I last wrote about the work of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen a couple of years ago, when the BBC had just broadcast a radio programme about her work. I bought her book ‘Byker‘ when it came out in 1983, and even the rather dull reproduction (standards really have improved greatly) couldn’t hide the power of her work on this area on the edge of Newcastle in a period when it was being completely redeveloped.
It was a subject that appealed to me as well as fine photography. The redevelopment of Byker in the 1970s showed how planners had learnt at least from some of the mistakes of the earlier decade that had taken me into political activism on the streets of Manchester before I became a photographer.
Born in Finland, Konttinen had come to London to study film at the Regent Street Polytechnic and there with like-minded fellow students had formed a collective to make documentary films. Amber Films had a commitment to documenting working-class life, and though they had started in London soon found that the capital was too expensive to live and work and moved to Newcastle, a city 300 miles to the north, where the older industries which it had depended on were in severe decline. She fell in love with Byker, moved in and lived there for 11 years, getting to know the people. Being a foreigner and being a young woman was almost certainly an advantage as she went round getting to know people and taking pictures, and as she writes “The first night I sat alone in the ‘Hare and Hounds’ I was taken under the collective wing.” And over the years she really did become a part of the community she was photographing and she goes on to write of her neighbour pointing “out proudly: ‘When she first came in our street, she couldn’t tell hello from tarra, and now she speaks Finnish with a Geordie accent.’”
I mention her again because her work is featured on the New York Times Lens blog Byker in Black and White and again today in Bringing Color to Newcastle. The mention comes with a show in New York at the L. Parker Stephenson Gallery from 15 Feb until 18 May 2013 and a lecture by Konttinen at the International Center for Photography on Feb 13 which should be streamed live (and at some point make its way into their archive on the same page.)
Although the BBC programme linked on my page no longer has the audio available, the text does perhaps give a slightly different view (as too do my comments), and the other links on my page still seem to work, taking you among other places to Konttinen’s page on Amber Online, where as well as work from ‘Byker’ and ‘Byker Revisited‘ you can also see pictures from eight of her other projects.
On the Side Gallery page of the Amber website there is some more about her trip to New York, including a link to a short film on making her ‘spacehopper’ print.