John Myers, The Guide

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by RRB Publishing (here). Softcover with end flaps, 248×285 mm, 116 pages, with 83 monochrome photographs and extensive notes by the author. Designed by Jessamine Thoemmes-Tondowski. In an edition of 800 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Photo careers often proceed in fits and starts. The path of John Myers is even more circuitous than most. After earning his BFA in painting in 1967, he soon took an interest in photography. He experimented with several film bodies, eventually settling on a rather unwieldy 4×5 Galdolfi folding view camera. Beginning around 1972 he made regular photo outings with the Galdolfi on foot, documenting the neighborhood within walking distance of his home in Stourbridge, England. He was open to all material, his content defined more by proximity than specific subject matter. He photographed people, buildings, streets, and vernacular structures, and whatever human-related objects he found. “There was no project – no check list – no business plan… and there were no outcomes planned – I wasn’t working to produce a book or have an exhibition. I just took the photographs by myself.” 

If he shot freely and often, his approach was not exactly freewheeling. “The process was not based on chance,” he is clear to point out now. The cumbersome requirements of the camera injected Myers’s work with a degree of rigor to begin with, and he complemented its demands with an observational style of British reserve. His were not the small camera snapshots then gaining ascendance in the U.S. Instead he placed great importance on patient study and precise framing. Myers was a purist who bypassed imperfect negatives and never cropped. “The space around the subject – whether it be a portrait, or a photograph of a house, garage, or television was as important as the subject itself…because that is the fluid in which they [were] living.” 

Business plans—or lack of them—notwithstanding, Myers’s photographs gained a steady audience in the early 1970s, at least in the UK. They circulated in the magazines of the time, including Creative Camera and British Image I. A group show at Serpentine Gallery in 1973 was followed by a solo show there in 1975. In the midst of these exhibitions he self-published a monograph. Its title, Middle England, captured both the class dynamics of his subjects and their geographic location. After getting his foot in the door with these various projects, his exhaustive book on Harold Edgerton seemed geared to pry it wide open. But alas, opportunities dried up. His career stymied. Whether by the whims of fate or milieu, the reasons are now unclear. But, like so many photographers before and after, Myers fell into a long period of relative anonymity. By the end of the 1980s, he says, “I was running out of steam. I was beginning to go out and look for photographs. I had run out of things to say.” Eventually he gave up photography entirely, switching over to painting. 

That might have been the end of it, if not for a chance encounter with Pete James in 2011. The large exhibition eventually spawned by that meeting, at Ikon Gallery in 2012, sparked a new wave of interest which has continued more or less to the present. His archive was acquired by the Library of Birmingham and touted by Martin Parr. His inclusion in 2014’s Phaidon Photo guide was a notch in the career belt. In 2018, RRB Books—based in Bristol, not far from Stourbridge—published The Portraits (reviewed here), the first of three comprehensive monographs of his early work. Looking At The Overlooked and The End Of Industry followed in 2019.

RRB’s website now refers to their Myers trio as a “Catalogue Raisonne of his entire photographic output.” The accuracy of that claim is uncertain, but they have rebirthed a wide swath of his archive. Their broad titles were a rubric imposed in retrospect. Although somewhat arbitrary, the categories form a rough framework for understanding Myers. They have paved the way for his latest book, The Guide. This is a broad career survey sampling bits and pieces from all corners of the Myers oeuvre. The pictures are organized roughly according to RRB’s 3 previous monographs. “Mr. Jackson” is here, along with “Lift doors at Waitrose”, “Giraffe”, “Furniture Store”, “The Bed”, “The Ten Televisions”, and so on. All will be familiar for any casual Myers fan. If The Guide were a late career music album, it might be a greatest hits record. But it is also something more.

What sets The Guide apart—from both its forerunners and most photography monographs—is the addition of commentary by Myers himself. His words are sprinkled liberally throughout the book, every three or four photographs. Sample subchapters give a sense of their character: Who I photographed, Titles and the generic, Subtopia, Deadpan, Me, my camera the viewer, etc. There are thirty essays total. Much of their content has been adapted from two lengthy online interviews, a 2019 chat with Brad Feuerhelm published in American Suburb X, and a 2020 interview published in Fused Magazine. This original material was loose and conversational, and the same informal tone carries through The Guide. Myers’s comments discuss the logistics of making specific pictures, but they often spill over into broader musings. The cumulative result is a candid glimpse into the mind of a serious photographer. This is not just how the sausage is made, but by who, what, and why someone might make that sausage in the first place.

John Myers is hardly the first photographer to focus on the local vernacular. One thinks of Atget in Paris, Mark Cohen in Wilkes-Barre, or Hiroh Kikai plumbing the depths of Asakusa. Like Myers, these photographers limited their material essentially to places they could easily walk. To varying degrees, all were motivated by the lure of hidden treasure around the next corner. In the words of Eve Arnold, “It’s the hardest thing in the world to take the mundane and try to show how special it is.” Myers took a different tack. He photographing subjects on their own terms. His early pictures express a brute minimalism which veers closer to Richard Serra than William Eggleston. Generally less is more. Before his lens a bed is simply “a physical shape that refuses to ‘give’ or accommodate. There’s nothing happening.” A photograph of lift doors at Waitrose “can be summed up in one sentence: This is a photograph of the lift doors at Waitrose.”

