Four Corners is a large building situated at 121 Roman Road in Bethnal Green, East London. A haven for lens-based media, it’s a charitable organisation that boasts a rentable gallery, photographic studios, darkroom facilities and kit to hire; from slick industry standard filming equipment, to wind-up Bolex cameras from the early twentieth century. A huge space, yet packed to the rafters with creative talent: artists, commercial photographers, post production teams and photographic printers all take up residence here, and the corridors are teeming with individuals participating in any one of their several funded programmes. The professionals working from the building feed their industry knowledge and experience back into the training and development programmes, fuelling their own unique brand of symbiosis.
The organisation supports both moving image and photography, the combined focus of two originally separate co-operatives founded in the 70s, Four Corners and Camerawork. You can’t help but become affected by the hugely collaborative mood both inside the building and out, as those connected with it speak with such love of the place. Incredibly it has retained the co-operative structure and attitude which was so important for its parent organisations in the 70s, particularly special when so many other examples simply haven’t survived from the era.
Dave Than works as the Exhibitions and Projects Manager at Four Corners. He co-curates gallery exhibitions and works within the programming team to develop a number of funded initiatives which includes an archive project, a development programme for London-based practitioners and a series of artist residencies. On a sunny afternoon in early spring I met with Dave and his wonderfully energetic 4-year-old daughter, and found myself initiated with a scooter race down the length of the building’s corridor. We discussed the social landscape into which the organisations were born, what Four Corners is doing to support photography today, and the nature of its programmes which have become so popular.
Words: Laura Norman
Portraits: Clare Hewitt
How did Four Corners form, and who were the main protagonists?
Four Corners was originally Joanna Davis, Mary Pat Leece, Ronald Peck and Wilfried Thust; two women and two men, all of them studying Filmmaking at university in London. Though no one can pinpoint the precise date when the idea was conceived to start formally working together, as nothing was formal in the 70s, it was around 1976 that they formed a co-operative filmmaking group. They acquired kit to use and they found the building three doors away from where we are now, 113 Roman Road. There, they set up a film workshop and cinema to screen films to local audiences, and they started to train people.
The political scene in the 70s was particularly tumultuous across the whole of the UK, with young people going off-grid, underground, and forming their own community led groups. It was a prime breeding ground for creatives. Am I right to think that Four Corners was born in this spirit?
Definitely. The early films they produced documented, and included work by, the marginal communities around them: working-class women, first generation Bangladeshis and people from London’s gay community. One of the earliest workshops of its kind in Britain, it was part of a wider counterculture that promoted independent filmmaking. Like today, where people find warehouses or spaces to live and work, 113 Roman Road became a working space and a home to four families. One of the couples had a child next door, she was literally born and raised there. Funnily enough she came back when she was eighteen and undertook an internship at Four Corners! But those four were a proper co-operative and they’re still hippies in spirit.
The second part of the puzzle for the organisation as it exists today, is a photography co-operative that was based at the Half Moon Theatre, a rented synagogue in Aldgate in the early 70s. The partner of one of those guys was the photographer Wendy Ewald, who set up a small gallery in the reception area where they exhibited photographs. They then thought they should find a dedicated space so one of the other founders Mike Goldwater, found and acquired this building, number 121, back in 1978 and designed the basement into a purpose-built black and white darkroom. From being based at the Half Moon Theatre, the organisation then became known as the ‘Half Moon Photography Workshop’ (HMPW). The pioneers from that group were Paul Trevor and Mike Goldwater who were soon joined by people like Ed Barber, Jenny Matthews, George Solomonides, Ron McCormick, Julia Meadows, Tom Picton, Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, and they worked with a strong emphasis on social documentary. They introduced workshops and held black and white masterclasses; everything was black and white back then. When I first became involved it was with Camerawork, and I only introduced colour in 1995 as I’d heard that the Daily Mirror were going digital and selling their equipment. One of our members knew they were selling their colour print processor, so I just went and bought it straight from the Daily Mirror!
So from 1978 both Four Corners and the HMPW were based on Roman Road, just three doors apart?
Yes- we've got photographs of the old building and you can see that they’d put corrugated iron across the whole building, there was no front door. To get into the gallery they would lever one of the sheets open, slide in and then just slide back out again! But then they changed their name to Camerawork-
Which was due to their magazine?
