Everybody’s clever nowadays

February 15, 2010

Byker is a photobook by the Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen. To me it has all the elements of great art – it is in turn humourous, dark, life-affirming and deeply touching. Konttinen came to England to study film-making and although she was originally based in London, she moved to the Byker area of Newcastle in 1969.

The book is a product of the twelve years that she spent there and it as much a social document as it is an artwork. The 1970s saw a proliferation of British documentary photography and the medium became, in many respects, a political occupation, albeit with aesthetic intent. Photographers were giving a voice to those who are marginalised or simply forgotten (For example Shirley Baker, who documented the compulsory demolition of working class areas of Manchester). 

Konttinen’s work appeals to me because it has authenticity, largely due to the fact she chose to live in the area that she photographed. Whilst she would always be an outsider because of her nationality, it gave her an objectivity that perhaps wouldn’t be present if she was born and bred in Byker. But one of the many roles of an artist is highlight the beauty in places where people see none.

An intriguing aspect of the work is the way in which Konttinen interweaves words with the images. In selected parts of the book she includes conversations or monologues from residents, an atmospheric approach that really brings the people to life. The speech she includes is heavily accented and punctuated by slang but it provides a brilliant window into the everyday life of the area. In less considered hands this may have been construed as condescending but it is an amazingly heart-warming work.

Photobooks tend to have a standard approach, normally featuring an artist’s statement followed by a daunting and somehow intentionally impenetrable academic essay. By recording the thoughts, speech patterns and worldview of the people, the book creates a fantastic sense of atmosphere and it documents a community that has long since disappeared: much of the area was later bulldozed in the name of redevelopment.