In 1978 Henri Cartier-Bresson celebrated his 70th birthday with Amber Film & Photography Collective and a retrospective at Side Gallery, the group’s then new documentary photography venue in Newcastle upon Tyne. As a thank you, he sent a photograph inscribed “for ever Amber”. 37 years later his words come to life in the first major retrospective for Amber’s remarkable collection.
Opening at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, from 27 June – 19 September 2015, the exhibition includes some of the most profoundly affecting photography of the 20th Century.
The Amber collective came together in 1968 ‘to collect documents of working class culture.’ Basing itself in North East England, it has explored the lives and landscapes of marginalised communities ever since. The opening of Side Gallery in 1977 allowed it to do this in the inspirational context of the best of contemporary and historical humanist documentary. The on-going AmberSide Collection now holds over 20,000 photographs, 12,000 transparencies and 100 films.
Amber’s filmmakers were recently described by Channel 4 as ‘the unsung heroes of British cinema’. The roll call of photographers involved is impressive by anyone’s standards: Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Graham Smith, Chris Killip, Marketa Luskacova, Martine Franck, John Davies, Nick Hedges, Chris Steele-Perkins, Tish Murtha, Simon Norfolk. The collection’s international exhibitions include Weegee, August Sander, Russell Lee and Robert Doisneau, Susan Meiselas, Eugene Richards, Graciela Iturbide and Jindrich Streit. Using film, photography and a single working narrative, no other documentary project of this order has been sustained for so long. The collection is uniquely important.
The main For Ever Amber exhibition will feature over 150 original photographs and film clips, that capture over 40 years of cultural, political and economic shifts in North East England.
1. The exhibition begins with ‘1968 – 1979: Collecting Documents of Working Class Culture’, charting the roots of Amber and the coming together of its early members. It opens with photographer and founder member Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s seminal portrait of Byker, the terraced Newcastle community already scheduled for demolition when she moved there in 1969. 1974’s River Project, documenting and touring Tyneside, saw the arrival of new collective member Graham Smith and the classic industrial documentaries High Row and Launch. The exhibition and film Quayside(1979) played key role in halting the demolition of much of Newcastle’s historic river front.
2. 1980 - 1991: Landscapes, Lives & Struggles explores the opposition to the Thatcher government’s social, industrial and economic policies, which framed much of Amber’s work in the 1980s.
A Channel 4 Workshop franchise enabled a major expansion in filmmaking with documentary-rooted dramas such as Seacoal(1985), T Dan Smith (1987) and the fishing industry film In Fading Light (1989). The build-up to the 1984 Miners’ Strike saw photographic projects by John Davies and Bruce Rae, alongside video ‘trigger tapes’, designed to encourage discussion and piloting the Film Workshop Movement’s Miners’ Campaign Tapes. After the strike, the group committed to a 5 year residency in North Shields, buying a pub as a social base/film location and a former chapel for a studio.
3.1987 – 1997: Bringing It All Back Home, takes a slight step back to trace the story of a European engagement, which began with an exchange project between Amber and the East German film company DEFA. In ‘From Marks & Spencer to Marx and Engels’ the group documented the shipbuilding and fishing town of Rostock, while DEFA documented Tyneside. Despite savage cuts to Side Gallery, the early 90s saw Unclear Family, an international photography collaboration that brought together documentarists from the UK, Czechoslovakia, Germany and France.
4. 1998 – 2010: Elegies & Renewals explores the rebuilding of support for Amber and Side Gallery. It reflects the impact of digital technology, which has also been instrumental in the revival of cultural interest in documentary and its language. The completion of Amber Film’s Coalfield Trilogy was matched by Coalfield Stories, a major programme of photographic commissioning in the post-industrial Durham Coalfield.
During this period, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen also returned to Byker. The government’s Asylum Seeker dispersal policy was radically changing the cultural make-up of The Byker Wall Estate and she found her 1972 photographs being used extensively to explain the community to its new residents. Invited back to look at what was happening, she began work on the portrait project Byker Revisited.
5. In a separate room, the exhibition focuses on Amber & The History Of Documentary, with over 60 photographs drawn from classic bodies of work Amber collected as it explored the traditions of humanist documentary: August Sander and his extraordinary survey of ‘German types’ from between the wars; Russell Lee, who visited Side Gallery, one of the great photographers, employed by the US’ Farm Securities Administration to make a case for Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1930s USA; The Parisian master Robert Doisneau, who was shown a set of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s prints and, recognizing a shared sensibility agreed to produce a set of exhibition prints for the gallery. Photographer Tish Murtha, working in the gallery on a job scheme in 1980, suggested a Weegee exhibition and Amber’s Murray Martin went to New York, negotiating the first UK tour of his work. Lewis Hine, Martin Chambi, Newcastle’s own Jimmy Forsyth and the work of some of the North East’s great industrial photographers complete this section.
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