Right. They changed their name to Camerawork due to the magazine’s popularity and reach, its legacy retained the institution really. It was a hugely successful and influential magazine of the 70s through to the mid 80s. It used the new type of documentary photography which was emerging in the UK, and publicised important social and political ideas. In the early to mid 80’s there was a debate around the change of output from the Camerawork magazine between the original pioneers and new curators/editors. Work became more academic, more avant-garde.
I’d been working with Camerawork since 1993, but left for a period of time. Soon after I returned the guys at Four Corners phoned and told me that Camerawork had closed and they’d acquired the building. They asked if I’d help them research the feasibility of reopening the gallery and darkrooms at 121 Roman Road- and if I knew where the back door keys were! We went on to obtain capital grants from the Arts Council, EU and a number of trusts to renovate and extend the space and created a new centre for film and photography with gallery and darkrooms, edit suites, a training room and new offices, which all opened in 2007.
What was it that caused Camerawork to close down?
One of biggest problems that publicly funded co-operatives and other small organisations have faced over the years has been the politics that has driven funding bodies to impose models of institutional structures. One of the things that brought Camerawork down in the end was that the London Arts Board wanted to know exactly which individual was responsible for the success or failure of its programmes, and so they were forced into adopting a pyramid-style organisational structure. Without replacing Barbara Hunt, the absence of a Director eventually saw its downfall. Four Corners has always been virtually flat in terms of structure, which we’ve managed to retain, with the directors earning little more than the youngest member of staff. Additionally everyone has a voice and everyone has a right to say what they think.
Were those changes the same across the board?
Two similar organisations that were also busy during the 70s were forced into merging; London Film-Makers co-op and London Electronic Arts, based in Camden. When the two organisations merged in 1997, and became LUX, they moved into a building in Hoxton and it looked fantastic from the outset. The Arts Council funded it and they were given a brand new building, but five years later the rent in Shoreditch had increased by something like £40 per sq ft. LUX nearly closed. It was the dedication of Ben Cook and the board at LUX that kept it going by renting a small office in Shacklewell, and just focusing on film distribution. Their hard work has paid off and ten years later the project has endured and very successfully reinvented itself.
So many people seemed to have got their fingers burnt. I used to work at a gallery which started off in Marylebone in the early 90s before moving to the East End, as many did, but they all had these five year leases. The rent went crazy and it was cheaper for the gallery to return to Marylebone- they’ve been there for ten years or so now.
Completely. LUX recently moved up to Waterlow Park in Highgate, where they've got enough space to have a gallery which doubles up as a cinema, but again they’ve had to adapt- they’ve had to move out of east London where LUX was born.
I’ve heard that Rosebery Avenue in Clerkenwell had a moment, do you know anything about that?
Around 1995, a whole generation of young photographers that had studied at Bournemouth University came to London. People like Wolfgang Tillmans and Neil Massey all came to the city looking for work. One of the students that came with this crop from Bournemouth was Lee Williams. He’s a lovely guy, and a brilliant colour printer. When I mentioned that I bought that colour print processor from the Mirror, it was Lee that came with me. We checked it out together, we put it in the back of a van, brought it here and installed it. To gather interest in colour during the mid 90s I programmed some ‘Introduction to Colour Printing’ workshops which I asked Lee to teach because he was a great printer, but also really good at sharing his knowledge.
After a couple of years of working here, Lee set up his own business as a small, commercial, open access darkroom which opened on Warner Yard, just off Roseberry Avenue and he called it Rapideye. Lee was hoping to target a different audience; people that needed to print much bigger, and everyone was going bigger. They took in digital work as well as analogue printing, and they started introducing all sorts of interesting alternative commercial processes there. Eventually he moved to Leonard Street, but the Roseberry Avenue thing was really Lee’s initiative.
How have you seen Bethnal Green change?
