"Stephen J. Morgan's photographs are characterized by a sense of quiet and melancholy."
-Jocelyn Phillips Collect Contemporary Photography, Thames & Hudson, 2012
The Other Side Of Everything
Growing up in Birmingham during the 70’s and 80’s with an Irish Republican father meant the St George Cross and to a greater extent the Union Jack symbolised more than a token of where you were from and where you belonged. With the troubles in the north of Ireland the flags were a potent symbol of which side of the divide you stood. In Britain, used by the National Front, they became synonymous with right wing political views and a rudimentary form of nationalism.
Today these flags hang from tower bocks and are proudly displayed in the windows of houses. It is easy to dismiss them as remnants left over from celebrations of what it is to be English and what it is to be British. For me they take on a darker meaning, almost like outposts, the last bastion and one last stand. It was said of the British Empire, “ The sun never set and the blood never dried.” So with remnants of its colonial past still hanging on and its attitudes to multiculturalism, psychologically I think, it can be argued that the English still see Britain as an Empire.
Previously my work has touched on what it was to be second generation Irish in England, realising early on that it was not about being Irish but about not feeling English or more importantly British. For the English I think the two are the same. The heart of the Empire was England and the English. So when a Union Jack is hung in a window of a house, the same feelings of nationality will resonate with the house in the next street proudly displaying the St George Cross.
So with this as my starting point, by referencing dates of 12 notable events from my life growing up in the 70’s and 80’s and by looking at a past where society was more political (even for a 10 year old growing up in Birmingham) I hope it will make the viewer ask questions about where we are today. What does it mean to live in a multicultural society? What it is to be political within that society? The last point for me is especially important, as we seem to be living in a time that is as brutal as it was when I was growing up in Birmingham.
14 August 1969
-British Troops Sent Into Northern Ireland
21 November 1974
-Birmingham Pub Bombings
15 August 1975
-The Birmingham Six Are Sentenced
7 June 1977
-The Queen Celebrates Silver Jubilee
3 May 1979
-Margaret Thatcher Becomes British Prime Minister
1 March 1981
-Bobby Sands Begins Hunger Strike
5 May 1981
-Bobby Sands Dies After 66 Days On Hunger Strike
10 July 1981
-Handsworth Riots Break out In Birmingham
5 April 1982
-British Task Force Sets Sail For The Falklands
5 March 1984
-Miners Strike Begins
28 November 1990
-Margaret Thatcher Resigns As Prime Minister
8 April 2013
-Death Of Margaret Thatcher
-Stephen J. Morgan, Exhibition Statement, 2012
"I have always been intrigued with memory, it's abstract nature and the relationship it has with photographs and their relationship to me."
Over the last 10 years I have found myself working in two ways. The first, as in the series: I Was Born An English Catholic, it was a conscious decision to photograph what I knew and where I came from. In the Ladywood Social Club in Birmingham there are three bars where my grandfather drank and two stages that he sang on. I didn't want to document the club or the people who occupy it, not in a direct way. My memory is made up more of environments than of people. I wanted to show where he stood and where he sang. Five images were enough, no more, which was a revelation to me. Through this work I started to question my relationship to religion and my Irish heritage and how this shaped me and gave me my identity.
The second way of working, which possibly came as a reaction to looking inwards, made me look outwards and was more spontaneous. I would make small photographic journeys around the area I lived in London and I would do the same when I travelled, never anywhere exotic, Weymouth, Leeds, Birmingham and back again. As Paul Graham says, 'It's everything and everywhere.' From the random, like a child’s toy plane caught in a hedge from the series: All Very Beautiful But Not Exactly What I’m Looking For, or a cup being washed in a sink from the series: On Any Given Day, to the monumental, like a tower block rising out of the fog from the series: Ladywood Fenian.
Recently they have merged into one way of working and one way of seeing. In my most recent series: A Moment's Chance (and other short stories) this is probably most true. In story #1, photographs taken on a family holiday in Weymouth capture fleeting moments of my childhood holidays but then a photograph of a man standing fully dressed in the sea, is just that, a man standing fully dressed in the sea. The absurdity of that, or is it magical? Only a photograph could capture the absurdity of a thing and make it magical in a fraction of a second. In story #2, the pictures were taken in a Catholic club I came across in Clerkenwell, London. Later it reminded me of the Oratory Club where I had my first dance with a girl. In story #3, I photographed each of my three aunts’ houses in one afternoon and when the various images came together they made up the house I lived in as a teenager. In story #4, I wanted to show the inside of Mount Pleasant working men’s club, that sat at the top of the road from my parents' house. On the day of the shoot a wake was taking place and I recalled that the last time I visited the building, aged 18, was for the wake for my best friend Patrick.
Both ways of working, I think, are ephemeral; time passes and I attempt to recognise life. With the first I'm attempting to bring fragments of my life, to the attention of myself. With the second I hope to bring fragments of my everyday life to the attention of the viewer. Essentially my work stems from who I am, where I'm from and how I got here.
-Stephen J. Morgan, Gallery Statement, 2010
Collect Contemporary Photography:
"Stephen J. Morgan's photographs are characterized by a sense of quiet and melancholy."
