Insight: The Caravan Gallery
Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale bring their eccentricity to Sunderland in the form of a series of honest photographs displayed in a little travelling caravan. Leah Parker-Turnock catches up with the photographic duo as they give a preview to their Pride of Place project all about Sunderland.
As I frantically dash to the station I finally spot it, a tiny yellow caravan, resembling an eccentric Tic Tac is bizarrely parked in a concrete precinct – against the backdrop of a looming tower-block and The Bridges Shopping Centre. I thought it was just the photographer’s work, which was supposed to relay such spontaneity and quirky demeanour that their images are now renowned for. It is clear it is the whole package.
Gulls scream and a bitter North wind is wreaking havoc with the display materials outside the caravan. A few brave Mackems are inspecting the collection of photographic postcards and books, which are for sale. Meanwhile a few braver members of the public venture inside to look at the prints (or perhaps just to escape the icy wind). It’s clearly the latter of the two for one woman as she tells Jan Williams: “I thought it looked cosy and I could warm up instead of shopping”. This bemuses me as I sit with Chris Teasdale on the mini chair, cooped in the corner shivering. An edgy looking local with a guitar swung over his back and ripped jeans talks about the merits of Slough with Chris and the fabulous concoction of Pease Pudding- a North East delicacy made known to the country by the iconic line from Oliver Twist.
The work is a candid selection of images depicting the absurd, strange and crass everyday people and sights around Britain. The work is vaguely similar to Daniel Defoe’s tour around Britain in the 80s, with the added impulsiveness of the quirky travelling social club – the caravan. Everything hints towards the non-conformist beliefs Jan and Chris’s way of life. There are weird juxtapositions of old and new, the modern and the decaying, the absurdly labelled and the architectural fantasies.
Jan points at an image: “that has gone, and that…and that”. She explains how many of their images capture stages of urban regeneration and development where yet another Tesco or Costa has replaced a once cherished local business or tree. Perhaps relating to Sunderland a photograph documenting the vast collection of Greggs taking over the city might be appropriate?
By their nature most of the scenes they catch are transient. Chris explains how bystanders are often perplexed by what he is photographing. He normally tells them “it’s just an interesting composition” and they wander off. While the architects are seldom seen, both Jan and Chris are eager to point out how their work is very much a celebration of the efforts of individuals to make their mark in the face of bland conformity, corporate identity and municipal authority. Chris is anxious to dismiss any suggestions that the images are of unconventional taste and the unfortunate, but amusing, misspellings are a form of pi*stake: “we have to be respectful, we always go back to exhibit in the places that we’ve photographed.” Chris recognises however that there are images they took years ago, which he might not consider to be ok today “things change” he explains. Perhaps our values are as short-lived as the scenes they photograph.
Some of the images have a certain potency. For example an alleyway in Bedford depicts a row of tombstones lent against the wall on one side, a row of shop wheelie bins full of rubbish on the other, Jan suggests, “it seems really disrespectful human waste one side, commercial waste the other.” Chris points out an image of a WI food-stall in a Derbyshire village, the two women look incredibly stern as they confront the camera, “they seemed very typical, straight-laced and forbidding, but they were quite friendly after a while.” Jan’s favourite image appears to be a sign promising a free jar of cream with every 12 minutes, which she spotted in a grocer’s window, and is still none the wiser to the meaning of this sign.
Chris talks about whether their work is self-initiated or commissioned. He explains they no longer enter open competitions for funding for work but will come up with ideas to be pitched to potential sponsors, such as the current project in Sunderland. A recent piece of work for the council in Aberdeenshire was to use their approach to convey the diversity and the points of interest of the area in a more engaging way to attract visitors. He acknowledges when working to this kind of brief he has to be a little more selective about the images he presents.
“We’re lucky because we get to survive by doing something we like to do – it’s full time photography for us with the odd bit of walking and cycling.”
My train has now gone and I’m still in this chilly yet intimate gallery space. It is not the original caravan as unfortunately the first was condemned as unroadworthy after practically falling apart, however it’s a good modern reconstruction of the old model, which uses old and new parts. It is a social club on wheels designed for sparking debate and conversation.