The SixBySix collective are offering new, communal ways to explore documentary photography in Liverpool. With their tangible exhibitions-cum-socials put on hold for the time being, Glyn Akroyd talked to collective co-founder Colin McPherson about the project’s beginnings and adapting to the social sphere.
It was only in recent months that six Merseyside-based documentary photographers came together to form the SIXBYSIX collective. Their aim was relatively simple: to focus more attention on the region’s documentary photography scene.
Their individual projects display a fascinating breadth, covering subjects as diverse as the lives of fisherwomen in the modern fishing industry; the landscapes of Britain’s triangulation points; life after diagnosis of dementia; a look behind the clichéd media image of those making hip hop music; and a 30-year project on life in Berlin since the Wall came down. And it is this diversity that flourishes under the ‘documentary photography’ umbrella that they seek to explore.
No sooner had they launched the project back in September 2019 – creating a buzz among the local photography fraternity with several well attended social forums and exhibitions at Bold Street’s Ropes & Twines – the current pandemic took hold to create havoc with theirs, and everybody else’s, immediate plans.
Undeterred by obvious limitations, the group have since found new avenues to explore photography together in the digital sphere by hosting a bi-weekly Virtual Social, featuring a range of debate and interviews with photographers about their contemporary practices. Ahead of the collective’s next Virtual Social on Thursday 21st May, Glyn Akroyd spoke to SixBySix founding member Colin McPherson about the group’s vision and the ingenuity to overcome the limitations of lockdown.
(Photo: Colin McPherson)
How did SixBySix come about? Whose idea was it initially?
SixBySix sort of evolved during 2019. The six of us (Craig Easton, Stephanie Wynne, Tadgh Devlin, Adam Lee, Steve McCoy and myself) have been friends for a long time, all Merseyside-based and all working roughly on what you could describe as documentary photography, in its broadest sense. We would meet at exhibition openings and other social gatherings and just found that we had a lot in common, both as individuals and as photographers. Some of us had collaborated with each other in the past, which also strengthened bonds of friendship. Last year, we found ourselves talking more and more about things that we wanted to see happening in photography on Merseyside. We felt there was maybe a gap that wasn’t being filled by others and that strands of photographic practice weren’t being recognised or celebrated enough. That was the impetus for doing something more co-ordinated. I have been a member of a collective (Document Scotland) for many years and really enjoy pooling and sharing resources and knowledge, so was very keen to be a part of something similar in this area.
Why did you decide to set up base in Bold Street’s Ropes & Twines?
Again, this sort of evolved. Craig became friendly with Martin Chapman Fromm, who runs a community darkroom in West Kirby. He was collaborating with Tian Loh Tso at Ropes & Twines on Bold Street to stage exhibitions of photography and they had been working on this for a couple of years, showing some really interesting, undiscovered work. Martin was finding it difficult to programme the shows due to other work pressures so after Craig showed part of his group project SIXTEEN there last summer, we as a group took on the role of organising the exhibitions for them. That was really the impetus behind getting SixBySix off the ground: we had something tangible to aim for and to use to further our plans and objectives which were to promote documentary photography and start conversations and debates about contemporary – and historical – practice.
Before the lockdown it looked like a really good response to the first six months of SixBySix. How was it for the six of you?
Yes, we initially did a group show in September 2019 with small selections of work by all six of us. These were a mixture of new and old work, but seemed to gel together. Part of the idea was to hold social evenings to accompany exhibitions. Rather than just private views, the idea is to make these a lot more, well, sociable and to try to get people talking and exchanging ideas. We are keen to hear what photographers and others who are interested would want and need. We believe that we can, over time, build something really special here on Merseyside.
How does the decision making process work in terms of deciding who/what to show/discuss?
These are very much group decisions and we all participate in the discussions, planning and organising of the shows. We are fortunate that we have all had good, long careers making photography and have accumulated contacts and knowledge along the way. At present we are not funded externally, but have been very fortunate that, when approached, photographers have agreed to show their work and come to Liverpool to talk about it because they wish to support what we are doing. After I had shown Berlin: After The Wall (which was curated by fellow members of SixBySix), both Graeme Oxby (The Kings Of England) and Amanda Jackson (To Build A Home) agreed to show work and participate in our social events. These were hugely successful and have given us the confidence to do more. When the coronavirus lockdown struck, we were just about to show Stuart Freedman’s The Palaces Of Memory, his series about coffee houses in India. This has been put on hold, but hopefully will happen. Tian has been very supportive of what we are doing and has contributed significantly to help stage the exhibitions. The staff too at Ropes & Twines seem to have embraced what we are doing and the whole thing feels very positive and rewarding.
In an age where ‘everyone is a photographer’ and the rise of Instagram, how do you see the role of the documentary photographer today?
