The photographic camera has the potential to make an artist of anyone, yet utilising a camera, like wielding a brush or a chisel does not automatically make one an artist. All great artworks necessitate a practical and conceptual skill, and an ability to convey a message to a spectator. George Shepherd’s photographs recently exhibited at Eccles Community Art Gallery evidence both elements.
The exhibition of eighty prints, salvaged from over a thousand forgotten negatives, documents the town and people of Eccles during the 1960s – 1980s. Importantly though this is not some nauseating nostalgia fest, rather they are wonderful monochrome compositions, chance encounters which capture a period during which profound societal changes could be witnessed, even in a small mill town.
Grouped thematically, the subjects range from working life to leisure and everything in between. There is a compelling counter narrative in Shepherd’s work; this is not the ‘grim North’ of stereotypical depiction, rather this is a vibrant community in which full and secure employment, liberalising social attitudes and social mobility are tangible benefits, not mere political slogans. Shepherd’s camera was his constant companion, his images therefore the result of happenstance and serendipitous timing, not the posed and contrived compositions one is more familiar with. These photographs capture the very essence of the 1960s zeitgeist for working people, parties, dances, sharply dressed men and women, cocktail cabinets and an overwhelming sense of people living for the moment.
The artist also catalogued the demolition of Eccles’ ‘slums’ and their replacement with the new social housing. As evidence of the local architectural changes they are invaluable, but their real artistry is in his compositions, the deserted streets and torn down houses convey a sense of irrevocable, wide scale change, thus chiming with L.S Lowry’s best work of the same period.
The faces captured, long aged, or long gone, are especially poignant. A parade of veterans on Remembrance Sunday, men then in their middle years not the now more familiar very old, a young woman enjoying perhaps her first cigarette at a party, another, celebrating her 21st birthday dancing in her parents’ front room, her dress, hair and make-up, modish. There is an immediacy, an un-mitigated directness to Shepherd’s focus; the photo-journalistic qualities are on par with those of Tom Wood’s later work.
Perhaps most memorable is the accidental self-portrait, the only colour print, that the artist took of himself as he sought to adjust his camera’s timer. His outstretched hand seems somehow defensive, as though this genuinely modest man was too shy to be photographed.
The rhythms of life in a small town are as worthy of the artist’s attentions as any other subject, that these precious works have been finally exhibited is the very least they deserve. Indeed one would urge the curators of the North to consider showing Shepherd’s work, perhaps in conjunction with other photographers of the period, in a larger show so as to challenge the prevailing narrative of the region. The artist and his family hoped we would enjoy his photographs. One can safely say that I and the large number of visitors to Eccles Community Art Gallery did indeed enjoy them, thank you George, it was a pleasure meeting you.
Ed Montana-Williams is an Art and Architectural Historian and writer based in Liverpool.
A Trip Down Memory Lane: An Exhibition by George Shepherd, Eccles Community Art Gallery, Eccles.
11 May – 1 June 2019.
Shepherd’s work will also be on display at St Andrew’s Church, Eccles, 30 – 31 August 2019, at The Glasgow Gallery of Photography, September 2019, and at Salford Museum & Art Gallery December 2020 – April 2021.