Chris Coekin with David Campany
Chris Coekin, Knock Three Times, Dewi Lewis,, 2006
Chris Coekin discusses his book Knock Three Times with David Campany
DC Whenever photography is autobiographical, there seem to be two histories in play – the photographer’s history and the history of their subject matter. It complicates the question of when a project began.
CC I came to photography in the early 1990s when I was 21 or 22. I wasn’t very aware of much critical engagement with the medium. I somehow fell into working in a more self-consciously subjective way. One of my first projects was called Work boy, work. I photographed my father, looking at how industrialisation affected the working class. Without realising it I was thinking about my own experiences. I had left school at 15. I worked in a factory, then I was an apprentice painter and decorator. I was always interested in the working class work ethic, where it comes from and how it has affected me – the idea of a job for life being a blessing and a constraint.
From a photographic point of view, I have always worked within the genre of documentary. As my career grew I wanted to do something much more personal and subjective. When I started on this project back in 1996 it was very much in a traditional photojournalistic vein. I guess I was recording the superficialities of the working men’s club – bingo, drinking. It wasn’t very satisfactory and I began to look for an alternative visual language. I soon started to think about working on a longer, more intense project. My intention from the beginning was to produce a book which would allow me to consider layout and the relations between images.
DC To make and to look at photographs requires connection and disconnection. As a medium photography seems to attract people who feel, or find themselves, socially engaged but slightly removed too. It demands and allows a position that is both inside and outside. In your work there is a great deal of intimacy but a detachment that allows you to avoid cliché. It comes through in the attention to the language of human gesture and the effects of work on the physical body.
CC Gesture is something I am very aware of and it comes from being close to people – people who are representative of my family. They could be my parents or grandparents. It also comes out of thinking about transition. I am very interested in the difficult transition of the working class to the middle class. I feel it on a personal level, in terms of my own history. I also feel it when I go to the working men’s club. Part of me feels phoney, belonging to nothing, in the middle of everything.
DC Is there a sense in which that is an important thing to feel?
CC Of course. I feel it most when I’m showing the images to the people at the club and they might ask why I have shot things a certain way or why I have chosen to shoot one thing and not another.
DC Photographing another people always involves a shifting social bond – it can move between collaboration, or permission, or even coercion…
CC Well I don’t want to ‘use’ anybody. At the same time I need a distance. As I was shooting I would show the people what I was doing. I would show my edit, even the dummy of the book. And yes, I was often wary and anxious. One always is, I think. But they are intelligent people and they understand what I am trying to achieve. We sit down and we talk about the current situation of the working class and its history. And they are very knowledgeable.
DC Do they see themselves in transition?
CC Definitely. In the book the club is really used as a metaphor to talk about the community at large. They can see the transition in the club itself – they understand it as a symbol of the working class community and its fortunes. A lot of working men’s clubs are dying out, pretty rapidly. They are losing the traditions and there are not the younger members coming through. So in the older generations there is a sense that the youth are losing their ideals or having them put under pressure. And in some ways this can be said of the working class at large.
DC It is interesting how this comes across in the work. The sense of tradition and transition is palpable, as is the sense that there is something inevitable in the transition. The ideas of progress and modernity were always at odds with the idea of tradition, although we seem to be at a point where there is an acknowledgement that it is alright to live in the past a little, the present a little and the future a little, espcially now that the future is such an ambiguous thing.
CC Sometimes transition is pretty abrupt, like when a factory closes.
DC Yes, the spectre of redundancy is present throughout your project.
CC I guess transition is a general idea and a local one too. I mean, the closure of a factory is a loss. I’m not sentimental, far from it, but I do feel that if there’s change it should be for the better and so often it is not. If I look at my father, for example… 46 years working for one company then made redundant with a one-sentence letter: “As from today you have been made redundant.” Sometimes I feel his life hasn’t improved, it has regressed. He is working nights making pizzas. We are constantly told life is improving – more consumer choice more TV channels – it is not really improving on an emotional level or on the level of simple existence.