Post-war, there was a lot of dereliction and rebuilding, so no one would come here. It was impoverished artists that were working or moving into the area, and the borough still is poor- if you take out Canary Wharf. It was those original pioneers from Four Corners that came here first of all, from 1976, and Camerawork from around 1978. It was just that kind of thing which spread through word of mouth. A lot of different artists started to move here in the 80s into old industrial buildings, and Wolfgang Tillmans set up his studio on Cambridge Heath Road in the 90s, just around the corner from Herold Street. At the time the only gallerist on that street was Maureen Paley, of course now the whole road is curated little spaces. Interestingly, when Wolfgang started to downsize and return to Berlin years later, the assistants that had printed for him found work in the photographic lab that’s currently in our basement, Labyrinth.
But there have been many changes. For the first time in a long time we obtained funding from Tower Hamlets, which we will use for a film training programme called Zoom. It’s a three year entry level programme designed to enhance participants employability skills, something much needed within the borough. The funding will support sixteen trainees into the film industry each year, who will work with local organisations to make them a promotional film, so local businesses will benefit and those on the programme will learn how to work as crews and how to work from a client brief, so will produce a film that will be used commercially.
How have you seen the climate for photography in London develop over the years?
When those Bournemouth students came down in the mid 90s it was all about analogue photography, think Dazed and Confused or iD magazine. These students were trained technically to be photographers. They knew about lighting, about hyperfocal distance, and they understood how their cameras worked. In addition, Bournemouth was exceptionally good at teaching students how to leave school and find work, how to be an assistant, how to set up your studio and how to make it in the real world. At the same time we would have final year students from Central Saint Martins or the Royal College of Art printing up their graduate shows at Camerawork, and their tutorial focus would be more about the conceptual identity of their ideas. The technical knowledge of those students would generally be learnt from the darkroom technicians.
The industry in London had been centred on commercial, editorial photography, fashion and advertising. It was a cyclical work pattern, a real routine, which all completely changed around 1996 when people basically said ‘we can't afford for you to shoot in film anymore, you’ve gotta shoot digital' and it was around then that Lee set up Rapideye. In contrast to Rapideye, Camerawork would have photographers coming in who had accepted a brief from an editor on a Monday. They’d shoot on Tuesday, taking their film to the lab on Wednesday, they’d check their contacts that night, come in on Thursday to make prints, take those to their editor on Friday, bank their cheque, have a drink over the weekend, and then start all over again! But there is still such a network- it’s such a small world and somewhere along the road we’ve crossed paths with most people.
Speaking of which, we met last year at Antony Cairns' private view, just a few doors away. I know that he had a studio with you, how did that come about?
Well, Stephen Gill has rented our second floor since 2011 which is just above us now. He decided to take some time out, so he sublet part of the large studio, which point the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) moved in as they needed a space for the photojournalism collection that they were building. Antony Cairns (Tony) works with them, and because it was such a big space he used part of it too. Tony's great and has taught some classes and given talks for Four Corners. I've known him since around 2004. He’s an excellent printer with a fantastic knowledge of traditional techniques. He actually exhibited here in 2011, and created two amazing concertinaed books where he’d photographed the whole length of Kingsland Road on a 5x4 film camera.
AMC has always been rather closeted. I first came to know of them from their installation in the 'Conflict, Time, Photography' exhibition at Tate Modern, what did they do here?
It’s funded by David Thomson, a Canadian media mogul. He has Timothy Prus in position as the curator, and they ultimately collect, or rather stockpile, objects and materials as well as creating and distributing their own publications, most of which stem from this collection. They started with collecting bromide press prints, but extended that remit exponentially. There is so much stuff that sometimes crates get shipped straight to Canada unopened. When I visited that show at Tate, there was a depth-charger as part of the installation, and the AMC guys later told me that they’d had it in their studio here for months! The only difference is that of course to be walked into the Tate it had been officially checked out and decommissioned. So cheeky! But I like chatting to Tony and to Kalev Erickson, they both work at AMC and they've both used the darkrooms, so we'd chat at the top of our stairs. In fact myself, Tony, Kalev and Stephen all became fathers around the same time [laughs], so we have plenty to talk about, whether it's parenting or photography!
What do you focus on today, what are the main strands of Four Corners’ operation?
