Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

Lady with the Beehive (Byker)

1971, printed 2012

Artist
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen born 1948
Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 325 x 323 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2015
Reference
P81248

Not on display

Summary

This photograph was taken by the Finnish-born British photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen in 1969. The photograph is from Konttinen’s extended series Byker 1969–81, which documents the streets, buildings and primarily the inhabitants of Byker, a working class community in the north-east of England. Lady with the Beehive (Byker) is a portrait of a woman dressed in a textured, patterned coat, with long dark hair that partially trails down her shoulders, while the upper part is arranged in a beehive hairstyle on the crown of her head. Although she poses in the manner of a traditional studio portrait, with her hands clasped together in her lap, she looks pensive and casts her gaze away from the camera. This work is one of a number of gelatin silver prints in Tate’s collection that Konttinen printed from the 1969–81 series between 2012 and 2014. As is customary in Konttinen’s practice, the photographs are not editioned. All of the prints are signed and inscribed in pencil on the reverse with the title of the series, Byker, and the image and print dates.

Byker is the name of an inner-city area in the east side of Newcastle upon Tyne, situated close to sites of industry on the Tyne riverside. Until the 1960s it was a working class area of densely built Victorian terrace and slum housing, after which it was redeveloped by the local council, who had condemned the houses as unfit for human habitation. Demolition began in 1966 and the council appointed the architect Ralph Erskine to design its replacement: the now Grade II listed Byker Wall estate, which was constructed between 1969 and 1982. In 1969 Konttinen moved to Byker, where she lived for six years until her house was demolished. She returned over the next decade to continue to document life in the community. Konttinen was part of the Amber film and photography collective, which formed in London in 1969 and relocated that same year to Newcastle upon Tyne, with a commitment to the documentation of working class communities.

The Byker series includes a range of portraits, from traditional studio-style images, such as this one, to photographs of groups gathered in moments of leisure, playing dominoes or standing around a pool table – the surrounding walls and ceilings of their environment completely covered in graffiti. Some of the sitters are portrayed in their domestic settings, while others are shown at work or in more intimate circumstances.

The series also features photographs of the urban landscape: a long line of terraced houses, shot from an elevated position; a deserted street corner with an empty, boarded-up corner shop; and the back of a street of terraces, with a horse attached to a cart in an open field, grazing among the detritus of rows of demolished houses. These photographs give an overview of the main types of housing in the Byker area, mostly in a semi-deserted and derelict state, before and during the process of demolition. Other photographs depict commercial premises: the front of a second hand goods shop or the window of a funeral directors adorned with tomato plants. Another shows a small and simply built construction, its roof decorated with a low fence, at a local allotment.

Konttinen’s photographic project became widely known following the publication of her book Byker in 1983, which included a selection of images from the series. In a text produced for the book, Konttinen described a number of her sitters, residents of Byker, in such a manner that highlights her attention to detail, warmth towards members of the community from different generations and delight in the eccentric qualities of both individuals and their often heavily decorated dwellings. Recounting her experience taking photographs of the community, Konttinen wrote:

I roamed around the streets by day and hung out by night: chasing my heartbeats and stumbling in and out of other people’s lives; striving to share my excitement through photographs where words would fail me. This was the beginning of my great adventure … Being a foreigner gave me one advantage: I could be nosy, and be forgiven. Many doors were opened for me that would have remained closed to another photographer, and invitations extended to the kind of hospitality and intimacy that would normally be reserved for family only.
(Konttinen 1983, p.6.)

In their depiction of the Byker district and the everyday life of its population, these photographs communicate a sense of intimacy and social engagement. Yet there is also a feeling of detachment, of an external presence entering the community and documenting it while not fully belonging to it. In this way the images register the political dynamics of documentary photography – who photographs whom – as well as representing the idiosyncrasies of the Byker community.

Further reading
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker, London 1983.

Elena Crippa
August 2014 and January 2015

You might like