DC You juxtapose the image of your dad’s redundancy notice with your grandfather’s retirement certificate.
CC He worked for forty nine years and left with a carriage clock. And actually it was fifty-two years.
DC And perhaps the notion of ‘transition’ is again misleading, because it is not a transition from one thing to another. It is a transition to permanent transition. That is the logic of the flexible market for goods and labour. Companies move about, going where the work is cheap, accumulating wherever they can. We see it in the way even big companies advertise and talk to their shareholders – ‘permanent mobility’, ‘light on your feet’. Even the slogan of the bank HSBC is “Never underestimate the power of local knowledge”. Any foundation is regarded as an obstacle. As money washes around the world you might get lucky but you probably won’t.
CC Yes, it’s a permanent transience in which the main question seems to be “Where in the world can the next dollar or pound be made?” So once the past is gone it’s gone.
DC And the new logic has no need to understand it, except for repackaging it as ‘heritage’.
CC Even with working men’s clubs, they were initially set up so that the working man had somewhere to go at the end of the day, to educate himself, to have access to newspapers and books. That ethos has died out but the clubs still retain a sense of community.
DC Related to that point, I sense looking through your photographs that the continuity of the generations is broken in the club. There are images of men of retirement age and older, and images of young men perhaps in their teenage years…
CC …and the middle generation is less evident.
DC It makes me think of the way relationships between grandfathers and grandsons are different from those between fathers and sons.
CC There’s a bit more freedom in the exchange between grandsons and grandfathers.
DC It isn’t charged with the same tense power relations.
CC Well, the older generation is on its way out. The younger generation is there to continue the tradition, perhaps or perhaps not. So they are the bookends, so to speak.
DC I also think of the way postwar family life developed for young men – how part of growing meant a rejection of one’s dad. It produces a break or a will for a break.
CC. That’s true. I have memories of going to child friendly clubs from a young age. But when I left school and got a job I stopped going. I wanted to get out. That was the last place I wanted to be.
DC So this project has been a going back for you.
CC I had sympathies with the club and what it stood for but I had to find my feet. For me it meant becoming more politicised. Firstly this was through music – everything from Curtis Mayfield to The Jam – music that had a social comment.
DC You don’t make an obvious point about gender but the question is there and it is one of the keys to the work.
CC Right. In Acombe working men’s club there is, still, a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ between men and women. The nature and the history of the club polarises this a bit. The main club committee is made up of men. The women have their own committee. They also have a ladies’ night on a Thursday. The women’s committee meets then and among other things they arrange the bingo and the acts that appear. And yes, there is a kind of breakdown in communication between men and women.
That said, the club has certainly been a space of personal politics, a space to talk about what affects you directly (perhaps to have a good moan). Now, I suppose I have a slightly romanticised view. I left school in 1983. I became aware of Thatcherism, the miners’ strike. In some ways it seems the working man was more politicised then…
DC …certainly more mobilised by urgent circumstances.
CC Yes, I’m not sure if the politicization had a deeper foundation beneath those reactions. I could never understand why The Sun newspaper was so popular with the working class, given presumed difference in politics, especially during the miners’ strike.
It was certainly around that time that I became aware of how Thatcherism was so successful, how it managed to present itself as ‘common sense’, somehow beyond politics.
DC In retrospect we can all see there has been no better defined political dogma than Thatcherism.
CC Exactly. But to many it was far less obvious at the time.
DC Coming back to your photographic approach, you were working over an extended period of time within a limited space. I guess you were forced to reinvent things for yourself as you went along, without slipping into novelty or contrivance. How do you balance what you want photographically from the project, in terms of style or aesthetics, with social exploration?
