Homer Sykes: capturing the whimsy, folklore and festivals of Britain

The photographer, whose interest in the country’s curious customs spans more than 50 years, has a new exhibition

May Day has long been an excuse for parades and British peculiarities: washing the face with morning dew; going barefoot; decorating the May bush; dancing around the maypole … but the nation’s eccentricities have never been confined to the official start of spring.

There is the John Knill ceremony dating from 1801 and held every five years in July in St Ives to celebrate the town’s eccentric mayor and tax collector, in which 10 young girls dressed in white and accompanied by musicians dance while Psalm 100 is sung.

Or the cheese-rolling festival at Brockworth near Cheltenham where participants fling themselves down steep Cooper’s Hill in pursuit of a runaway double gloucester on spring bank holiday Monday.

The Burry Man, South Queensferry, Scotland
The Burryman stops for refreshment, 1971. Photograph: Homer Sykes

Not forgetting the Burryman parade in South Queensferry, near Edinburgh, on the second Friday in August where a local man in is covered from head to foot in burrs and walked through the down for more than nine hours in a ceremony whose meaning has long been forgotten.

On bank holiday Monday a new exhibition will open of works by the celebrated documentary photographer Homer Sykes, who has spent more than half a century capturing the British in their most whimsical glory.

Sykes, who was born in Canada but arrived in the UK aged five, has spent the past 50 years capturing the nation’s folklore customs, traditions and annual events after photographing some of them for a student project in the late 1960s. His first photographs were in colour, but after a three-month road trip across the US, he says he decided to redo them in black and white.

His aim was to capture something that combined the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “more traditional vision” and the “humanising” approach of others such as the Swiss-American documentary photographer Robert Frank.

“I was in Princeton, New Jersey and saw an exhibition including Frank’s work and it was the first time I’d seen photography as art. It’s still clear in my memory. I remember looking at the pictures and being amazed and thinking I can do this. I came home to the UK and started doing the country customs in black and white. I wanted to produce my own vision, my own way of seeing things,” Sykes told the Observer.

These are the photographs that will be in the new exhibition.

The art historian Ian Jeffrey wrote of Sykes’s work: “Sykes introduces the British as durable activists indifferent to bad weather and at home anywhere. His pictures are in the manner of the 1940s and 1950s, where expressiveness was valued and subjects lived, breathed and made their presence felt.”

The John Knill ceremony, Worvas Hill, St Ives, Cornwall.
The John Knill ceremony, 1971. The event takes place every five years in St Ives, Cornwall. Photograph: Homer Sykes

In Rural Modernity, Everyday Life and Visual Culture, Dr Rosemary Shirley wrote: “Rather than dealing in the perhaps easy absurdity of these events, Sykes’s images work to situate these customs within the everyday – the strange becomes everyday rather than the more travelled inversion of the everyday becoming strange.”

Sykes’s book Once a Year, Some Traditional British Customs first appeared in 1977 and was republished in 2016 with more than 50 new images from his archive. Signed copies will be on sale at the gallery during the exhibition.

Lucy Bell, whose gallery in St Leonards-on-Sea is holding the event, says she wanted to do something to celebrate the folklore as many festivals, including the hugely popular local Jack in the Green event, have been cancelled because of Covid.

“As they can’t be held at the moment, I thought it would be a good way to look at some of the folklore and traditions that make our culture so unique and the way the British love to celebrate even rolling cheese down a hill. It’s that wonderful eccentricity that makes us so different,” she said.

Sykes says he thought the traditions would have disappeared by the time he finished his project and is surprised many still take place, albeit in a very different form.

“I really didn’t imagine I would be doing it – or even talking about it – 54 years later,” he said.

Once a Year – Homer Sykes, Lucy Bell Gallery, St Leonards-on-Sea, 3 May until 26 June


Kim Willsher

The GuardianTramp

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