Britain's pubs are fucked. Why spend £12 [$18] on a round of pints when you can get 18 cans for the same price? Why spend your Thursdays jostling for a small wooden booth when you can just have your own sofa all to yourself, with Netflix on the computer instead of 4Music playing on mute on a wall-mounted TV? Why bother forming any sense of attachment to a place if a load of evil developer bastards are just going to roll in and bulldoze it without permission?
Well, because pubs have been centers of community for centuries. And because convening somewhere with even one solitary man propping himself up with a pint of Greene King is less depressing than drinking alone. Problem is, the UK's pubs are genuinely under threat, with 29 reportedly closing down every week. Occasionally these are reopened under new management, or they become another Spoons, but more often than not they're lost forever, redeveloped as luxury housing or office space.
Next month, Polish photographer Jan Klos opens his exhibition The Photographic Guide to the Pubs of East London at the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club. The series, which is made up of family portrait-style snaps of various pubs' employees, aims to celebrate the cultures and communities that form around local boozers. I recently caught up with him in his local pub for a chat.
VICE: Hi Jan. How was this project first spawned?
Jan Klos: When I first moved to London from the Midlands I suffered from an intense creative block. New to the city, the more I saw, the more I became frustrated with how London is sold to tourists. So much of the city's living and breathing history is often lost to only a handful of landmarks. Around the same time there was also a lot of buzz in the press over gentrification, particularly about pubs struggling against new developments that were causing them to lose their licenses and, in some cases, shut down. I decided I wanted to concentrate on celebrating these spaces and their social importance. Nowhere else in Europe has these homes away from home.
Why East London over any other inner city area or traditional rural pubs?
I think it's the most interesting and diverse area of London. I don't find the city particularly exciting—I think it's a bit soulless. When you go near Liverpool Street, for example, you can visit a really nice pub, but it doesn't have much of a vibe because the crowd of businessmen and city workers around there kills it. On the other hand, throughout the project, it's actually been difficult to get the real old school pubs featured, because they don't seem to want the exposure.
The "old man boozers" don't seem to be too interested in attracting a new crowd; they have their loyal customers, who rarely change. The more trendy pubs "get" my project immediately, while the old boozers are slightly suspicious: "Why does this guy want us to pose for a photo?" It seems a bit odd to them, but I'm going to keep trying to get them on board. I'd like to add more old-school pubs to the series.
Stylistically, why did you choose the family portrait? Is this a dying ritual in itself?
I saw Family Life, a series by German photographer Thomas Struth, which is a collection of loosely put-together photographs of families he encountered on his travels. Because pubs are like second homes where you go to relax in a familiar setting with familiar faces, it kind of made sense for me to photograph these close-knit teams as families. Struth's project was done in the 1980s, when there was no digital around, so with film you would take more time and care to set up the shot. People don't really sit to have family portraits taken any more because they're constantly taking photos of each other on their camera phones, so it was nice to go through the ritual of gathering people together and posing them properly for a group portrait shot entirely on film.
How does the British pub compare to the pubs in Poland?
There isn't really such a thing as a pub in Poland. I haven't lived there for eight years now, but growing up in Krakow, it was mainly underground bars, and they didn't open until early evening, unlike the pubs in Britain, which are open from lunchtime. There was no distinctive smell in Poland's bars either, like the smell you get of old beer and cider in the pubs here. We don't even really sell cider—no one drinks it. My parents told me when they were younger there weren't many places to go to apart from student union bars. There are many more places now, but still nothing like a British pub.
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Do you think evolution goes hand in hand with destruction? Is it possible to innovate and consider tradition?
It's a tricky one. It can be difficult to evolve and not destroy what went before, but you can innovate and progress without losing too much. I think in the case of pubs there'll always be a need for them, and wherever the pub is there will be a community around it. There are some pubs that have reopened under new management that have done really well. Yes, they've been modernized and kitted out with new furniture, but they still welcome the old customers who have always used that pub. So I think you can innovate to keep up with the times but still be a traditional boozer. In the last ten to 20 years, things have changed so quickly. For example, you can now live your life in front of a box and a keyboard, and the recession has forced people to stay in and socialize at home. Obviously, the pubs struggled and had to make some changes to get people back in.
What's your stance on the contribution of artists, like yourself, to the gentrification of pubs with design and branding?
I can't really wake up in the mornings with a clear conscience and believe that I'm not a part of it. I think everyone is. We're talking about progress—you can't just stop it. I go to trendy places and I enjoy diversity, but public houses are still an important part of the balance in London. On one hand, it's great to see new microbreweries opening up with great interior design selling craft beer. Yet, on the other, this should not stand as a threat to the original pubs. As with fashion, something comes in, fades, and then comes back. However, I think with pubs it would be difficult for them to come back again once gone.
With some of the pubs featured having already shut down, some of your photos stand almost as obituaries. Do you think the meaning of the project is going to change over time?
Feeling like somewhat of an outsider, having only lived here eight years, I can instantly recognize something that is not in my blood or seems a little bit foreign to me. I think this sense has helped me recognize more strongly the huge importance of these establishments in British culture. For me, the project is about showing and underlining this importance. The future of pubs is a difficult subject to navigate, and people have lots of different opinions on it. This is why I keep calling it a "celebration." I'm not fighting, I'm not grieving; change is always happening. I just thought it would be nice to have a record.
The launch night is next Wednesday, October 7, from 6.30PM, and is free to attend.
See a few more photos from the series below