CC If I go back and look at early contact sheets I see I was on the floor, looking up at strange angles. Very dynamic. But I soon realised I needed a quieter, more restrained style. Sometimes this meant restaging things or situations I had seen occuring naturally, or picking out small, telling details in the environment of the club.
DC Again this chimes with the shift in documentary over the last decade, from what you call the dynamic, ‘in your face’ snap, to the slower, quieter, more staged photography that looks not so much for events and actions but the things in between. A move from the quick reflex to the ‘study’.
CC I think that change had to happen. But I do worry that this new approach we see is becoming a new ‘style’ – cool, deadpan, distant. I sense it can lack an honesty and a content…
DD …particularly since it is now often the art markets that dictate, directly or indirectly how documentarists choose to work.
CC Yes, and the deeper exploration of the subject is sacrificed a lot of the time. It’s always complicated, this relation between style and meaning. Obviously I’m not just into making stylish pictures. I’m trying to explore the subject and I’m trying to communicate that sense of exploration.
DC Obviously the truth of things is not a matter of one style over another. As you say it’s complicated because things work out in such prosaic ways for the photographer – where to stand, what film to use, what lighting to use, how to compose, when to press the shutter.
CC And of course you can only do so much with a single picture. For me it was also always going to be about images working together.
DC The book is a subtle weave of your own images and photos by others which are either included in the frame or sit on the page alongside yours.
CC Some photos are quite autobiographical in origin. The shot of the condom machine relates to a memory of my father. We have been close, but not that close. We discuss things but not at length. I remember as a boy asking him what the machine was. He said “Oh, that’s nothing, it’s just for chewing gum”.
DC You’ve shot it from a child’s eye level.
CC Yes. I showed that photo to a man in the club. He said it reminded him of the time his father told him it was a chewing gum machine.
DC Then there are family photos and archival photos.
CC There’s one of my father playing darts. He played for the club and would always seem to be winning trophies. He said that I had a good wrist action.
DC I’m the son of a publican and darts is very familiar, very typical of pub and club life. It does seem to be the most archetypal working class game. I know people who just can’t stand darts when it’s on television. It might be the nature of the game, but I suspect it’s really the culture of the game – the unapologetic working class environment, at ease with itself.
CC It’s definitely a cultural matter. And what goes hand in hand with darts is drinking.
DC Some of the archival photographs are very autobiographical, some of them less so.
CC That’s right. Some are to do with my life, some are to do with the history of the club. For example there’s an image of Acombe Working Men’s Club member No. 1. The club opened in 1898. He’s wearing his plus fours and argyle socks.
DC The image of the first man to be banned from the club is fascinating.
CC Yes, because he’s pictured with his family there. It’s a stereotypical view of the Victorian family, perhaps in their Sunday best. The reality was that he was banned for fighting. He looked after the billiards table, but it turned out he was pocketing the money. He got into a big argument, a few fists were thrown and he was thrown out. There’s also an old photo of Albert, he later became the oldest member of the club. He gave it to me himself. The text reads “Happy Days 1927”. He lived to the age of 95. To the end he kept his standards up – clean shirt, tie, tweeds.
DC The archival pictures span several decades.
CC There are images of my family out at clubs drinking and these are interspersed with my own photographs of drinking. There is a old photo of a group of men, one of whom is my great-grandfather.
DC And they are all drinking pints through straws.
CC I have no idea why! Perhaps it was the photographer’s idea.
DC Could you say something about the depiction of men more generally in the book?
CC I always remember as I child that some men seemed quite menacing. This is really hard to put my finger on. I always felt it inside. It was often triggered by people saying “Stay away from him” or “You should be wary of him” and as a result a kind of dangerous enigma would build up around certain men.
DC I can identify with that. Adult masculinity seems dangerous and very compelling when you are a young boy – there is much intrigue and charisma.
