gimmie shelter: photographing the other 1960s

Nick Hedges' powerful images captured the housing crisis that gripped Britain in the 60s. As his work goes on show to commemorate homeless charity Shelter's 50th birthday, we meet the photographer.

by Matthew Whitehouse
15 September 2016, 2:40pm

Skipping school, nowhere to go. Boy standing in the rain, Forster St Bradford 1969

Last week the V&A unveiled its annual fall blockbuster in the shape of You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. Exploring the significance and impact of the late 1960s, it is a lavish display of the era and its associated counterculture. Numerous bean bags fill a room displaying clips of Woodstock; a Sgt. Pepper diorama props up the corner of another and, much like 2013's well received David Bowie Is exhibition, the cosmic sounds of each period fill your ears: the blared refrain of Small Faces classic Itchycoo Park reminding you that Swinging London really was "all too beautiful."

Yet for many living in Britain, the late 1960s was a not a period of Twiggy coat hangers and tie-dye T-shirts. In industrial cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, and Newcastle, as well as certain areas of the capital, the end of the decade was, in fact, a time of abject poverty, exacerbated by poor housing conditions and prolonged by the failure of successive governments to tackle the issue head on.

It's the Britain captured by the great Nick Hedges in his landmark commission for Shelter, on display at Manchester's Anthony Burgess Foundation between September 15-18. A student project that would go on to occupy the next four years of his life, Hedges' iconic photography would play a considerable role in raising awareness of the situation, one that continues to resonate with a huge number of people affected by our own, ongoing housing crisis.

"Imagine a generation being able to buy a house their parents could only have dreamt about," read a caption at the V&A's section on consumerism. Yes, imagine.

Overcrowded tenement flat, Glasgow 1971

Your images are such a far cry from the usual depictions of Swinging London from the time. How did people react to that? Did they want to see what you were showing them?
That reading of history, of Britain as being possessed by the Swinging 60s and Mary Quant and the Beatles and all of that... At the time I was working it didn't feel like that at all. There was significant interest in radical ideas and radical measures, partly from France, partly to do with opposition of the Vietnam war, partly the fact that desegregation had happened in America. All of these things were part of the atmosphere. I mean obviously there were others who were interested in music and fashion and whatever, but I think it's a sort of misreading of history. It's not alway recognized.

Was it usual for a documentary photographer to focus on domestic issues like this?
There were two strands to documentary photography. There were people like Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths, and Jones Griffiths in particular, who were doing some absolutely wonderful work in Vietnam. And McCullin of course in Biafra. The home issues were less documented. They weren't seen to be as significant, as newsworthy perhaps, as those things happening overseas.

Child at end of alleyway, Manchester 1972

How did the subjects in the images react to you shooting them? Were they at all wary?
No, they didn't react in that way at all. I met either families myself, I often went to places like Liverpool or Bradford and explored things on my own, or sometimes we worked with project workers or social workers in the areas. But generally speaking, once you explained why you were doing it, it was possible for people to see that it was not voyeuristic, and that they were going to be looked after, in terms of it being done for Shelter's own publication. And obviously, the other thing about documentary photography is this thing about patience. The length of time you need to build up relationships and, indeed, the nature of the sort of relationship a photographer strikes up with their subject. I think that that's really quite important. I was privileged to have more time than a lot of photographers do because I wasn't working to a newspaper deadline or anything like that.

Thinking about the amount of time you spent on the project, did it ever become easier to witness the things that you were seeing?
No, it didn't. The thing is after about three or four years I stopped working with Shelter and went on to work with other voluntary organization. And the reason I stopped working with them was because I felt that my vision was, I hadn't become hardened to it, but my way of expressing things was not as vivid. And I think that I continued to remain shocked by what I found. I mean, particularly, the scale of it. When you visit as I did, different cities, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Bradford, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester. All the big industrial cities and London, of course. It was just shocking that these living conditions still existed for what was getting on to be 20 years after the war. The war actually delayed a lot of the rebuilding of Victorian slum properties. I found properties in Salford that had actually been condemned in the 1930s.

How did the people living in these places feel? Were they resigned to it?
The thing that made me feel very sad about it was that there was that air of resignation. It was a sense of being trapped and that there wasn't a way out of it, whatever interventions were made. I was shown letters from doctors, from educational authorities about the effect that these conditions were having about the adults and children who were living there. And even with that kind of backing they didn't have a sense that they were ever going to get out of it.

Nighttime scene in the bedroom of three children

When you look back, are there any of those adults or children that particularly stick out?
It's not so much the kids, it's the adults. The kids are sort of innocent of the conditions that they're living in. I remember a young woman, she was probably 12, 13, 14, something like that, in a house in Bradford and she was really dedicated to doing her school work, even though she's got nowhere to do it! And so you could sense with that age group that there was a deprivation that was felt, where with the younger children they just got on with the business of being kids.

There was another couple of girls in Glasgow, I'd interviewed the father and there were two teenagers girls and a boy of around four, I suppose. The girls just sort of hovered in this really dreadful tenement flat in the Gorbals. And eventually they relaxed — because adolescents are a lot more tense about the idea of having photographs taken — and they relaxed in such a way that they were able to express themselves and go about their lives. And one of the pictures I'm most fond of is a girl who was probably about fourteen, who suddenly sort of got up and decided she wanted to put some mascara on her eyelids. She went across to the window and there was a crack, I mean it sounds terribly cliche, but there was a cracked mirror, it literally was a broken mirror hanging in half, and light coming in through the window and she was just putting on her mascara and I was able to take photographs of her doing this and she just didn't take any notice of me because I'd been there that long. It was very touching to see someone wanting to put on her best face, as it were, to the world, in the situation she was in.

Why do you think the images still resonate?
Well, two things. One is that there are people that are my age that remember they grew up in these conditions. People in their 60s and 70s talking about it in the sense that they've come on from there, they've managed to do something with their lives. But then there are people in the age range between 20 and 40 where it is really quite shocking to think that this is such a recent past. And I think what Shelter have found is that it echoes with the problems that exist at the moment with housing in the cities again. The material poverty has changed in some ways but the insecurity and anxieties are just as bad now. 

Unemployed youth living with his parents and young brother and sisters in a slum property, June 1971

Nick Hedges & Shelter runs from September 15-18 at Manchester's Anthony Burgess Foundation


Text Matthew Whitehouse
Photography Nick Hedges

Nick Hedges