Working largely around his home town of Birmingham, Morgan has spent the last decade exploring the theme of memory, discovering his own relationship with it and its relationship with photography. He describes two distinct ways in which he approaches his work: the first being photographing what he knows; the second, looking beyond his immediate surroundings to find 'the extraordinary in the everyday'. He explains, 'With the first I attempt to bring fragments of my life to my attention, and with the second I hope to bring fragments of the everyday to the attention of the viewer.' In both cases the focus and driving force come from himself.
Having struggled with learning difficulties as a child, Morgan was drawn to art at school and in this way determined his future course early on: 'I was always going down that path' he says. Lacking the confidence to launch himself as a painter, he turned to the camera, it seems without much thought. But the experience was significant: 'I remember getting my first contact sheet back and being amazed by it; I saw something magical that I still see today.' He believes the importance of photography lies in it's accessibility, a quality that sets it apart from many art forms. 'We read the message more clearly because photographs are part of our everyday lives-they jog our memory and sometimes they are our memory,' he says.
Working largely in series, Morgan begins with 'a basic idea or thought' but then allows his projects to develop freely from there. In the series Ladywood Fenian, for example, he returned to the places of his childhood in Ladywood in Birmingham, and 'walked where he used to walk and photographed what I came across'. The resulting images range from delicate close-ups of flowers, objects on the ground and graffiti on the walls to sweeping shots of towering apartment blocks that overshadow the area. As part of another series, I Was Born An English Catholic, Morgan again returned to the scenes of his formative years, visiting the Ladywood social club his grandfather frequented. The five images taken here serve as a poignant memorial to his grandfather. The empty rooms are plain and unassuming, allowing the viewer to imagine the laughter, music and rowdiness that would have filled the place in earlier times.
Alongside personal work such as this, Morgan has worked on two very different commissions for Birmingham National Library. The first in 2006, was a joint commission with his father to photograph the four central points of community of Birmingham as part of the restoration of the Town Hall. The featured buildings included the Symphony Hall, the Ladywood Social Club-the location of the abovementioned series Where My Grandfather Drank / Where My Grandfather Sang and the Lee Bank Community Centre, which was due for demolition the day after Morgan shot there. Entitled Four Stages For People, the project had a clear public purpose, with the concept outlined by the curator of the library. The second was to form part of the National Library's 2007 Station exhibition. Less didactic in nature, it grew out of an idea Morgan had to do a series of portraits of train spotters, and the library's suggestion to show images from the archive of Birmingham's history of rail. The resulting compromise was the series SVR, a project on Severn Valley Railway in nearby Shropshire, which captured both the railway and the people who rode it.
While still developing a profile in the commercial gallery sector, Morgan is very aware of the collecting market and tailors the production of his prints to suit. 'All my works com in editions of six,' he says. One of these is for me, meaning there will only ever be five prints out there.' His photographs are printed in London in two sizes 'I realize not everyone wants a big photograph on their wall'. Working largely with digital C-type prints, which allow his self financed projects to be completed on budget, Morgan nonetheless laments the decline in traditional printing techniques that has followed developments in digital technology. When I started out, photography was taught as a craft, in the digital age it is often difficult to see it like that.' As a nod to the C-type, morgan always has a traditional print done and matches the digital ones to this, aiming for the highest possible quality in the presentation of his images. 'And they do match,' he says. The quality is amazing, but I do miss the darkroom.
-Jocelyn Phillips, Collect Contemporary Photography, Thames & Hudson, 2012
My Memory, Our Past:
“Seeing is forgetting the name of the things one sees.”
Memory, for me, has always played an important part in the process of taking pictures. As a family we constantly looked at our family albums and I realised early on that my memories related to the different collections of photographs. We would look and talk and the memories were ingrained. It was not just a visual history but an oral history too. My clearest memories corresponded with those albums and as a photographer I draw on those memories to help create my work.
As a starting point I returned to the Ladywood Social Club in Birmingham, where both my Father and Grandfather drank, where I roamed as a child and later as an adult. Visually it is a very rich place but I decided to photograph where my grandfather drank and where he sang only, three bars and two stages.
Along with photographs I took in my Nan’s house, these five get the strongest response, especially the first image from the series Where My Grandfather Drank #1. Often I’m told, ‘my dad drank in a club like that’ or ‘I remember those clubs from when I was a kid’ and recently after receiving an email from an art student asking about my work, ‘I can imagine my great grandfather drinking in a club like that’. So not only does the picture seem to touch a collective memory but also, it seems, the collective imagination!
I use my memory as a tool, part of my process, as important as my camera, film and my experience. They get me to a place where I can press the shutter and create an image. And from that point I’m not sure how important my story is once the picture has been taken; I’m not looking for the viewer to understand every detail. I don’t want to label it because once you do you sort of kill it or at least limit it. It feels wrong to give an official answer to what I do.
So I suppose this is where it enters into the collective memory and other people’s stories. Of environments and childhood and a time that is lost which can also informs us of where we are today. So the work is about many things, it is open and often about more than I intended.