CC I guess the mystery disappears as you get older. Masculinity loses a bit of its power, its aura. But it was there when I was young and it was very strong at times. Perhaps that feeling came from the environment too. There is no denying that in working men’s clubs you get tough people, some heavy drinkers and you pick up on this from a young age. Reputations are often built of toughness in those situations. All of this certainly informs some of the pictures of men in the book.
DC What happens when men lose that power or threat as they get older?
CC That’s complicated. I guess I hint at it in different ways in the photographs.
DC The question is compounded by the fate of the elderly in general now. Unless you are very wealthy or die suddenly it seems quite a miserable fate awaits us in those last decades.
CC Some of the people I photographed have passed away. Almost every time I go back I hear someone has gone.
DC It’s odd, we are part of an ageing population but we live in a culture of youth and beauty.
CC Yes, I think there’s a huge gap between the images we see in popular culture and the reality of many people’s lives.
DC Let’s think about the future of a book such as this. I have a general sense that whatever intentions people have for the photographs they make, they always end up as documents of some kind, however reliable or unreliable they are.
CC I would agree with that.
DC The documentary function of the photograph seems to be the one that sediments out, regardless whether it is representative or not, regardless of the wealth of debate around the status of photographs as evidence. It’s a book of the present, of people who are largely still around in a circumstance that’s understandable. But what might the future make of the book?
CC Well I think that regardless of its significance it will be a historical document. In twenty years’ time there maybe few working men’s clubs. There may be few people in there sixties and seventies sitting around in their suits and ties. Hopefully, again the juxtaposition and sequencing of the images will enrich the life of the images as documents.
DC Were images sometimes shot with a sense of what they would be juxtaposed with, or did the edit come afterwards?
CC That’s a tricky question. I think so much photography seems to happen in between…
DC… between intention and invention?
CC Between intention and intuition. For example the image of the table seemed like a natural opening for the book. The table is the foundation for everything. The table, the people around the table, the club, the community, the town, the class, the country even. I would say that about half the shots were taken ‘off the cuff’, but then I built around those. Some shots are crafted and thought about in advanced but still taken through observation, rather than staging of people. For example I had often seen pepole putting on or taking off their coats. So I would put myself in position to shoot this in a particular way. And then some were more overtly staged.
DC All of those in-between ways of working quite rightly make a mockery of the distinction that is so often made between the ‘taken’ and the ‘made’ photograph. It is as if our culture wants to simplify just how complex photography can be, both to look at and to produce.
CC And of course editing is a form of construction even when the aim is to get towards something true, or true to life. I think that if a book is totally pre-planned it doesn’t work and if it’s not planned at all it doesn’t work. But most things, as you say, are in-between. You rely on intuition, you rely on construction, you rely on chance.
DC I guess that’s what a lot of the best photobooks do. Did any books have a particular influence on you?
CC Well, Bill Brandt’s The English at Home is still fascinating in the way it moves through the grey areas between observation and construction. On top of that he had such a great understanding of juxtaposition across the double page. A much more recent book is Pictures From Home by Larry Sultan.
DC Sultan also weaves between the taken and the staged, and he makes use of archival sources too.
CC Yes, as does Julian Germain who I like very much. There are many others too. Tom Wood’s Looking for Love also expanded my sense of what photography could be and what subjects can be worthwhile.
DC The time span of the book – you shot it over nearly a decade – produces an odd effect. The book isn’t arranged chronologically so at first glance it appears to be a snapshot of a place at a particular moment.
CC Yes, but look closely and you will see changes of décor. You may see the same people shot at different points in their lives. There is also something quite complex in the space of the club. It’s made up of a bar, a games room, a lounge and a concert room. Each has a potentially different clientele. A person who goes to the concert room may not know the people in the bar. Somebody in the lounge may not know someone who spends most of their time in the games room. And things change from a Sunday lunchtime, to a Monday night, to a Thursday night. Even now I go to the club and when I’m shooting people ask who the hell I am. I tell them I have been shooting on an off for ten years: “Well, I’ve never fuckin’ seen you.”