BOOK REVIEW: STEPNEY WORDS III
The conversation between written word and photograph can be a troublesome point of contact. Words are used to explain and limit the photographic image, a common tactic of mainstream journalism; more considerate practitioners have challenged this approach.
In the mid-1960s, Keith Arnatt taught at Liverpool School of Art. Arnatt was to become known as a Conceptual artist, exploring the definition of art with text and photography. Later in Arnatt’s career the photographic component of his practice appeared paramount and he seemingly turned exclusively towards the medium. Ron McCormick (b. Liverpool, 1947) was a student of Keith Arnatt. McCormick joined the Fine Art degree at Liverpool School of Art in 1965 and studied painting: Arnatt taught him drawing. In 1968, he moved on to the Royal Academy Schools, London, where he spent a rigorous probationary first year drawing and painting in the Life Room. During his second year, McCormick used photography as an aid to making painted pictures. The subject for his lens was the street life of Whitechapel and Stepney, neighbouring districts in London’s East End where he was then living. McCormick was making the journey from Fine Art practice to photography.
In 1971, what McCormick exhibited was his photographs; pictures of Spitalfields were shown at the Whitechapel Library and here began a relationship between text and image that was to stir considerable trouble. The exhibition was seen by a young probationary English teacher whose pupils at his Stepney school had been writing poems on their lives in East London. The teacher, Chris Searle, instantly recognised a correspondence between McCormick’s visual records of day-to-day life and the poems written by the children in his class. The photographer and the teacher soon made contact. McCormick took his photographs into Searle’s classes where this input stimulated the writing of more poems. The following development in the conversation between the two men and two media was the production of a ‘dummy’ book of the children’s poems and McCormick’s photographs, titled Stepney Words.
The book was presented to the Governors of the school by Searle and McCormick who were seeking funding and approval to produce it: neither was forthcoming. Instead, the pair funded the book themselves, with the help of donations, and released it under the publishing name of Reality Press. The consequences of their action would be dramatic: Searle was dismissed from his post at the school, and what ensued was a lengthy dispute that attracted national attention. The children poets were at the heart of the struggle between their teacher, Chris Searle, and the school Governors. They organised support for the reinstatement of their mentor through a strike—that mirrored, and was informed by, the industrial actions taken by their elders—and a march on to Trafalgar Square. Clearly, Searle’s pupils were not the ignorant receptacles of traditional rote learning but instead co-conspirators in relation to their own destinies. With support from the trade unions, in particular the National Union of Teachers, Searle did eventually return to his post at the school nearly two years after his dismissal.
From the first publication of Stepney Words numerous developments have taken place, including a second volume. The friendship between Searle and McCormick has remained constant. In 2016, when one of Searle’s former pupils—the writer Alan Gilbey—discussed a project to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Shoreditch’s Rich Mix arts centre that would involve four local secondary schools, Gilbey suggested Chris Searle should be contacted; it was inevitable that McCormick would also be part of this reunion of the English teacher and his pupil. Stepney Words III was the resulting publication.
For Stepney Words III McCormick had initially intended to draw from his archive of East End photographs, yet revised this plan. He took new images that responded to the poems composed by this different generation of schoolchildren who again examined the place where they live—the Borough of Tower Hamlets—the place where McCormick once lived and photographed. The return to his own past, in relation to the streets of the city and his own picturing of this locale, is a significant step in the reassessment of his early work. This revisit has led to another collaboration with Chris Searle, a book titled Whitechapel Boy that includes a photo-essay from McCormick’s archive of 1970s pictures. McCormick’s oeuvre, like that of his peers, is currently in the process of reappraisal. A selection of his Whitechapel pictures is to be published by Café Royal Books.
In the late 1970s, Ron McCormick took up the post of artist-in-residence at Newport College of Art but stayed to teach on the influential Documentary Photography course. For McCormick, this would be a reunion with his tutor Keith Arnatt who had moved to South Wales in 1969 to teach on the Fine Art course. Now colleagues, McCormick and Arnatt were able to renew their relationship and engage in conversation about photography. In the 1980s Ron McCormick established the Photomedia Workshop at Newport. Arnatt taught alongside his ex-student on this course, thus demonstrating the long-lasting interplay between the roles of teacher/tutor and pupil/student. From their first meeting twenty years earlier, McCormick and Arnatt—also a graduate of the Royal Academy—both traveled from using photography as an auxiliary to their practice to the centrality of this media. The written word has had its place in this transition. For Arnatt as Conceptual artist, the written word was an analytical tool; for McCormick as realist painter, words paralleled his photographic observations. Words have existed not to contain photographs but instead engage in troublesome correspondence.
Review by Stephen Clarke, images by Ron McCormick.
Ron McCormick ran the Half Moon Gallery, London between 1971-79 (which later became Camerawork) and was founding Director of the Side Gallery, Newcastle. Ron McCormick is currently exhibiting and publishing works from his archive.
Stepney Words III is published by Rich Mix and Apples & Snakes (2017). Photography: Ron McCormick; Lead Poet: Chris Searle; and participating schools.
Ron McCormick’s pictures of Whitechapel will be published by Café Royal Books in 2018
Stephen Clarke’s article A New West: Ron McCormick on McCormick’s 1980s photographs of Western Australia was published in The Royal Photographic Society’s Contemporary Journal No. 66, Winter 2017 (Feb. 2017) pp. 22-25. It is available to view at: https://issuu.com/bjsdesign/docs/winter_2017_journal_final_for_issuu
Stephen Clarke’s exhibition review of Ron McCormick’s photographs of South Wales 1977-1984 How Green Was My Valley was published on Photomonitor: It is available to view at: https://www.photomonitor.co.uk/ron-mccormick-green-valley/
The author Stephen Clarke is an artist, writer and lecturer based in the North West. He studied Fine Art at Newport, South Wales (1983-86) and was tutored by both Ron McCormick and Keith Arnatt. His photobook Newport Snow 1985 is published by Café Royal Books in an edition of 200: https://www.caferoyalbooks.com/shop/newport-snow-1985-stephen-clarke