Jack Turner explores the beautiful and evocative photographs of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, and how her vision of Byker and its melting pot of working class communities took centre stage.
In 1969 Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, a young Finnish photographer, moved to Byker in the East End of Newcastle in order to document life in the area using her camera. She stayed in Byker until 1976, when her flat was demolished along with many of the terraced streets depicted in her early work. Konttinen’s photography became a powerful documentation of the end of an older way of life and inhabitants who would soon be forced to find their place within a new world.
An interview with Sirkka in 1974 available through the BBC Archive opens with the statement that:
‘Byker, like Coronation Street perhaps, is a reminder of provincial working-class Northern life.’
When asked by the interviewer from the BBC what drew a 25 year old Finnish lady such as herself to the area:
‘The first thing that attracted me was the streets that went all the way down the hill and the panoramic view of Newcastle.’
Within the BBC interview Konttinen also discusses the maternal nature of many of the women on Tyneside stating:
‘I think that they worry about me, being young and alone - far away from home. They look after me.’
After she references Byker as a ‘gentle place’ the BBC interviewer remarks that it seems a strange word to describe where they are. Konttinen replies:
‘Only to people who have strong prejudices about Byker. Nobody who actually lives here would say that it’s anything but gentle.’
Konttinen’s work showcased an area that teemed with life; bringing a national spotlight to an area that was often overlooked. The remarkable gallery of photos depict an area of Newcastle that was destined to be redeveloped. These final recordings of Byker are illustrations of a way of living that was soon to be lost.
This was due to the - then Council leader T. Dan Smith’s - ambitious vision to remould Newcastle as ‘The Brasilia of the North’ , this involved demolishing almost a quarter of the city’s housing stock and re-housing many of its inhabitants in tower blocks.
The below passage effectively illustrates the thinking of those in the corridors of political power at the time:
“One result of slum clearance is that a considerable movement of people takes place over long distances, with devastating effect on the social groupings built up over years. But one might argue that this is a good thing when we are dealing with people who have no initiative or civic pride. The task is surely to break up such groupings, even though the people seem to be satisfied with their miserable environment and seem to enjoy an extrovert social life in their locality.”
- Wilfrid Burns, Newcastle City Planning Officer, 1963
Konttinen’s images show the opposite view of Burns. To imply that there was no civic pride within the area was seemingly wrongheaded at best and callous at worst. The impact of these plans wholly fragmented what was a tight-knit, working-class and proud community; with fewer than 20% of Byker’s original residents being rehoused in the Byker Wall estate. With posterity this lends Konttinen’s work the air of documenting the death knell of a fiercely proud community as well as highlighting the innate sense of pride of those who lived within it.
The original images from Konttinen’s first visit to Byker were soon exported around Britain and eventually the world. The early 1980s saw the exhibition toured to China - alongside paintings done by the pitmen of Ashington. This was the first British exhibition seen in China following the end of the nation’s Cultural Revolution in 1976.
Konttinen continued mining the region for inspiration in the years that followed, with her Step by Step photography series. This explored familial relationships through the prism of a North Shields dancing school. The work would go on to have a formative impact on the production of the film, Billy Elliot (2000). It cannot be denied that - throughout the years - her work has richily contributed both to the culture and the perception of the region - nationally and beyond our borders.
From 2003-2009 Konttinen returned to Byker, this time to document the Byker Wall Estate. The images taken in ‘Byker Revisited’, published in 2009, both update the region into glorious, swirling technicolour and illustrate the changes that occurred - physically, demographically and metaphysically - in the community during the interim period.
While Konttinen’s Byker of the 1970s reflects an aged demographic; due to the loss of a lot of young people in the area - Byker Revisited depicts a community that has changed. What was once a frenetic and lively area now appears as one of loneliness and isolation. Konttinen documents the new generation of inhabitants with a friendly and personable gaze; eschewing any charciature or patronisation of those within the photographs. This is, of course, a product of her decade-spanning association with an area that she truly cares deeply for. Her work does a wonderful job of showcasing the long-term impact of political decisions but also - on a more personal level - it highlights the fundamental resolve that has characterised the community of Byker for decades.
From the 11th May to the 30th September 2018 the Baltic Art Gallery put on an exhibition called Idea of North. A gallery within Level 4 housed a number of Konttinen’s images, taken in the North East over the course of the last few decades. I went to see them with my partner and a number of my friends. In the time since my mind has returned to them an untold amount.
It is hard to overstate the impact of seeing our cultural reality reflected back at us, not on the back pages of a tawdry newspaper or a lewd reality TV representation on MTV but in the galleries of a prestigious museum alongside other esteemed artistic works. This makes life in the North East not seem more important than it is - but as important as it is. A true reflection of its surface; something that Konttinen seemed to understand long before her own photographs would serve to underscore the point.
The beauty and vitality of each shine out, a testament to Konttinen’s work as it was honed through the decades. Making art truly accessible by capturing those that it - as a form - can often choose not to access. It reminds us that history is not just about grand figures such as Prime Ministers, council politicians or monarchs who shape time periods - but also the individual masses, those who live their lives out proudly and quietly within them.
Jack Turner is a recent graduate of Northumbria University studying History & Politics. He writes freelance for the North East Heritage Library, UpWork & WhatCulture. He has a keen interest in the social history of the North East and how that has moulded and shaped the present. In his spare time he enjoys creative writing, making music and listening to podcasts/lectures online.
All photos from Amber Online, who host the works of the Finnish photographer online. Visit here: https://www.amber-online.com/collection/byker/