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Byker by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen has revisited her seminal body of work Byker in a new photobook published by Dewi Lewis.

Kendal Street, Byker 1969
Kendal Street, Byker, 1969 © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, courtesy AmberSide/L. Parker Stephenson Photographs, NY

In 1983, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s Byker was published for the first time.

Considered a modern photography classic, it documented a close-knit community in Newcastle in an area set for wholesale development.

Now, Dewi Lewis has published a new photobook of the project.

“In the last two or three years I have started scanning my negatives, digitising them and seeing how much more there is in my archive than I ever knew,” says Konttinen.

“I began thinking I would really like to do some kind of a retrospective book, but couldn’t get my head round the six or seven major projects. How could you possibly put them in one book?”

Konttinen contacted Dewi Lewis who suggested starting with a remake of Byker.

“I think what resonates with me going through all that material again, is that we are now in danger of losing the meaning of physically belonging to wider communities in our lives.

“The design of the original Byker and the longevity of that community had created huge networks that were supportive in difficult times but also a joy to be part of.

“When I moved to live in Byker in 1969 I wasn’t aware the demolition and redevelopment were already underway.

“People were going through a huge transition in their lives and eventually the community was lost in the upheaval towards a redesigned modern housing estate.”

Mrs Potter in Mason Street, Byker 1975
Mrs Potter in Mason Street, 1975 © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, courtesy AmberSide/L. Parker Stephenson Photographs, NY

A sense of community

Konttinen had a unique insight into the Byker community because the area was her home for seven years.

“I became part of the community in my own eccentric way,” she says. “Byker was very good at accommodating eccentrics, they had many of their own.

“Because I was living on my own, a single female, the women kind of took me under their wing and kept an eye on me.

“That kind of thing, perhaps an irksome blessing at times, happens in close communities and that is what I now really miss about Byker.”

Children with collected junk, Byker 1971
Children with collected junk near Byker Bridge, 1971 © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, courtesy AmberSide/L. Parker Stephenson Photographs, NY

Byker – then and now

The original run of Byker, printed by Jonathan Cape, sold out, as did a reprint by Bloodaxe Books.

“It was a fairly modestly produced book,” says Konttinen. “The monotone printing  wasn’t making the most of the photography.

“But it was affordable and it was very well received locally. Virtually everyone from the old Byker had a copy.”

The new Byker is a larger format and gives more more prominence to the images.

However, the stories told by the people living in the area remain an ‘integral’ part of the book.

“With this opportunity, I began from scratch again, for instance reconsidering how to pair off the stories with the photographs” says Konttinen.

“This is what you always wish for – that with your hard-won hindsight you could have another go at something you made earlier, using your greater maturity and better understanding.”

Konttinen says she hopes the new book strikes a balance between documentation and selecting the best images.

A girl in a sparkly party dress bounces on a Spacehopper
Girl on a Spacehopper, 1971 © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, courtesy AmberSide/L. Parker Stephenson Photographs, NY

Girl on a Spacehopper

Spectrum Photographic has produced a signed and numbered giclée print to accompany a limited edition of 100 copies of Byker.

Each print is signed and numbered and presented in a glassine sleeve.

The print is of Girl on a Spacehopper, which also features as the cover image of the book.

Speaking about the image, Konttinen says: “It has somehow kept hopping behind me or in front of me all my life.

“Maybe it is that symbolism of going forth with your hair flying, all dressed up and shining, into the unknown. That spirit that gets us up in the morning.”

Young couple in a backyard on a summer’s day
Young couple in a backyard, 1975 © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, courtesy AmberSide/L. Parker Stephenson Photographs, NY

Buy it now

Order your copy of Byker from the Dewi Lewis Publishing website here.

An unsigned book is £40. The book with a limited edition print produced by Spectrum Photographic is £95.

Konttinen will be at the Photographer’s Gallery for a book signing on November 24.

“It would be great to see people even if they don’t wish to buy, just to say hello,” she says.

“It’s fruitful, especially with newly published work to hear responses, with the risk they might open up new perspectives that cannot be fed into this particular work. They will live on into the next.

“Just now I’m happy I’ve given my all to the new revised Byker book”.