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Amber History - 1968 to 1974

How, When & What?

All You Need is Dynamite, 1968
All You Need Is Dynamite, 1968

Amber grew out of a meeting of film students at London’s Regent Street Polytechnic in May 1968. Two of Amber's current members go back to that meeting and there are two works which survive in the archive from those early days: All You Need is Dynamite, following some of the prosecuted, disaffected working class youths involved in London’s Grosvenor Square riots, which grew out of an anti-Vietnam War protest outside the US Embassy and Maybe, which documents the Shields Ferry crossing the Tyne.

The film and photography collective has an egalitarian approach to creativity, rooted in the craft skills of its members. It is committed to a long term engagement with working class and marginalized communities in the North of England, the work is characterized by a richly detailed social realism and the strength of the local relationships it has forged. Politically engaged, but never aligned, Amber has always tried to avoid dogma. All of these defining qualities have, for most of its existence, proved deeply unfashionable and the group’s survival is a mystery to many. Obstinacy, a largely self-sufficient craft base, an integrated approach to production, publication and distribution, the readiness to make strategic investments and, increasingly, ownership of its back catalogue, have all helped.

Maybe, 1968
Maybe, 1968

Who & Why?

Wanting to work as part of a community with a strong sense of its own identity, and because some members were familiar with Tyneside, the core group moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1969. Alongside their commitment to regionalism, there was a sense that it would not have been possible for the collective to stay in London and survive. Some left, but Graham Denman, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Murray Martin saw out the first couple of years. In 1970, they were joined by Lorna Powell and Peter Roberts. Photographer Graham Smith joined in 1974.

I’m not interested in documentary, Peter said when asked to join. Don’t worry about that, Murray replied, reassuringly, the group having recognised a kindred sensibility in his work as an animator. He developed a role as specialist cameraman, shaping the visual quality of Amber’s films. But on the principle of ‘one role good, two roles better,’ he also developed its meticulous construction of sound tracks. Craft skills are deeply respected, but, in trade union terms, ‘cross-grade working’ is an important part of the practice. Instinctive responses to potential members have marked Amber's history and roles as rarely static.

Signing the partnership agreement, 1974, L to R: Graham Denman, Graham Smith, Peter Roberts, Lorna Powell, Murray Martin, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen
Signing the partnership agreement, 1974, L to R: Graham Denman, Graham Smith, Peter Roberts, Lorna Powell, Murray Martin, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

The desire to celebrate working class culture came in part from a resentment some members felt at the ways in which education separated them from their own roots. Throughout her work, Sirkka has explored the ambiguities and uncertainties of cultural ownership in the communities of North East England, the sense of which she has always found more securely rooted in her native Finland. One way or another, Amber members who have stayed have always had their own personal reasons for relating to this territory.

Why Amber? In line with its collectivist principles, the group once spent two days discussing possible names, trying to find something suitably neutral. There is another guiding philosophy, however, that whoever paints the wall chooses the colour. In a liberal interpretation of this, having taken on the job of registering the company, Murray completely ignored the list of suggestions and, inspired by a visit to a pub, named it after a bland and inoffensive bottle of ale: a deliberately neutral name, but one which would appear early on in any directory of film companies.

Byker & Beaches

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen began the work that would become Byker soon after the group arrived. A book of the photographs was eventually published in 1983, coinciding with the release of Amber’s film of the same name, the first of the group’s works to integrate still images and documentary footage. As Sirkka began to explore the community into which she had moved, she became aware of the plans for its demolition, which defined both the urgency and the scope of the task.

Writing in the Sand
Writing in the Sand

Production in the early years was uneven, because money was scarce. Photography was prioritized for the simple reason that it was cheaper than film. Sirkka opened a portrait studio in a disused shop in Byker, developing relationships through the offer of free photographs. At the same time she also traveled the region, documenting a broader culture which already seemed to be on the wane. As she worked on the development of Byker, she also began her engagement with the beaches of the North East, which ultimately became Writing in the Sand, a film of which was released in 1991. Peter Roberts’ background as an animator had a significant influence in Amber’s development of the use of still photography in film. Writing in the Sand was finally completed with the publication of the book in 2000.

The River Project

Launch, 1973
Launch, 1973
A key early collaborative venture was The River Project, which brought together writers Tom Hadaway, Tom Pickard and Rodney Pybus, as well as German artist Peter Engel and South Shields plasterer, and self-taught artist and sculptor Laurie Wheatley with Amber's film and photography. Laurie provided an important link to the working class artists who had emerged in Ashington, South Shields and around the Spennymoor Settlement in the 1930s. Graham Smith joined Amber as the project was being completed, contributing a series of photographic montages. Launch, which documented the Wallsend launch of the oil tanker World Unicorn, explored the epic scale of shipbuilding from the perspectives of workers and community, and was produced as part of the project. The film stock was provided in exchange for a series of lectures at Newcastle Polytechnic.

Live Theatre

The ways in which filmmakers, photographers and writers had developed their work out of a shared commitment and context defined Amber’s subsequent ambitions and methodologies. The group was also involved in community theatre during this period. Murray was working as producer/director with the group, Live Theatre. Introducing them to the work of Tom Hadaway, he developed an approach to popular touring in the local working-men’s clubs, something that had eluded the theatre company in its original agitprop productions. Film scripts such as The Filleting Machine and The Pigeon Man, written by Tom for Amber, were converted into plays. Sirkka and Graham both worked with Live Theatre as publicists while still pursuing their own work.