Well, it is evolving and changing by the day at the moment. Being, as we are, in the middle of a global health pandemic which threatens to re-write the social and economic rules of society, I think it’s a tough question to answer, let alone speculate about answers. In general terms, we will always need documentary photographers to record and disseminate the great and small stories and issues around us. How that is funded and where that work is seen in the post-Covid-19 world is open to conjecture. With arts funding sure to take a hammering in the years ahead, support for photographers, like all artists, is going to be at a premium. It will be up to photographers, like everyone, to dream up ways of surviving and putting their practices on a sustainable, long-term footing. These were issues SixBySix was already looking at. The current situation makes it all the more necessary, but also uncertain.
(Photo: Stephanie Wynne)
You mentioned in a BBC interview that the introduction of digital technology meant you had less time to work on newspaper assignments: has that affected the quality of photo reportage?
Speaking personally, my work for newspapers and in the media has been dwindling for years. This is partly my choice – it’s a high-pressured, disruptive and these days not very financially rewarding way of working. I’m more interested in longer-form projects, often combining these with other disciplines such as writing and film, and collaborations with other photographers, such as with SixBySix. In general, the more time one can dedicate to a story or issue photographically, the more likely the work is going to be richer and deeper. Modern, rolling deadlines and the ubiquity of imagery makes it harder to get work noticed. There are so many challenges.
If, in the future, you could only work in one medium, i.e. film or digital, which would you choose and why?
I’d love to be able to dedicate the time and resources to shooting more film again. I was planning a project based in Birkenhead to be shot on film just when the pandemic took hold and we were locked down. Now all bets are off. I can imagine the next two years are going to be a fight for survival, and using costly film and working on time-consuming projects will probably be a luxury I won’t be able to afford. Ironically, I’ll probably have the time to do it now!
(Photo: Stephen McCoy)
Do you think that putting work up in a gallery is the best way for photographers to exhibit their work, both in an aesthetic sense and in terms of reaching the widest audience?
I think there are several factors at work here. SixBySix was attracted to Ropes & Twines because it gave us access to an exhibition space which didn’t require all the infrastructure of a gallery. It is a place where well-curated and excellent work can be shown to the public and can be appreciated and admired as part of the general ambience of the place. Not every project or body of work is best suited to be exhibited in a gallery or public space. And again – but not always – it tends to come down to resources. The more you can throw at an exhibition, the better they tend to look. But there are many ways to communicate your work: printed material, online, in non-traditional public spaces. I think it comes down to each project or body of work. And the photographer or artist’s preferences. I like to have a mix of all the things for my own work.
Who inspired you to take up photography and who are your current favourite photographers (SixBySix aside…)?
Speaking personally, I was a great admirer of the mid-20th century documentarists. They appealed to a way of life I aspired to, as well as making photography which seemed to resonate with me. My great hero was actually my uncle, the German photographer Henning Langenheim. I had the great pleasure of introducing his work to the audiences at the SixBySix event which marked the opening of my Berlin show. He taught me about life and about living: these are two cornerstones of documentary photography practice. He was based in Berlin and we even met my other great hero, the Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank together at an event in 1985. It blew my mind: it was like meeting your favourite rock star or footballer. My uncle also introduced me – literally – to the work of the great Edinburgh photographers Hill and Adamson when he took me to the National Galleries of Scotland archive in my home city and we spent an afternoon with white gloves on sifting through their original Victorian-era prints. I was 17. The rest was history, as they say.
(Photo: Tardgh Devlin)
Do you envisage a direct Covid-19 response from SixBySix? Which photographers would you like to see tackling the subject of pandemics in general?
We are talking about it together most days. At present we are still in lockdown, so it is difficult to envisage what comes next. I think we are all trying to cope with it in our own ways while trying to future proof our lives (without knowing what the future looks like!). Many photographers are and will make work which responds to the current situation. I am more interested in what comes next.
Will SixBySix be exhibiting online during the lockdown?
Like so many other individuals, groups and organisations, we’ve taken ourselves online and are running virtual socials every second Thursday. We are trying to replicate the model we had at Ropes & Twines by inviting guests speakers to talk about their work. Again, the response has been phenomenal: not just from photographers, but from the general public who have supported us over the last nine months. It is giving us hope that once the initial lockdown phase is over, and when society starts to unpack itself, that we can take everyone along with us on the journey and start to put physical events on again in Liverpool – and maybe elsewhere. That’s the dream at present!
You can currently join the SixBySix collective at their Virtual Social every second Thursday to watch their guest photographers’ online presentations/discussions. Simply message them on Facebook to declare an interest to be sent a password on the day.
Thursday 21st May: Merseyside-based photographers Stephanie Wynne and Stephen McCoy present work from their Triangulation series.
Thursday 4th June: Photographer Daniel Meadows ‘Desert Island Pics’
All events start at 7pm (BST) via Zoom – contact SixBySix directly for access. All virtual socials are streamed live on the collective’s Facebook page.
(Main Photo: Adam Lee / Below photo: Craig Easton, Adam Lee)