Homer Sykes, Photographer
On Brick Lane in the nineteen seventies, on a damp January day like today, it would have been a toss-up between the Liver & Chips at 36p or the Fish & Chips at 27p for dinner, but either way I know that the Semolina Pudding at 6p would have finished it off nicely. Yet this dilemma will always remain hypothetical for me because I was not there, though thanks to the engaging vision of photographer Homer Sykes I am able to glimpse the lost world of the recent past in the East End. In Homer’s masterly picture, this cook will eternally be gazing down Brick Lane waiting for the next rush of customers, full of eagerness to clear every dish off the blackboard. With his strangely shaped hat and quaint apron, he is like a character from Breugel – and through Homer Sykes’ lense he is transfigured to become the ultimate custodian of the steamy cafe where hot dinners can never go cold.
“I was a middle class boy who came to London from Birmingham to do photography for fashion and advertising, and make money,” Homer admitted to me with self-depreciatory ambivalence, “And then I got interested in reportage. Everything in London was new to me, I’d had a sheltered background and I wanted to explore the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots.” But even before he came to study at the London College of Printing, Homer was photographing gypsy encampments in the centre of Birmingham and undertaking photographic road trips around America on greyhound buses.
For decades, Homer Sykes has enjoyed a lively and wide-ranging career as a photojournalist working for all the major publications and he has published a string of books including, “The English Season” and “Mysterious Britain,’ whilst also pursuing personal work, created in parallel to his public commissions. It was only in 2008, when scanning his collection of negatives, that Homer revisited the photographs he had taken in Spitalfields. “People are interested in what places were like thirty of thirty-five years ago,” he explained to me with a philosophical grin of delicate amusement, “But it doesn’t seem like thirty years ago to me, even though it was before an awful lot of people who look at my pictures were born.”
Homer heard that the Peabody Estates were to be demolished and, throughout his twenties, came to the East End whenever he had days free between assignments.” I used to walk around photographing stuff that was different and interesting and visually exciting.” he said, “The old lady in her flat at the top of Brick Lane, I would have spent an hour nattering with her to wait for the moment when she put her head in her hands.”
“These flats were being boarded up and people were moving out, and I remember thinking,’I'd better go and photograph this.’” he recalled, “I met this woman outside in the street and we got chatting and she invited me in. You have to talk to people and get their trust. What I like about this picture – she’s wearing a coloured housecoat – is the nice wall with the paper, the photographs and the kids’ paintings, and the teapot and milk bottle on the table. Her whole life is there and yet she’s being moved out.”
L.Elgrod, watchmakers, the last building standing in an alley off Whitechapel High St, incarnates the dogged persistence of the people here - while the details of clothes speak to us in voices that are no longer to be heard around Brick Lane, whether of the East European cook with his arcanely styled apron buttoned onto his coat, or of the black children so neatly dressed, in frocks with kneehigh socks, simply to play in the yard outside their Peabody flats. “Clothing tells you so much about who people are,” as Homer put it plainly.
These are unsentimental photographs, filled with human sympathy, yet there is also a classical aesthetic present which gives Homer Sykes’ pictures an enduring quality beyond their importance as social documentary, “All my work is considered, with a sense of formality.” confirmed Homer, “I am interested in composition – the content and composition must go hand in hand. It can’t be just a picture, an extra something is required.” In the selection published here, all are enlivened by unconventional compositions, like the picture of the Bengali sweatshop with an empty space at the centre, or of the woman holding up a mirror whilst trying on a wig in the market – only it is her friend’s face that is revealed to the camera.
“I’m just the kind of guy who needs to take pictures,” Homer Sykes admitted to me with a shrug, yet the serious and soulful body of work he has done belies such levity, even if it is characteristic of the spirit of the man.
You can see more of Homer Sykes’ East End photographs by clicking here
Photographs copyright © Homer Sykes