Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen moved to northeast England in 1969 as part of the (then) newly-formed Amber Collective. Her documentary photography project Byker on the eponymous working-class estate in Newcastle captured a community on the brink of being broken-up in the name of improvement: the slums were already being knocked down and the people dispersed. It’s a striking and emotionally fraught collection that often features in surveys of the best of ‘British’ documentary photography. From 2003, Kontinnen, still based in Newcastle-Gateshead, ‘returned’ for Byker Revisited. Thirty of her images from that repeat visit are in an online exhibition on the Amber website.
There are strong similarities with the earlier series in terms of photographic variety. Personal portraits sit alongside candids. Glorious light pours in, and people are often looking out, but the spaces in which they live and interact are tight, and they often seem too big for them. There is a constant contradictory feeling of both promise and of lives being passed by. The quality of the work throughout is of the highest level.
By the time of Byker Revisited the population had massively changed. The overwhelming majority of the original residents were long gone. But, in their place, are people living eerily similar lives – and Kontinnen’s work is a stark but beautiful recording of their experience.
The online exhibition is here.