advantage as there is none of the worrying about exposure. “You can have more freedom, be more spontaneous, without having to worry about the cost of film.” He continues to find new British customs to photograph, and is also retracing his steps and rephotographing ones he covered in the past.

To find out more, visit his website here.

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