Life in a picture 20 years on - Byker Revisited at Side Gallery, Newcastle

By Culture24 Staff | 17 September 2009
A picture of a half naked man cradling a woman in their living room

(Above) Lee Hill, a teacher, and Betty Hill, an artist, in Byker (2006)

Exhibition: Byker Revisited, Side Gallery, Newcastle, until October 31 2009

"I got to know people, and asked them: if you were to put your life into just one picture, what would be in it?" says Sirkka-Liisa Kontinnen, describing her artistic process.

"I wanted to give the people living in these flats a photograph they would be proud to present to the world, something to introduce themselves to their neighbours. People don't often know the people who live next door. It's my little fantasy, creating a virtual community through these portraits."

A picture of a young family with a dog inside a flat

David McArdle with daughters Kadie and Robyn and Ty-dog (2008)

When she moved to London to study at Regent Street polytechnic more than 40 years ago, this Finnish photographer also grabbed the chance to set up Amber film and photography.

The collective took their burgeoning reputation to Newcastle a few years later, forming an infatuation with the terraced streets of the Tyneside working class.

A picture of a block of 1970s style flats from the outside

Byker Wall, Tom Collins House (2008)

Their 1983 film, Byker, became a poignant documentation of the Geordie area of the same name, capturing a social moment in time now lost to demolition and replaced by Ralph Erskine's award-winning Byker Wall estate design.

Kontinnen's first portraits of her urban canvas remain her favourite, but she returned in 2003 to build a new picture of the locality, framing residents against the architecture their lives are played out within.

A picture of a tattooed man standing in a kitchen

Colin Davison (2009)

Some of them had taken part in the original project or were from the extended families of the area – "self-defined individuals who seem to flourish in a street plan outsiders find impossible to navigate", according to Kontinnen.

She found herself drawn to the refugees populating the hard-to-let properties at the base of the estate, working with more than 100 families during a six-year period to bring together a fractured community.

A picture of a family with a young daughter, mother and baby sitting in a lounge

Kayleigh Stewart with grandmother Lyn Stewart and baby Cody (2007)

A book, Byker Revisited, has been produced to coincide with the show, and a future-length documentary to update the original film will also be screened. Kontinnen calls it an exploration of "change, where we have come from and who we are".

Part of Reinventing the City – a series of tours, debates and exhibitions charting the re-imagination of the region through two centuries of industrial change – the deeply personal nature of the show looks voyeuristically absorbing.

Launch event for Byker Revisited book on September 25, 7pm. Byker (1983) film screening at Side Cinema, September 27, 2pm. Today I’m With You: Byker Revisited screening at Side Cinema, October 1 and 8, 7pm. Admission to all events free (Byker Revisited £5/£4). Visit Side Gallery online or call 0191 232 2208 for more details.

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