A big question occurred to me tonight as I looked around Chris Steele – Perkins’ new exhibition, England My England. The question was so big, in fact, that it was the very first thing I wrote down in my notebook, even bypassing writing my name and reward amount for return inside the front cover (the joys of a brand new Moleskine). The question was, ’How does he get where he gets?’ From face-on shots of tattooed National Front protesters to photographs of stocking-footed girls brawling in pub car parks, Chris Steele-Perkins has a killer eye for the ‘decisive moment.’ England My England is a retrospective of his photographs of the last forty years, a time-line of his work starting from his days as a photographer on the student newspaper of Newcastle University
One photograph in particular, titled, ‘Old Lady Living Alone, Middlesborough.1976′ was literally stopping people in their tracks as they moved around the gallery. ‘How did you take that?’ one visitor asked Steele-Perkins, congratulating him on both the image’s intimacy and its quiet respect for its subject. ‘I used to do social work in the West End of Newcastle’ the visitor explained, ‘and I looked after a lady who was just like that. In fact, looking at that picture I can almost smell her house, it takes me right back there.’
‘I just knocked on her door,’ Steele-Perkins said. ‘I knocked on her door and I said that I was taking photographs of poverty for a project and she invited me in. I went into her house, into that room and I did an interview with her, a taped interview, and then I took some pictures. This is one of them … Life was different back then, people kept their front doors unlocked. Of course some people told me to go away … but she didn’t.’ And so Steele-Perkins has captured life as it was for an elderly lady who lived alone in the Middlesborough of the 1970’s. Sitting on her sofa with her legs perilously close to the open fire, her buttoned up coat and her hat squashed squarely onto her head she seems vulnerable and yet strong. The visitor continued, ‘What’s amazing to me is that you have managed to keep her dignity, you haven’t exploited her. She is as she was and that’s something quite special. I wanted to thank you for that.’
Steele-Perkins’s work does have dignity, by the bucketload. His most recent work has been to photograph carers in their daily routines and the images are raw, beautiful and above all, real. ‘Bromley. Kelly, who is 15, Helps look after her ill mother. 2009′ is the perfect case in point. We see a young woman leaning against a tall fridge in a kitchen, a coffee cup clasped to her chest. She wears a tight striped cotton vest and a white cardigan and a chunky silver Tiffany necklace that seems too large for her small frame. Her eyes hold the camera’s gaze and we can see the weight of the world on her narrow shoulders.
‘Couple in a Hospice for the Terminally ill. 1992′ shows us an elderly couple, she in the bed and he at her side, holding her hand. The frame is filled with textures, from the age spots on his hands to the wrinkles on her face, the fine cotton knit of her jumper to the chunky weave of the handmade blanket that covers her legs. She looks at him, her eyes full of what? We do not know. It could be sadness, it could be love, it could be fear, it could be need. Whatever it is he does not meet her eye but looks beyond and past her, his handsome nose in profile against the lens. The photograph shows us all what life, death and marriage are all about.
Elsewhere in the exhibition Steele-Perkins shows us the lighter side of life. We see a ‘Picnic at the Glynebourne Opera. 1988′ with enough cerise taffeta to deck a three piece suite. The picnic in question is watched over by a line of Friesian cows in an adjacent field and includes a crystal vase of flowers, Portmerion china (the ‘wild strawberry’ pattern), a wicker waste-paper basket for the rubbish and, joy of joys, amongst the strawberries and the Veuve-Cliquot, that bastion of the English picnic: Tupperware.
In ‘Juliana’s Summer Party. 1989′ we see a bow-tied rascal hoiking down the candy floss pink cocktail dress of a young woman who is bedecked in pearls, diamante and lashings of pale blue eyeliner. She reveals an enormous white toothed smile and, amid a flurry of boned and ruched satin, her left nipple. You can almost hear the ‘Benny Hill’ theme-tune in the image.
According to the gallery guide Steele-Perkins ‘would resist being called a cultural anthropologist … His stance is nonjudgemental or, more precisely, of Dickensian largesse, but his preoccupation with the truth about England, brilliantly captured, means perhaps that he really loves it, warts and all.’ What I would say is that when I read that Steele-Perkins studied psychology at Newcastle University his photographic vision of the world, and of what makes the people in that world tick, suddenly made an awful lot of sense. A beautiful slice of life, warts, nipples and all.