John Myers, The Portraits

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 By RRB Photobooks (here). Hardcover, 176 pages, with 92 black and white photographs. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 450, with a 5×4 inch gelatin silver print. The photographs were made between 1972 and 1984. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we think about the history of photographic portraiture, one of the narratives that constantly repeats itself is the idea of the photographer who stays close to home, spending a lifetime shooting the people who live nearby, either out in the streets, in their homes, or in a studio setting. One of the reasons this story returns again and again is that the art of portraiture, at least as executed with a camera, is fundamentally built on the fragile trust developed between the artist and the subject, and it generally takes time (sometimes measured in years or decades) for people to get comfortable with each other. Being known and local is often the starting point for the consent that enables memorable pictures to happen.

John Myers made his mark as a photographer shooting in and around the town of Stourbridge (where he lived), in the West Midlands, in England, during the 1970s and early 1980s. He used his bulky large format camera to make images of the suburban residents, mostly in their own homes, and his slow, old school approach must have felt a bit contrarian in a world increasingly dominated, at that time, by handheld cameras. His photographic career ended in the mid-1980s, and his work was largely forgotten until recently, when it was rediscovered and then became the subject of this fine monograph (and two more which are scheduled to follow). In the past few decades, the history of British photography has been (and continues to be) researched, studied, and fleshed out with increasing depth, and Myers is yet another recently recovered piece of that much larger puzzle.

What stands out about Myers’ work is that he clearly understood the aesthetic lessons to be found in the portraits of both August Sander and Diane Arbus, and then took those learnings somewhere decidedly new by filtering them through a distinctly British eye for dry understatement. We have often come to use the word “deadpan” to describe portraits that have a deliberate sense of distance, but that particular word implies an aloof cooless that doesn’t apply to what Myers has done. His portraits are reserved and restrained to be certain, but there is a consistent undercurrent of empathy, intention, and even politely wry humor that gives them an enduring richness. They also document a specific cross section of British suburban life in the 1970s, creating a cultural context that is worth remembering.

From Sander, Myers took the formal grace of the engaged, full figure portrait, where the subject stands (or sits) for the camera in the surrounding context of his or her life. And like Sander’s (and later Irving Penn’s) photographs of various professions, Myers often singled out workers. Some of the images, like those of the brick workers, the foundry owner, the butcher (with a pig slung over his shoulder), the mold maker, and the steel worker, document physical laborers of various kinds, and feel like a direct aesthetic descendant of Sander. But Myers then added in the suburban desk jobs of car salesman (smiling under a huge British flag), pet shop assistant, sofa salesman (flanked by couches perplexingly raised on stilts), and supermarket Santa Claus, giving everyday work a quirkier local flavor.

From Arbus, Myers drew an open willingness to see and engage everyone in the community, even those with more eccentric habits and marginalized lifestyles, and to capture them surrounded by the trappings of their passions, however unconventional. Once again, some of these choices seem filtered through a particular sense of Britishness. More traditional social conventions and pastimes take on a slight hint of oddness, the men playing snooker or the long haired usher in formal wear both obvious and slightly askew. Hints of the 1970s (as well as the remnants of the mod 1960s) come through in portraits of leather jacketed motorcyclists (one in the sidecar), a bearded man in knee high black boots, so called “hippy” families, and a groovy Robert dressed in a torrent of clashing patterns. And Arbus’ personal attentiveness is echoed in the many singular details Myers has seen – the shirtless John with his Dracula book, the masked child at Christmas, Neville with his “obsession” poster, a different John seated on a floral couch with a mysterious basket, and Sarah with her massive wooden wardrobe.

Myers particularly shines when he reformulates his compositions using the surrounding objects and settings, subtly upending our spatial expectations. He consistently does magic with house plants, using a sprawling large leafed plant to divide Paul and Richard in their armchairs, a succulent to menacingly interrupt Miss Cook, a tall cactus to mimic a tall teenage boy, and an artfully arranged set of plants to surround the elderly Miss Bostin. Other images are deliberately unbalanced by large furniture that sets the rooms (and thus the portraits) off kilter – a vanity with a stereo system, a tapestry on the wall, a dining room table with a birthday cake, a tiled fireplace surrounded by knick knacks, an oriental carpet that puzzlingly creeps up a wall, and a silver and china cabinet (that happens to make a perfect place to smoke a cigarette) all enliven Myers’ pictures.

He also had repeated success with children as his sitters. He finds boys with sticks, with (and without) a soccer ball, in plastic knight’s armor, and with a toy gun and army helmet. And there are even more girls – with a cat sweater, on a rocking horse, with lots of Donny Osmond posters, with poofy round hair, with a furry winter hood, and sitting bored on a swing. At birthday parties, he seems to have pulled kids out into the dining room, catching them in their party dresses, often in moments of quiet. And like Arbus, we wasn’t afraid to make sensitive direct portraits of kids with developmental issues, seeing them with same non judgemental attentiveness he applied to all his subjects. Even the infant perched on the sofa seems eager to connect with the man behind the camera.

The design of The Portraits is pared down and restrained, opting for classic proportions and a minimum of fuss and distraction. The cover is wrapped in muted grey cloth, and the excellent black and white reproductions are generally shown one to a spread, aside from a handful of spreads where two paired variants sit side by side. The volume feels deliberately comprehensive, in that it has included a few blurred works that might normally have been edited out. This completeness offers a fuller view of the breadth of Myers’ portraiture, and makes the photobook an excellent reference tool. Overall, it feels like a book that was purposefully designed to let the photographs speak for themselves.

The good news is that these portraits can handle intense scrutiny; in fact, they’re the kind of well-crafted pictures that get better with repeated viewing, their subtleties slowly revealing themselves after extended patient looking. Based on these portraits alone, Myers deserves to be better reinserted into the larger historical flow of British photography, and with two more volumes of his work to come from RRB in the coming year, his artistic story will likely get clearer. His pictures give us a flavor for the overlooked human realities of 1970s Britain, delivering one-to-one connections to real people that are both resonant of a particular place and time and broadly universal.

Collector’s POV: John Myers appears to have recently become represented by Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière in Paris (here), where he has a show coming up later this month. His work has no secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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