Like many of us, during the first UK lockdown in March 2020, Peter Lavery decided to have a bit of a sort out. The acclaimed Wakefield-born photographer was going through some boxes in his London studio when he discovered a collection of images that he hadn’t seen for over 50 years.
This amazing discovery has led to an exhibition which has just opened at the Blank_Space Gallery in Leeds. The set of black and white photographs on display were taken in the summer of 1968 over a period of two weeks using just four rolls of film when Lavery was a student at Leeds College of Art. The pictures are moving portraits of homeless people, mostly men, who were receiving food, shelter and support from St George’s Crypt in the city centre. The images lay packed away in storage for five decades until they were rediscovered last year.
“I knew I had them, I just didn’t know exactly where they were and hadn’t come across them,” says Lavery, who has won many British and international awards for his work. “Then during lockdown, I started sorting out all the tens of thousands of pictures that I have taken during my 50 years as a photographer. Just a few months before that, I had started posting work on Instagram, which I hadn’t done before, and it gave me the opportunity to revisit my archive, so I thought I would go through to find old images that I could make picture stories with.”
When he opened the box containing the pictures he took in Leeds as a student he was, he says, instantly transported back in time. “It was just like being back there in the Crypt all those years ago.” He decided to contact the organisation which, since 1930, has been supporting the homeless and vulnerable to help them move from the streets back to independent lives.
After an initial conversation with head of marketing Andrew Omond, Lavery then visited the Crypt to see how it has developed and grown and the decision was made to collaborate on an exhibition to mark the charity’s 90th anniversary. Today the Crypt continues its work with people with alcohol dependency, addiction issues and mental and physical health needs. “I am so pleased to be able to use the pictures to highlight the important work of such a brilliant organisation,” says Lavery. “It has come a long way since the 1960s, it was quite a dark and depressing place back then.”
Lavery’s involvement with the Crypt at that time came about through his creative curiosity as a photographer. “I was just picking up on anything photographically that I could become involved in and that took my interest. I used to hitchhike to college in Leeds from my parents’ house in Wakefield and then at night I would just go out into the city centre and wander around. I noticed that there were quite a lot of homeless people on the streets and they seemed to be heading somewhere so I followed one of them and found out they were going to St George’s Crypt. I went and spoke to the vicar and he suggested that I get involved.” He began taking photographs and talking to some of the men who were being supported by the Crypt.
“When I was taking the pictures, I was trying to be as invisible as possible because it was such a delicate situation and obviously people were trying to sleep and some of them were in a fragile mental state. I got quite emotionally attached sometimes, it was difficult. These men were down on their luck and all their stories were quite similar.”
Lavery’s wish to be unobtrusive and respectful meant that he limited himself in the number of shots he took. “I only did one exposure of each situation. I didn’t feel I needed or wanted to do lots of different angles on each shot. I guess I was trying to ration myself and also trying to get it right the first time.” This approach lends the images a powerful sense of immediacy and intimacy; Lavery has truly captured a moment in those men’s lives – it is very potent reportage and invokes a great sense of empathy for those who are featured in the photographs.
"There weren’t many creative photography courses in those days.”
During his three years in Leeds, Lavery started another photographic project in addition to the work he did with St George’s Crypt. Circus Work, a long-form study which captured the lives of circus performers, began at the Queen’s Hall in 1968 and ended up lasting 50 years – he eventually completed it in 2018, the year of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the first ever circus, with the publication of a book Circus Work 1968-2018 and an exhibition of the photographs which toured the UK and France.
After Leeds he went to the Royal College of Art where he was awarded an MA in photography. Since 1975 Lavery’s work has appeared in the colour supplements of many national newspapers including The Times, The Telegraph and Observer and in magazines such as Vogue, Tatler and World of Interiors. He has worked in different styles and genres including fashion, portraiture and reportage, has photographed The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Amazonian Indians in Brazil and his work has taken him all over the world including China, Cuba, Africa, Japan and the North Pole, winning him many accolades for both his editorial and commercial work.
Looking back now at those early documentary images of the homeless community in Leeds, Lavery says he is pleased that they will finally find an audience and that it has been interesting looking at work from the start of his career.
“It was amazing when I got them back from the printer, seeing them after all this time. I like the fact that there is a roughness about them – they have a certain strength that I am very happy with and they are better than quite a lot of stuff I have done since. There is a strong message in this body of work, people who have seen it have been really affected by the imagery and I hope it will make people think about those who are not living as easy lives as we are. Of all the various projects I’ve done in my career, this one probably has more power than most. I think with photography you can sometimes create art and understanding and truth in one powerful image – that is what drew me to it as a medium and what continues to please me about it.”
Summer of 68 – Photographs by Peter Lavery is at Blank_Space Gallery, Playhouse Square, Leeds, until October 22.