I’m working on several projects, the first being the European Union’s Regional Development Fund programme, which is called London Creative Network. It’s one of London’s premier professional development programmes which offers business support to London’s creative industries. The whole idea of the mission is to subsequently improve the capital's economy. I’m also working on the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Archive project. What we’ve been celebrating recently is the fact that we can now guarantee that Four Corners has been at 113 on Roman Road for at least 40 years, and the two-year project focuses on the first 10 to 12 years of Four Corners, of the HMPW and of the Camerawork magazine. The third strand of my personal activities is a programme of artists residencies funded by the Arts Council through Grants for the Arts.
You’ve got the histories of not one, but two incredibly important organisations to represent within the HLF Archive project, how do you balance it?
We’re going to have a website which will serve as an archive of research. It will have a timeline of Four Corners’ history, of the HMPW/Camerawork history, and with its own authority, the magazine’s history. The fourth strand of the timeline will cover 1972-88, looking specifically at both national and local politics, and the socioeconomic issues they were dealing with then.
Whatever physical work we might uncover or acquire, we’ll consider it as work that we’d like to potentially exhibit and tour, after which it will go to Stefan Dickers at the Bishopsgate Institute. He’s going to catalogue and house the entire physical archive of both organisations and we will host the digitised archive online. We’ve done quite a lot of work with Stefan and he's really interested in what we do. He already houses the whole archive of Paul Hallam who had worked with Ron Peck (one of the founding members of Four Corners) on films together, some of which have gone on to the BFI. Because of the way the Institute is funded, the archive’s longevity is much more assured than if we give it to a university, because university archives and policies will change with trends and new staff as they come and go. The Bishopsgate Institute is specifically set up, due to a bequeathed fund, for it to be maintained as an archive, so we know that it's got a long lifespan there. We know Stefan so well, and he's so enthusiastic about archiving what we’re working with- the whole thing just felt right.
There must be a tremendous amount of material to start making sense of, how do you go about compartmentalising the different aspects of the archive?
When Four Corners acquired this building, we also acquired all of Camerawork’s assets, which included the copyrights to the books that were produced, all of their magazines, and all of the physical objects left inside the building (although all photographers and authors retained copyright in their work). Putting together an archive that dates back to the mid 70s you realise the practical implications of correspondence being typed out on manual typewriters, there was just boxes filled with it, with all the smudges and Tippex. After we’d tried to make some sense of it all, we donated the entire paper archive and all of those communications to Val Williams at UAL, who heads the Photography and the Archive Research Centre, based at the London College of Communication. She's a curator, an academic and a prolific book writer who has launched the careers of numerous photographers. Since about 2007, she’s been cataloguing this material with PHD students.
HLF projects are managed quite extensively by volunteers who gain knowledge that they can then use or pass on, so that it doesn't just become an internalised, institutional project. We recruited 20 volunteers who are mainly students working in the history of photography; many of them with a keen interest in either the organisations or the era. We’ve invited them to things like oral history workshops, and training sessions for specific copyright and permissions for magazines and archives. Nearly all of the volunteers are working on their own projects elsewhere so they adapt their newly learnt skills to their own projects too.
It’s so crucial to give context to what was going on outside of the organisations, it’s something I find really interesting because it goes to show just how important the work of those groups were.
Cockpit Arts was another organisation operating in the 70s, set up by Andrew Dewdney- a professor at London South Bank University. He is just a charming, generous man with his time and knowledge, and he suggested to hang the whole idea of this archive on the era and to place it within a wider social and political context. I discussed this with Val Williams and she was suggesting that if we get other organisations involved, perhaps we could even approach the Museum of London with a period show, something like ‘Film and Photography of the 70s and 80s’.
We've also been approaching the founders of the co-operatives, people like Paul Trevor, Mike Goldwater, Ed Barber, who has sadly passed away, Jenny Matthews and Shirley Reed, to act as advisers on panels to correct any inaccuracies. They can contextualise as a force as because they were there. They are so supportive of the project and can see the need for the next generation to be aware of what happened during that period; how they survived when a majority of others failed, and to share the attitude and mind-set that formed these organisations in the first place.
What things would Camerawork have toured, and where would they have travelled to?
