Photographer John Myers’ portraits of 1970s Middle England suburbia

Photographer John Myers’ portraits of 1970s Middle England suburbia

In the 1970s, when most British documentary photographers were busily angling their lenses at the sociopolitical landscape of the time, John Myers focused on England’s under-appreciated ‘middle’. In particular, ‘a quiet, unremarkable town in the West Midlands’ called Stourbridge — his hometown. Over the decade, Myers would lug his hefty 5x4in large format camera around town, cataloguing his neighbours in a series of portraits, taken in their homes, workplaces, and even backyards.

‘I never set out to photograph a sociological cross-section of ages or types of people — I photographed people that I knew or that I came across in the daily round,’ Myers explains of the series, which has been published as a photobook, The Portraits. A visual record of British suburbia, Myers’ blunt photographs feature everyone from a velour-sofa salesman at his desk, to children in geometric knits and the middle-aged donning garish prints, surrounded by ornamental blown-glass. Each image says much about the history of design, as it does the lives and self-perceptions of the middle class in the 70s.

Michelle, 1974, by John Myers. © The artist. Courtesy of RRB PhotoBooks

Although, Myers’ portraits predominantly examine the spatial elements of portrait photography. Many of the subjects are boxed into the frame. The photographer had previously studied fine art at Newcastle, and so developed a sculptural sensibility in his image-making. ‘The space around the subject, whether it be a photograph of a house, garage, television or portrait, is as important as the subject itself,’ he says. ‘It is the space they inhabit.’

Another striking Myers’ hallmark is his use of a Gandolfi camera, a cumbersome device to use despite the advent of portable cameras. ‘I liked working with a Gandolfi plate camera, it slowed you down and limited you in the way that you took photographs,’ Myers explains. ‘I began to realise that the fairly lengthy experience did certain things to people, they began to inhabit their own skin and the animation and gesture of the moment gave way to something that was inherently about themselves.’

All communities weave their social interests and beliefs into the landscape they craft, and on a smaller scale individual expression can be tied up in the domestic space. Myers taps into this idea, offering a visually seductive window into how Stourbridge lived 40 years ago. A decade defined by recession and rising unemployment, when self-expression was vital. In comparison to today’s obsession with Scandi minimalism and Ikea, The Portraits make fascinating viewing.

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