Jimmy Forsyth (Photographer)
Original Side Gallery exhibition text, 1981:
Scotswood Road, a typical working class area in the West End of Newcastle, became home for James (Jimmy) Forsyth after he was transferred from his native Barry. In 1954, motivated by an awareness that radical changes were imminent, Forsyth embarked upon a major documentation of his immediate surroundings. Having no knowledge of photography, and the use of only one eye after an industrial accident, the skills of the practice were acquired through pure trial and error.
Finance appears to have been the only barrier between his intention and achievements. He could not, for example, afford a light meter and guessed exposures, quite accurately it turns out. In order to buy more film Forsyth made portraits of people on the streets, in shops and in their homes, selling chemist processed prints for two shillings. For economic reasons hundreds of negatives had to remain unprinted, in fact many of the prints in this exhibition are the first to be made from a collection that approaches 3,000.
The photographs describe the sudden process of decline from a thriving community in the mid 1950s to an urban wasteland of the early sixties. Although such redevelopments have taken place in industrial communities nationally on a vast scale, few records of any detail exist or were probably ever attempted. But the value of James Forsyth’s work lies not only in its exclusivity but also in its honesty. Isolated from other photographs and photographers meant that he had no models on which to base the pictures, Forsyth was guided solely by intuition and a knowledge of his subject. This is one of the rare cases of a working class community documented by someone from the inside.
Note: The full collection is held by Newcastle City Libraries. Copies of Scotswood Road (Bloodaxe/Amberside, 1986 & 1988) are available from Amber.
Interview with Jimmy Forsyth, drawn from the book
For thirty years, Jimmy Forsyth photographed Scotswood Road in Newcastle upon Tyne, a chronicle of post-war experience beginning in the 50s. Interviewed by Derek Smith for the book, published by Bloodaxe Books and Amber/Side in 1986, he said:
I came up to Newcastle in 1943. They were shouting for fitters at Prudhoe, so I volunteered, and came down here from Glasgow, where I'd been working for two or three months. I lived in Barry in Wales. But after that I never went back. If it wasn’t for my accident I’d probably never have photographed Scotswood Road. I was in the boilerhouse at Prudhoe when a piece of chisel broke off and caught my pupil, they tried to save the eye but the cut was too deep. I never worked again. Plans were in the air for knocking Scotswood Road down. When they knocked down the Infirmary in 1954 a curious crowd gathered to watch. It was then that I realised someone should make a record of what was left of the community. For posterity’s sake. I had nothing to do, why not make a record of Scottie Road to pass the time? It would show future generations what we looked like and how we lived.
I wonder how I ever made the pictures, I was only on a couple of pounds Assistance then. Anyway, I picked up a cheap folding camera in one of the pawn shops. There wasn’t much to adjust, just as well, because I’ve never known what to do. I still can’t understand exposures and things like depth of field after all these years, not really. I’m just an amateur, I was never interested in photography, not really. When you’re taking a photography you’re recording something that will never happen again, catching a moment in time, I was just capturing what I knew was going to disappear. People say to me today, “How did you get all those fancy shades?” but I wasn’t looking or fancy shades, I was just taking what was there, the things I was interested in and the things I liked, and tried to make them look real. All the developing was done at the chemist’s. I could only afford contact prints. I had to wait twenty years before I ever saw the negatives enlarged or printed properly.