Tales from the Riverside

13 June 2017 // Photography

Kevin Pearce contemplates the under-the-radar photographic genius that is George Plemper

Gary and Justine, 1981

Even now, when everything is seemingly captured and shared remorselessly, old photos possess such potency; the ability to transcend and transport. There is a series of shots of a young mod couple taken by George Plemper which illustrate this perfectly. These prints have such an incredible power and set the imagination reeling.

George photographed the pair, identified since as Justine and Gary, in 1981 on the Woolwich Dockyard Estate in suburban South East London. It was one of those occasions when fate decrees that the right person comes along with a camera and finds the perfect subjects. There is something extraordinary about these two kids, in love, in bloom, vividly.

Other photographers might have taken pictures of Justine and Gary, but they would not have caught what can be seen in these shots. George could have taken snaps of thousands of young sweethearts anywhere in the UK that day, but none of them would have had what these two young mods glow with.

It adds to these photos’ mystique that they were taken by George Plemper. His work has been much admired since The Guardian featured it in 2008, and Patrick Butler and Michael Collins shed light on his photography. It wasn’t just that his pictures were great. The fact that there was a great backstory helped enormously.

George’s tale is of an idealistic young man from England’s North East, born in Sunderland and brought up in the mining village of Castletown, adrift in London’s far South East, working as a science teacher at the Riverside School in the late 1970s. This was located in Thamesmead, a social housing experiment, then a relatively recent attempt at creating a concrete utopia in London’s reclaimed spaces. As an adjunct to his day job, George used his passion for photography to reach out to his students and build bridges. Gallions Reach and Tavy Bridge, incidentally, were local landmarks.

George has said: “In the classroom I learned that the camera was a powerful tool and a powerful way, as Susan Sontag brilliantly stated, ‘to confer importance’. I used the camera to show my pupils that they were great and could change the world.” He adds: “I was very much a Labour supporter and very much anti-capitalist. I never had any intention of making money from my photographs, and I wanted to use photography to make a contribution to the self-confidence of the people I lived and worked with. I was very much inspired by the Black is Beautiful cultural movement of the 60s and wanted to show working people as being strong and in a way that did not depict them as victims”.

That may have a lot to do with why his photos from that time are so remarkable. It is fair to say these were not the most privileged of kids, economically at least, and many of them will have faced challenges in their everyday lives. The classroom may not have been their favourite environment. At any school, fitting in is not easy, but if you are a Biafran refugee like Sam Uba, who is caught in a remarkably striking portrait from 1978, landing among Thamesmead’s concrete walkways must have been peculiarly disorientating.

In George’s black and white photos the kids of Riverside School shine with a glorious mixture of innocence, indifference, arrogance, awkwardness, charm, cheek, confusion, defiance, and much more. He captures something that would be missing from family snaps and official posed photos. That will surely have something to do with the bond between teacher and pupil, degrees of affection and trust, feeling comfortable in each other’s presence. Those were different times, in so many ways. It is difficult to imagine a teacher now being brave enough to take so many photos of his kids on impulse without alarm bells ringing somewhere. And, anyway, kids are so busy taking photos of one another with their phones.

Some of George’s Riverside photographs featured in a travelling exhibition, entitled Lost At School, hosted in 1979 by the Half Moon Photographic Workshop (or HMPW), a socialist collective based in the East End of London, part of the politically-charged community photography movement. One of the HMPW’s stated aims was “to encourage the photographic recording of contemporary local history by people themselves, with or without the help of professional photographers.” That may not sound radical now but, with the profusion of camera phones and the ease of digital photography, it is all too easy to forget that it was a costly business getting a good camera, buying film and having it developed, getting reprints and enlargements, or setting up a darkroom, and so on.

To George it seemed natural to gravitate towards the Half Moon Photographic Workshop when he left Riverside, to see if he could collaborate with them and to promote his work. Mike Goldwater there, in particular, was very supportive of George’s work and soon decided that the collective should put together the travelling exhibition. George was thrilled by this, but he recalls how the HMPW was rife with internal conflict, and that the initial interest in his work did not materialise into anything tangible.

George adds ruefully: “My photographs were very unfashionable. They reeked with what Marxists considered to be a ‘false consciousness.’ When I realised that there was no hope of any meaningful collaboration with the HMPW I shrugged my shoulders and used the freedom I found working as a Research Assistant at the Polytechnic of the South Bank and as an evening cleaner to finance and support my photographic activities.”

In time George and his family moved away from London, initially to Dunfermline in Scotland, and then to Lincoln where he still lives. It seems his negatives and prints were stowed away in plastic bags, forgotten for years. Then in the new millennium, with the advent of sites like Flickr which allowed photostreaming, George revisited his old shots and shared them with the world, acquiring an admiring audience along the way.

