HOMER SYKES. Blackpool, Lancashire. 1980’s. From My British Archive: Colour Works 1980’s & 90’s © Homer Sykes

NAME Homer Sykes

JOB Documentary Photographer

WEBSITE Homer Sykes

PROJECT My British Archive: Colour Works the 1980s and 90s


More from our month long feature on self publishing photobooks & zines, including a new book from Brian Griffin.

I’m still looking for another perfect picture that sums up in a 21st century way, what English village life is.”

For anyone interested in British documentary photography, Homer Sykes is one of the most important and influential people working today. His photobook, Once A Year: Some Traditional British Customs is highly collectable and its publication in 1977 marked the start of a career that combined working for magazines and newspapers, with a constant stream of photography projects that examined British rural life and traditional customs.

Having given up commercial work 12 years ago, Homer is still shooting English village life, and devoting a considerable amount of time to digitising his archive of more than 20,000 images shot over the last 50 years. His current project is a new book called My British Archive: Colour Works the 1980s and 90, to be published by Dewi Lewis Publishing. You can support the publication by visiting the Kickstarter page and pre-ordering a copy.

Photo books

Over the course of his career, Homer Sykes has published more than a dozen photobooks of documentary photography, as well as 30 zines with Cafe Royale Books. He also ran a small press, Mansion Editions, to publish his own work.

How do you like looking at photography, do you prefer to see them in a gallery or in a photobook?

I think a really well published book of photographs is probably the best way of looking at photography. In many ways it’s more satisfying and it lasts longer, than looking at an exhibition of the same photographs because you can take it home and you can pull it off the bookshelf, browse, put back and refer to it for ever. And for the photographer it’s probably better than having your work published in a magazine article where very often you don’t get the pictures used that you’d have chosen yourself. For me, photography books are exactly what it’s all about.

HOMER SYKES. Gay Pride Festival, Manchester, Lancashire. 1999 From My British Archive: Colour Works 1980s & 90s © Homer Sykes

You’ve self-published two of your books – Hunting with Hounds, and On The Road Again. Would you recommend self-publishing?

Taking a book to press yourself is not an easy thing to do. I think for many photographers it’s probably better to find a publisher who thinks in the same way that they do, and can manage the process. Because being a photographer is completely different from being a designer, or a publisher or an editor. Managing the process of taking a book to publication is very complicated and it’s not just about getting the book to press and dealing with the printers. When you get the hundreds of copies back you’ve got to find distribution and somewhere to store them.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aspire to self publish, it just means you have to be very well organised and to know that for the next year you’re going to spend most of your time promoting the book, taking it on the road, fiddling around with letters and contracts with distribution people and shops.

So my view is shoot the work and find a publisher that can do the publishing for you because it’s a completely different business.

HOMER SYKES. Sparks Charity Ball, Mayfair, London, 1990’s. From My British Archive: Colour Works 1980s & 90s © Homer Sykes

Homer Sykes:

My British Archive: Colour Works the 1980s and 90s,

What is the new book about, is there a theme or subject?

The work in the new book comes from my British archive, I was a very busy magazine photographer in the 1980’s and 90’s, particularly in the 1980’s, the Thatcher years. There was a younger generation spending freely. There was a very hedonistic view of life. Advertising was going crazy and as a result, most of the British Sunday newspapers started to produce weekend colour supplements.

What I’ve done with the Colour Works the 1980s and 90s, is to pull together a cohesive edit, that makes visual and editorial sense, and tells that story in about 135 pictures. Much of the work in this new book was commissioned; I was getting very regular assignments covering, everyday and slightly exotic real life stories. I was very busy, I shot with a subjective eye for an objective purpose, and I edited as I wanted. Of course I had to make the brief work, and tell the story. But I tried to do it my way, through my eyes. That made sense to me, and the editors I worked with could see that.

Editing of course is so important, in those analogue days I always made sure that my editor knew which pictures I though were the best, I never used to hand in the shoot unedited. Usually about 10 key images, with a red dot on the transparency mount, and a further 10 different versions. That was it.

HOMER SYKES. The Kings Head, Laxfield Suffolk, 1980’s. From My British Archive: Colour Works 1980s & 90s © Homer Sykes

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HOMER SYKES. Midtown, New York, 1990’s. From On the Road Again.  © Homer Sykes

HOMER SYKES. Drive-in, Barstow California, June 2001 © Homer Sykes

Personal projects and producing photo books

As well as his extensive magazine work, Homer Sykes is well known for his documentary projects that focus on British rural life and English customs. Personal projects have formed an important part of his documentary work.

Do you always start out with a book or project fixed in your mind, or does it evolve as you shoot?

With Hunting with Hounds, I decided straightaway that it was going to be a book but my focus changed as I began to shoot it. Initially I thought that I would photograph fox hunting and make a book about the ban on hunting that was about to come in. At that point I also thought I’m going to do this in a different way, no long lens, colour stuff, hiding behind a camera and slightly removed from my subject. I’m going to do it on medium format, and black and white, and it’s going to be completely different from the way other people were shooting the countryside.

So I bought a secondhand Rolleiflex, and I went to photograph a Boxing Day hunt. Afterwards as I was driving home, I realised I can’t keep up with them, running around as they moved around the countryside. Then I remembered that I’d always wanted to go and shoot hare coursing in Lancashire at an event called the Waterloo Cup. So I decided that instead of just focusing on fox hunting I’d look at all the various quarry species that are hunted with hounds.

With the research it took about a year to shoot and put it together, and then another year to market, promote and sell.

HOMER SYKES. The Drummer Beagles, Gloucestershire. From Hunting With Hounds © Homer Sykes

HOMER SYKES. The Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt, 2002. From Hunting With Hounds © Homer Sykes

Homer Sykes British Documentary Photography

How important is publishing your work in a monograph or photobook, is it more significant that getting work into magazines or newspapers.

Book and zine publishing is a way of getting the pictures that you like and that you think work, into the right order,so that you can say, this is what happened and and this is how I saw it. This is the story I want to tell.

And you definitely reach a new audience when you publish a book. One of the things it’s easy to forget when you’re 72 as I am, is that there are an awful lot of young photographers who didn’t know what you were doing back in the 70s or 80s. I’m constantly amazed to discover new work from my contemporaries, people I know quite well. So it’s really really important, to produce zines or books, to get the photographs out there in some form so it becomes a body of work that’s not lost. You can say, this is what I’ve done. This is the way I saw it.

That’s why it’s important for me to have control. I don’t know a photographer who hasn’t complained about the way a magazine used their images, the editor made the wrong selection, or did a bad job on the layout. By publishing a book or a monograph you’ve got the control yourself, so when I work with publishers I’d never just hand over the pictures and let them make those decisions. I think that’s a dereliction of your artistic intent.

HOMER SYKES. Britannia Coconut Dancers. Bacup, Lancashire. 1972. From Once a Year © Homer Sykes

HOMER SYKES. The Minehead Hobby Horse, Minehead, Somerset,  1971. From Once a Year © Homer Sykes

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