Paul Trevor, Michael Goldwater and Ed Barber initiated a whole series of photographic projects which they printed and had laminated, they’d simply bought a laminating machine which was still here when I started in the 90s! Those laminated posters were then put in art cases and shipped all over England. Regional libraries like Birmingham City Library or spaces like the National Media Museum in Bradford or Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool would hire in these shows because of the nature of the work, which was raising important social issues. Also if these spaces were being funded regionally by their arts boards, it would feed back into Camerawork’s revenue stream, in fact it became a major source of income for them at that time, which they reinvested into their next projects.
I saw that you recently had screenings of the first films made with the early members of Four Corners. That must have been really insightful with those original members in attendance.
It was, we also had a discussion around the screenings. That was the first 40th anniversary event, and three of the four original Four Corners members showed extracts of their films from the 70s. Some of the films from that time for me are really terrible... There’s one film called 'On Allotments'; it’s shot on 16mm and it’s just cabbages! Personally what I find so fascinating about working on the archive is meeting the pioneers who set the place up like Mike Goldwater at Camerawork. He's been around a while now, and always has a project somewhere. Ed Barber recently had a show at the Imperial War Museum about his anti-nuclear posters. They were created around the time of Greenham Common, and were exhibited alongside Peter Kennard, who incidentally worked here on projects too. They all used to say ‘Peter’s not a photographer- he’s a photo-montage artist!’ It’s amazing to bring them all together again after so many years and to hear these guys catch up, they’re talking all the time because for them it’s a massive reunion of 10, 15- even 30 years.
Let’s talk about Fathom, the Four Corners residency programme. How exactly do you support artists, and what type of things have been created?
We successfully put in a bid for a residency programme via Grants for The Arts in 2011, which replaced some of the regular funding we received from The Arts Council when we lost our regularly funded organisation (RFO) status. It spanned a year and the first artists we had were David Burkin, Walter Hugo, and Tess Hurrell. David made his first film, Tess made a moving image piece from photographic stills, and Walter built a walk in camera which he installed in the gallery. He had a 150 year-old brass lens mounted on the wall inside the camera, and a wooden monorail that housed a ground glass screen for focusing through the lens. It also had a fixed sink with chemical trays inside of it. Walter’s work became an almost performative installation in the gallery. He created 20 x 24 inch tintypes in the gallery which have actually been all across London, Europe and to the US at Art Basel Miami Beach and New York. There was also a symposium held at London Metropolitan University where the three of them each gave a presentation about what they were doing during the residency. So that’s the kind of direction we can take people in.
For the next two years we called the programme Fathom, with five artists each year. There were photobooks produced, films made, even a triptych of films exhibited. In the second year there was an artist called Gayle Chong Kwan who wanted to add animation to a moving image piece. Patric Ralston from FAVA, the company that rents out equipment and studios here, introduced us to Malcolm Hadley, who is a regular animator for Tim Burton. Malcolm worked closely with Gayle, and showed her how to do stop frame work in the way that he would, using industry standard software. He’d previously helped Tess Hurrell with her first 16mm film during her residency in 2012. So this is the way we use our Grants for the Arts funding to support artists enrolled in our residency programmes. We give them a desk upstairs, they have access to our training room, projects spaces, the gallery, the darkrooms and the filmmaking equipment along with as much support and guidance as we can give them.
You have prints for sale online, when did you start selling them and how did you select those artists?
Our online print sales were established in collaboration with a group called Uncertain States. We worked together as we both wanted to establish a print sales service, and it launched with an exhibition called ‘Editions’ in 2014. The selection is very carefully put together, and we let Uncertain States cherry-pick the pieces for sale from the artists in their network, which are sold in small limited editions. Amongst other activities they produce a free quarterly broadsheet for lens-based work. They wrote and we then supported, their proposal to Grants for the Arts to get it produced and distributed. For their newspaper they hold an open call for artists and ask nine industry people to select from the submissions. I was one of the first to select an artist, and it's a great initiative. I think the artists get great exposure and it just adds to the breadth of what the guys at Uncertain States do. They themselves are phenomenally interesting artists. I can sit and have a beer in our courtyard with any one of the founders; Spencer, David or Kim, and we’ll chat for hours.
So the residencies currently span a year, what about the EU Funded projects- does the London Creative Network programme run for a longer period? Also how do you go about recruiting people to take part?