Sam Uba, 1978

Among the photos George has shared online are numerous shots he took at Woolwich Dockyard in 1981, a few stations up the North Kent line from the catchment area for the Riverside School. Around the Dockyard on a Saturday George would be out and about with his camera to capture anyone or anything that looked interesting enough. There is something about these photos. Maybe they differ from the Riverside School studies because of a different type of emotional engagement. Maybe it is because life had moved on a bit. Some of the fashions show how pop culture was evolving, with the advent of new romantics and acts like Adam & the Ants, The Teardrop Explodes and Spandau Ballet in the charts.

By this time The Face was up and running, and featuring the work of photographers like Janette Beckman and Derek Ridgers who were keen to aim their flashbulbs at the audience and put the spotlight on youth fashion and teen tribes. i-D was just starting up too, using a fanzine format, taking the idea further by predominantly featuring street photos of individuals and couples, with a little blurb about what they were wearing and listening to. More recently, photos taken at the dawn of the 1980s by Anita Corbin for her Visible Girls project on young females active in subcultures have been exhibited. Some of George Plemper’s photos from Woolwich Dockyard in 1981 almost accidentally fit in with all this activity.

And that is where Justine and Gary come in. One day in 1981 George took a series of shots of the couple which epitomises a certain quiet, subtle suburban rebellion against everyday life and the surrounding environment. He really could not have found better models to pose for him. They look incredibly cool, somehow, without being in any way outrageous or outlandish.

Justine is someone in these photos who it is difficult to avoid describing as compelling. She has her own unique style, meticulously put together. The attention to detail is delightful. From the sleek bob to the handbag, via the discreet earrings, the row of pearls, the black shift dress, the leopard-print mac with the collar turned up just so right, the black tights and exquisite kitten heel shoes. Even on the mod scene, you would see very few girls out looking that mesmerising. And who was there at the time to act as a role model? Nobody really. Maybe Ramona, the singer from The Mo-Dettes, had that glamorous Continental bohemian 1960s sophistication, but who else? Old films on BBC2 would have been more of a source for inspiration.

It would not have been easy for Justine to put that look together. It would have taken time and dedication. She would have had to raid older relatives’ wardrobes, push round jumble sales, scour markets, search charity shops, endure the sale at Cuffs department store in Woolwich. But it is not just the way Justine is dressed. It is her whole demeanour which is compelling: those cats’ eyes to go with her mac, the air of independence and determination, an aura of being in control. And when she smiles it is enough to melt any ice in your soul.

Gary in a sense is more straightforward. He has that insouciant cool air that Dave Wakeling of The Beat and the Banshees’ Steve Severin had around then. He’s whippet lean. His mod outfit is more mainstream maybe: the monkey jacket, the sta-prest style trousers, the Fred Perry top, the white socks. The one item that is a little bit out of sync is the footwear, a pair of suede Adidas trainers which look perfect. At the time they would also have been right up to date and objects of desire. They didn’t give new Adidas shoes away. Are these Adidas Dublins? Or from another of the ranges that were named after cities at the start of the 1980s? It is these trainers that help verify the year the photos were taken.

Gary looks, in contrast to Justine, slightly rumpled, a tiny bit scruffy, but it suits him. He seems to be on the punk side of the mod thing, in the same vein as members of The Purple Hearts and The Chords, groups who had flared briefly and brilliantly before fading away. It’s an aspect that is always missed when designers commission fashion shoots, when models look too neat and need to be more mussed up. One discordant thing about Gary is what looks like bleached hair, contrasting beautifully with his dark brows. A cheap bottle of hydrogen peroxide from Boots The Chemist being a time-honoured tool among those who wanted to be a little bit different.

And there is something a little bit different about Gary. It is hard to pin down, but there seems a certain elusiveness, a dreamy quality, as though he might drift off into a private reverie, distracted, gazing off into the distance at nothing in particular. But he provides a perfect balance to Justine. If he was dressed up to the nines it would seem all wrong. Gary looks great because he is not trying too hard. He doesn’t need to.

Perhaps the best photo featuring Justine and Gary is one where he is sitting on a scooter while she is standing behind him, a little to one side, gazing directly at the camera lens. The scooter itself is a bit of a wreck with its innards showing. Maybe it was one that had been salvaged and was being renovated. Actually it looks great in its decaying state, a nice contrast to the ornately decorated one Robert Lee rides on the cover of the old Mods Mayday ’79 LP.