The time that we spent as a family looking at family photographs created an oral history that together became a memory, the memory being the product. For my work, the memory and oral history is the starting point and the photograph is the product. I have come full circle and when I talk about my work I won’t tell you what the image should be but what it could be, or I might tell you a story. A subtle difference but an important one.
-Stephen J. Morgan, My Memory, Our Past. Paper given at Urban Encounters, The Image of the Public Space, Tate Britain, Oct, 2012
Art, To Tell Or Not To Tell?:
“Look, so you like a lot of rhetoric. All there is is the pictures. I’m irrelevant to the pictures. You have a lot to learn, young man. The artist is irrelevant once the work exists.”
I agree with the above quote, it was one of the first things I read when I started photography that was about the photography and the photograph. I think it shaped what I am going to try and explain to you now and that is: an explanation as to why I don’t give explanations about my work.
First off, I do talk about my work and individual pictures. If you ask, I will happily sit down with you and have a chat about what they are about or why they were taken. You see, my work is personal and the stories, I’m told, are often interesting and funny, poignant and sad. However, when I do talk about my work it is often about the journey I take that leads me to the point of standing in front of something and pressing the shutter. A journey that is physical, sometimes mental and at times I do not even realize the journey has been taken until the edit. It is a different thing, it is not an explanation of the picture in the same way the picture is not an illustration to a bigger written story. For me the picture will encompass all that got me to the point of pressing the shutter and more. So if I photograph it why should I have to write about it? And yes they are funny, interesting and poignant stories but you are going to have to take my word for it.
There's an Eggleston photograph I love, of a young boy standing at the side of a road with a red cardigan on; he looks freezing. He seems to have been dropped from space just as the picture was taken. It is a picture of his son who sometimes went out with him when he was working. I love the fact that he took his son with him when he was out taking pictures but the explanation of who the kid was, that he was not dropped from space for Eggleston to capture him, took some of the magic away. I still love the picture but something was lost; too much information and we live in a world with too much information.
I don't think a lot about this, I don't do it to seem aloof or to give my work more gravitas but a photograph is a beautiful thing and I honestly think it doesn't need any more from me.
-Stephen J. Morgan, Art: To tell or not to tell? (The Argument Against) Cent Magazine, Spring/Summer 2011, Issue 17
I Was Born An English Catholic:
"When I was young my brother played football like Best and boxed like Ali, if anyone was in trouble it was me."
-Stephen J. Morgan
My name is Stephen Morgan. I was born in Ladywood, Birmingham in 1970. My brother John boxed. He started boxing when he was about six or seven. By the time he retired he'd had 163 fights at amateur level-but he always had weight problems. 'That's the story of my career, messing around with my weight' he told me. One of the main reasons was a boxer called Robert McCracken, a good friend of his who went on to box for a world title after winning British, European and Commonwealth championships. John told me that his coach favored Robert. There was very little between them but the gym would spread it's fighters over different weights to have a better chance in the championships. Robert and John fought once at a club show when there weren't enough boxers. It's what was called a 'ready up,' with John giving away a stone in weight. Robert won on a majority decision.
John stopped fighting in the end. 'I was sick of the training to do the weight; sick of training, sick to death of the mental pressure, the routine,' he told me. 'I knew nothing different, I just didn't know what I wanted. In the championships I was never training for fitness, I was training to lose weight. The day before a fight and the day I go there I never ate anything. I would go running then turn up the heat and start training with about three layers of clothing on. All that shit! And what's if for? Fuck all! I never felt sorry for myself, even when I was beat and they all won.'
My mum Glenis would worry about John losing all that weight to fight. 'I didn't agree with it, it was wrong but no one took any notice of me,' she said. 'it's a man's game.'
"There's a room in the Ladywood Social Club where my grandfather sang and my brother fought."
My Grandfather came to Birmingham sometime in the mid-1930's; he was unable to get work in Belfast because he was a Catholic. My father, Stan, was born in Birmingham (something I don't think he ever got over) but spent his formative years in Belfast. He had no time for the English, something he tried to pass down to John and myself. Once when I wore an orange sweater he said, 'I thought I told you never to wear that colour,' orange being a Protestant colour.
I've never met anyone as Irish as my father. He comes from a very republican background on his mother's side. He was taken in for questioning for the Birmingham pub bombings. They took him from work handcuffed from arm to leg, he was dragged into a car and taken to a police station where he was questioned for 8-10 hours with the threat of violence. 'It was bad then, there were anti Irish marches led by the trade unions.' He told me how someone had scrawled 'Irish Bastard' on his locker at work and left a doll like man hanging from a noose.
After the bombings most Irish people just kept there heads down, there was a lot of hatred. It all adds up to what your identity is. I think of myself as second generation Irish from Birmingham, not English. Part of that identity is the drinking. The only sense of community was in the clubs and pubs. My grandfather drank until it eventually killed him. My dad told me how he would always drink a half and never stop anywhere long. I asked my dad if he thought he did that to make people think he wasn't a big drinker. 'I think,' my dad said, 'he was trying to kid himself.'
-Stephen J. Morgan, I Was Born An English Catholic, Colors Magazine, April-May 2003, Birmingham Issue 55