Carla Mitchell, our development director, wrote a successful funding application to the European Union for their European Regional Development Fund and through that we’re able to support artists and photographers in London through practical business development. Me and Owen Thomas, our project coordinator undertake one-to-one diagnostics with artists to meet their needs, both creative and commercial. The EU funded programmes are three years long and support around 150 people in that time. The first programme spanned two years and was purely for artists based in the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney. We knew a lot of people because many of them used our darkrooms, so through our facilities we already had a network of practitioners which we would invite to apply. Additionally they might share a studio with two artists or share a house with five other people, so it spread by word of mouth.
The second programme supported 120 people across London, and it was relatively easy to recruit for it as we’d already worked with 150 people on the previous programme. For the third programme the EU upped their specifications to a minimum spend of £2m! So for us to deliver something of that scale we needed to reach out to others to work in partnership with us. We contacted the Director of SPACE, who loved the idea, and Cockpit Arts in Holborn. We then approached Photofusion in Brixton, as together we were already supporting artists in East, Central and North London, so they could help to support South London, which would provide a significant geographical divide between partners. Now that we’re working together, we will actually support more like over 600 people across disciplines throughout London.
What does ‘London Creative Markets’ actually refer to?
The last programme had a marketing focus, so we called it New Creative Markets. The very nature of finding new markets meant that there should be increased turnover, so the success of the program was measured on the gross overall increase in turnover of those professionals. In contrast, the focus of London Creative Network is on new product development, which is fantastic because we're working with artists that want to make new work! All we need to prove is that these people, through our support, have produced new bodies of work which could simply be a new service or technique that they learn and post online, or exhibit physically. We're doing things like creative Super 8 filmmaking and bringing in artists that work on music videos, where they perhaps scratch the negatives, or throw rubbish in the camera so that each roll of film or each reel produces a unique piece. We're showing commercial photographers how to make work that crosses over into fine art, but that has application in their field, and which is in fact is very much in vogue with commercial media purchases.
Did the Brexit vote hold any sway over the funds allocated from the EU?
It actually threw everything up in the air. Although money had been allocated to us, the contract had not been signed, so that signature was delayed for about four months, therefore the whole programme was delayed by about seven or eight months. However, our EU funders have recently asked us to submit an application for additional funding to extend the LCN programme for two more years till September 2020. The Arts Council have always been extremely supportive. Over the years, they've provided capital funding for build projects, core revenue funding through our RFO status and Grants For The Arts funding for our artist residencies. We're talking to them now about new models for supporting artists as funding as opportunities change.
What kind of events or workshops do you offer to those partaking in the programme?
We’ve been working a great deal with Susan Andrews and Mick Williamson from the photography department at The Sir John Cass School of Art. Susan is the head of the MA programme and Mick is the head of BA and the overall photographic department. Mick has been around a long time, and was even represented by the Photographer’s Gallery Print Sales Gallery department. We tapped into the networks and contacts that Sue and Mick have, so let’s say that Martin Parr or Brian Griffin or someone of that ilk and significance was talking to their BA students in the afternoon; they would ask the speaker to stay on and hold more of a masterclass for emerging to mid-career practitioners in the evening. An opening line for the night might be ‘let's talk about your business plans’. Every Monday for a whole term we'd get a swathe of people just talking about the specifics of their careers. No one can talk about Martin Parr’s career better than him! People want to know, moreover young artists and photographers want to know. Every seat is taken with people sitting in the aisles, and the lecture might be about the value of maintaining your personal practice whilst doing commercial work to pay the rent. Ultimately you want commercial commissions to be made on the strength of what people are seeing in your personal work; you want people to buy your personal style.
There’s a real sense of collaboration, with programmes inextricably linked and feeding into one another. It’s retained a true sense of its co-operative identity- in fact when I first met you and we spoke about Four Corners that’s the thing I really took home.
Completely- for example Mick was hugely involved in Camerawork back in the 80s, during the same time as Peter Kennard and Martin Parr. Even though Martin was working independently, they all had involvement here because the organisation had that presence- if it wasn't for a show it would be for something else. Four Corners has always been a kind of magnet that draws like-minded photographers and photographic artists to it.