1981 was the year of a Royal Wedding. But Justine and Gary look far more regal than that royal couple whose images were emblazoned on a million mugs and tea towels. There is a sense of…well…optimism about the photos by George. A handsome couple caught for posterity, against a background of smart-looking new flats which form part of the Woolwich Dockyard Estate, a local council initiative, built on land that had been part of an old naval dockyard. In a sense this was part of the process of transforming the old Thames waterfront which would gather pace with the Docklands development across the river and upstream at Surrey Docks.

George self-financed a small exhibition of photographs taken at the Clockhouse Community Centre in Woolwich Dockyard in 1980. And it is well worth ploughing through his online photostreams to find the particularly joyous shots he took around that time to mark the opening of the community centre to get a flavour of life beyond youth fashions.

It, was not, however, all roses in the park gardens. The dawn of the 1980s could be an unforgivingly tough time to be young. Youth unemployment was high. The government’s Youth Opportunities Programme was incredibly unpopular. The People’s March For Jobs took place that year. Discontent erupted into disorder and disturbances. There were riots in Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth, Southall, and elsewhere. Woolwich was mentioned in dispatches too, with reports of trouble in July that year.

Woolwich and its environs could be a dangerous place. British Movement skinheads, led by the Oi! cover star, prowled the streets and carried out a series of racist attacks adding to local tensions. The local Nazi skinheads also had a pathological hatred of mods. Indeed, in the early 1980s, mods seemed to be shot by all sides: eggheads, boneheads, the punk’s not dead brigade (The Exploited had quite explicit advice about what to do to mods), rockabilly guys, soul boys, squaddies (there were always plenty of those in Woolwich town centre pubs), straights, heavy metal types. It didn’t matter how hard an individual was, against a gang there was really only one option — run! Mod life could become a series of chases, like an evil perversion of the Benny Hill Show closing credits.

Why must the youth fight among themselves, asked The Specials in that incendiary summer’s big hit. Being a mod in 1981 was to choose a difficult path. So, understandably, a couple like Justine and Gary would withdraw into their own little world, which is part of the appeal of George Plemper’s pictures. The pair look hermetically sealed in. There is nobody else around on the estate. It belongs to them. They are enjoying the tranquillity of solitude. They could be the last couple: the Boy About Town and his Liza Radley with ghostly echoes of Paul Weller singing.

In a sense, it is a bonus that there is no accompanying commentary about Justine and Gary. Presumably, for George, they were a couple of kids he saw around. They appear in other photos on other occasions: Justine smiling in an oversized Fred Perry cardigan, Gary glowering in the era’s ubiquitous green MA-1 flight jacket. But the absence of information stimulates the imagination. What time of day were these photos taken? It is tempting to speculate that it would have been early evening, with the pair ready to go out. There are other photos, from presumably that same day, which seem to bear this out: one is a close-up portrait against a black background, Gary with his arm around Justine who has slipped her mac off.

But where would they go? What would they do? They look about 16 or 17, almost adults, so they might get away with going to a pub for a while. Would they meet up with like-minded souls locally and pose and chat and put the world to rights? Discuss Dexys’ Projected Passion Revue? Talk about borrowing a copy of Absolute Beginners from the library? Plan a trip down to Brighton? Go for a walk along the riverfront and smoke cigarettes while watching the Thames flow softly? Catch a bus into Woolwich and go to The Tramshed or Thames Poly to see a band? Take a train up to town and wander around Soho?

How tempting it is to look at George’s photos of Justine and Gary on that day and start praying. One desperately wants things to have worked out well for them. One passionately hopes life has been kind. One wishes fervently that their wings were never clipped. Someone, somewhere, someday will reveal what happened to them, but hopefully the spell won’t be broken, the magic blotted out.

It is easy to make up stories of what might have happened along the way, knowing only too well the pressure to change and fit in, the complications of jobs, families, money. Sid Chaplin wrote similar stories about young couples in George’s native North East. Those stories did not always have happy endings. His tales are not always straightforward. Terrible things can happen as easily as happy events in his books. People’s worlds can change in a moment. That is why there is such an urge to pray for these kids’ souls.

Hopefully we can be forgiven for looking at Justine and Gary in George Plemper’s photos and crying quietly for our own lost youth: our cherished hopes, dreams, schemes, ideals. It doesn’t matter really whether you have any interest in mod fashions or know South East London. For once context does not matter all that much. This young couple have escaped time and place, and now symbolise eternal youth. They embody something special that can never be crushed and stamped on by cynics whose only weapon is a sneer.

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Kevin Pearce on Caught by the River/Kevin’s website/Blogspot

George Plemper on Caught by the River/on Flickr

With special thanks to Austen Harris

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