Homer Sykes' book Once A Year, first published in 1977, offered rare glimpses into Britain's arcane and exotic annual rituals – from comparatively familiar maypoles to the deeply obscure, like Derbyshire's Shrovetide Football or Middlesex's Pinner Fair. But more importantly, the book was an honest and unsneering portrait of British communities. Now, Once A Year is being reprinted as an extended, redesigned edition, by Dewi Lewis Publishing. I went to Sykes' London home to talk to him about inspiration, camera phones, the importance of substance over style and the perils of "town hall tourism".
VICE: Hi Homer. I read that the body of work that became Once A Year was initially a college project?
Homer Sykes: It was done while I was at LCP [now London College of Communication]; they threw me out. I wish I had got my qualifications, but hey, I was actually a good student. There were rumours that I slept in the darkrooms in college, but they were based on leaving last and being the first to arrive in the morning. I was actually printing, not sleeping. I was eventually asked to leave as I had jobs to do, rather than take exams. But yes, it was a first-year Easter project. I had been at boarding school since the age of seven. I came to London, decided to do photography, and like many students, didn't know what to do next... I came across picture of the Bacup Coconut Dancers. I thought it would be interesting to see them. I went up there, shooting colour initially, and carried on with the project, half-heartedly for a time.
So, how did a half-hearted first year project develop into the book?
In 1969, in the summer of the second term at college, I went to New York. I was working as a janitor at Princeton, New Jersey, and was very influenced by Robert Frank. I went to the Museum of Modern Art and saw Lee Friedlander and Henri Cartier Bresson on the walls and thought, 'Oh, I could do that!'. I realised that I needed to be doing my "traditional country customs" again, but in black and white. I was brought up under the influence of the humanitarian Magnum photographers like Cartier-Bresson, in combination with Burk Uzzle, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and street photography. I wanted to try and combine those influences to create my own vision. I remember clear as day, it was like a revelation. I was keen to come back to England and get on with my new black and white project.
Having decided to go with black and white, are there any images from your archive that you wish you had in colour?
No, I'm perfectly happy with everything in black and white. I'm very traditional! I know what I like, basically.
You still shoot these events now... it must have been hard to know how and when to turn it into a book initially?
It was actually very simple. In the early 1970s photo book publishing was in its infancy in the UK. It was almost impossible to get a photography book by a British photographer – there were perhaps only a handful of books by young British photographers. The Magnum photographer David Hurn and Barry Lane, the photography officer at the Arts Council of Great Britain, were trying to change all of that. I was awarded a small grant to work on the project. By 1976, I had covered about 100 events and was happy with my photographs. James Fraser, nephew of Gordon Fraser – the hugely successful greetings card publisher – wanted to publish photography books. David Hurn put me in touch with James and he published Once A Year in 1977.
How do you feel about your continuing work on these subjects? How does it tie in to the earlier stages of the project?
I've made a living by being an editorial photographer, and also shooting news features all my life, but I've always been a content photographer. Content has always been really, really important to me. It is as important as any aesthetic value. Photography is at its best when it informs, and that's what a good documentary reportage photographer does. Around 2000, I wasn't getting employed as much as I had been. I'd been doing a whole bunch of books for people which all took a year to do, so I hadn't been hustling or trying to generate business. It dawned on me that I should be photographing some of these events again. I realised I'd been photographing for near-on 50 years, always doing the same thing. That may sound boring but it has a value in itself. I've been getting more enthusiastic as I've seen 50 years come closer.
How have these events changed over that half century you have been covering them?
Well, one of the funny things is the fact everybody has a camera phone these days. Everybody's doing this [mimes taking a camera phone picture]. It's better than smoking, I suppose. They've got to do something with their hands. I've had to include that in my photos. I don't like including it, but you have to. Many more people go to these things today too. These events, more than previously, tend to happen at weekends. People get dressed up a little bit more. They want to go Oldie Worldie, so they wear costumes. Thankfully, not many do.
Some of the events in the book feature very elaborate outfits, but I think my favourite ones are those where it's guys who look like they've just finished a shift at work.
And that's exactly how it was, how it should be, to my mind. I like the events where people are being absolutely ordinary, where it's part of their normal life. And today you have the problem of – I called it in some interview years ago – "town hall tourism". When "town halls" get hold of these events and think, "we can bring a lot more people into the village", then they start thinking, "we'll get a grant for costumes and we'll get dressed up and paint all the kids' faces", or whatever.
How exotic did these events seem to you when you first started covering them? Did they seem at all anachronistic, even then?
Well, when I first started I was pretty amazed. But no, I don't think they did seem anachronistic, funnily enough. I think that's because, as I said, the real events were very much part of the community and the people did them because that's what they'd always done. I don't think [anachronism] came into their thinking particularly, and it certainly didn't come into mine.
What I was trying to do was record what was going on in a truthful way. It was important to me to not make fun of the participants. I concentrated on the events and used the background, the passers-by, or helpers to put it in the 1970s context. I was definitely aware of that at the time – there is that 1970s context the whole way through the book. There's a picture in there of two boys in Bampton, Oxfordshire, with garlands of flowers, they're both wearing floral shirts, and one boy is in fashionable Cuban heeled boots. There are no cars on the street. I was certainly aware that those details gave the photo great context. Floral shirts were what people were wearing, and what Andrew Lloyd Webber's been wearing ever since.
Was part of your motivation at the time a fear that these things would cease to exist? A need to record them for posterity?
Not really. My motivation was to make a record. It became kind of an obsession in a way. I suppose I am a little bit of an obsessive type of person. I've been banging on about these annual events forever. I didn't have any fear they may or may not disappear. I loved working out of London, getting into the countryside and discovering I was usually the only photographer recording some obscure tradition. I loved making the pictures and recording what was going on.
How did you find out about these events?
Everything's been done before. I didn't discover events that nobody else knew about; that's for sure. I became aware of Cecil Sharp House, which is the English Folk Song and Dance Society building in Camden. They have a great library. There were about three or four books at the time that listed many of these annual traditional country customs. I remember spending hours on the phone – there was always the business of phoning the local tourist office, post office, police station, or vicar. Out of these contacts you would usually be able to find somebody who knew somebody who was involved. Then I contacted them saying, "Can I come? Are you sure it's happening? What time does it start?"
How do you feel Once A Year fits in with you other work, documenting British youth culture movements like punk for example? Is there a grand plan, or overriding vision to it all?
Well, I think it fits into a grand something... I've probably photographed more standing stones and prehistoric monuments than anybody else in Britain, for example. I've done two books on them and written about the legends associated with them. I've done an in-depth study of Afro-Caribbean churches in Britain – they are really fascinating, but nobody's interested. I would like to think I have a very comprehensive archive of British life. I like to feel my work tells a story but also leaves something to the imagination, that my photographs are more than just straightforward. So that's what I'm doing, working on my archive, developing book and 'zine ideas and in particular working on a body of images from the earliest part of my career. Hopefully I will find a publisher for it.
Once A Year: Some Traditional British Costumes by Homer Sykes is out now published by Dewi Lewis Publishing.