“I think Eve Arnold got it wrong,” says Myers. “It’s the hardest thing in the world to take the mundane and try to show how boring it is.” A bed or an elevator is one thing, but the task becomes more difficult with people, a subject whose humanity and natural fascination are tough to quash photographically. Myers cites Sander and Arbus as key influences, careful to note the misunderstood banality in the latter’s work. “Photographs of babies, or a woman in Park Avenue, or on the street, or of a man at a parade wearing white mac —these are not freaks, they’re just ordinary people.” Taking his cue from Arbus, Myers found material in the prosaic. “I photographed people that I knew or that I came across in the daily round.” His portraits are stunning. They swim in the same aesthetic waters as Arbus. The more plain the subject, the more fascinating, a dimension only enhanced by the intervening decades. Portraits in The Guide of Robert Smith, Peter Olley and his dogs, Mr. Jackson—“squashed into shallow, cubist space”— and Nicola and Donny Osmond are each a minor tour de force of clear, direct, documentation. 

The casual purity of Myers’ portraits belies their hidden challenges. His play-by-play description of a session with Mr. and Mrs. Seabourne hints at the precise observation required, in situations where a fateful twist might separate an average image from a great one. “I took seven photographs that day. We moved to the sofa for the last two shots and suddenly it became natural. The space fitted them. In the first of the two photographs the hand hangs down awkwardly in front of his leg and his feet are close together, maybe a sign of tension or discomfort. But in the three or four minutes between that image and the published photograph, without any instruction or guidance, Mr. Seabourne’s feet moved and his hand came to rest on his knee….When I saw the hand I knew that was the photograph.” 

In the path of such clear attention, stationary forms didn’t stand a chance. Myers overpowered the various homes, fences, streets, and sign posts he encountered, converting them into austere Platonic forms. TV sets, furniture displays, and wallpaper were mere grist for subjugation. The Guide’s chapter headings assign labels to his style: slow photography, generic, deadpan, boring, subtopia. All are suitable, but perhaps Myers has the best description, “landscapes without incident.” In recent decades this visual language has become a major strain of contemporary photography, first coming to prominence with the New Topographics in 1975 and lingering in the photographic ether ever since. One might trace a direct evolution from Frank Gohlke, Lewis Baltz, and Robert Adams straight through to Guido Guidi, John Gossage, Tim Carpenter, and Ron Jude. Where is John Myers in the timeline? Dates suggest he was an early pioneer, but perhaps it’s more accurate to place him outside of any lineage. 

The current deadpan zeitgeist might explain the renewed interest in Myers’s work, along with photography’s fetish for rediscovery (e.g., Mike Disfarmer, E.J. Bellocq, Vivian Maier, and recently Lora Webb Nichols). But in the early 70s the photo world was diffuse. Myers kept abreast of developments through books and magazines. The Guide has a full page listing of his interest and influences, 1972-1975. Sifting the names, some are not surprising. Atget is there of course, along with the Bechers, Evans, Killip, Ruscha, and Strand. Other names might be harder to associate with Myers’ style. Erwitt? Krims? Winogrand? What looks at first like a Rosetta Stone to unlock Myers is actually rather generic. It has the bland canonical flavor that might be typical of any young shutterbug who’d studied Szarkowski and Newhall fifty years ago. 

Myers continued to shoot through the 1980s, a period loosely categorized by RRB as The End Of Industry. His photographs of the so-called Black Country near Stourbridge—a region of metal factories in decline—have greater compositional nuance than the early work. Perhaps he had relaxed a bit approaching middle age and learned to step back from the edge. A picture of “Haulage Yard, Lye” is a masterpiece of subtle interplay. Various objects dot the edge of the frame, each pulling their weight to activate three clean lines in the photo’s center. A picture called “Pear Tree And Urn” is just as strong. At first glance it seems mostly blank yard. But small items on the fringe keep the eye entertained. If he’d shot this scene in 1972, the large tower in the background might fill the frame. But here, in 1983, it’s a complementary figure, recalling the jigsawed precision of Adam Bartos or Stephen Shore. Myers has even ventured to offer cultural context. “It’s about class, status, and where we see ourselves in the social order.” If those strains are perhaps faint in a pear tree, the photograph “Female Brick Worker” clearly implies societal commentary. This from a man who proudly declared earlier he was “not interested in any historic dimension others seek to impose upon the work.” Something had shifted by the 1980s. It would have been fun to follow its course into the future. But alas, Myers stopped shortly afterward. The Guide ends in 1988.

With its combination of photos and essays, The Guide is an excellent introduction to Myers. It is probably the best starting point for anyone unacquainted with his work. That said, it does have limitations. To accommodate its catch-all nature with broadened appeal, RRB has made some compromises in production quality. It’s a softback for starters, unlike the three previous books. The texts are strangely unsourced, including several critical interjections which seem to drop out of nowhere. Most importantly, the image quality is sub par compared to RRB’s earlier trio. Myers’s pictures are reproduced on matte paper, in a dull sepia grey which lies limp on the page. The resolution is adequate, but I find the muddy tones cramped and hard to make out. Perhaps these are artistic decisions. To me they feel more like cut corners. Considering that his pictures were shot on 4×5 sheet film, and that Myers was a finicky darkroom printer, The Guide does not convey their full power. Perhaps no book could fulfill that task. But these reproductions leave me wondering just what might have been. The same question might apply to Myers halting career.

Collector’s POV: John Myers is represented by Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière in Paris (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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