Documentary photographer Russell Boyce revisited Hull fishermen’s pub Rayner’s after 40 years to compare old images with new. Brian W Lavery met up with him to find out more…
A flash of inspiration set young art student Russell Boyce on the path to a distinguished career as a photographer.
One of his tutors handed him a camera while he was trying to capture images on canvas of one of Hull’s iconic venues – Bob Carver’s Fish and Chip Restaurant in the city’s Old Town district.
Russell told me: “I was studying painting at Hull Art School, and set out to capture the famous local fish restaurant and the people there for a project.
“I was sketching and painting, putting scenes together and so on, when my mentor and tutor, the acclaimed documentary photographer Daniel Meadows, gave me a small camera to get images I could work from later.
“I was hooked straight away, getting images in one-sixtieth of a second that would take ages with paint and brush.” From that day, photography was to be the driving force for Russell’s work.
He added: “I later held an exhibition of my photos in the fish and chip restaurant. I wiped some grease off the wall and stuck up some pictures. I also left a comments book.
“One of the comments I remember was: ‘People enjoying the day in a Bob Carver’s way’ – that seemed to sum up the images at the exhibition.
“And it gave me an idea to try to put on exhibitions near the subject, not just in galleries and so on.”
Young Russell fell in love with social documentary photography, and was rarely seen without his camera. He lived in a scruffy flat off Hessle Road, home to the city’s fishing community, and it was there he fell into his next project.
By the time he arrived in Hull in the early 1980s, the fishing industry was in rapid decline from its 1950s and 1960s heyday.
His flat in Coltman Street – a once-grand area which had been home to fishing magnate and philanthropist Sir Christopher Pickering and latterly to campaigning fishwife Lillian Bilocca – was within spitting distance of fishermen’s pub the Star and Garter.
That name was never used except by the brewery. Locals called it Rayner’s, after popular 1930s landlord Henry Rayner. Today, the pub signage is his surname.
It is still popular with ex-fishermen and their families, but not to the extent it was in the 1980s and before. Even when the industry was declining, the old pub was at the centre of Hessle Road life, and busy day and night.
‘Settling days’ were few and far between by the 1980s, but Rayner’s was always buzzing – and young Russell found himself visiting it daily.
It was 1983 when he plucked up the courage to ask the landlord if he could take some photos.
At first he stood out, and was the target of much teasing from the old guys in the bar.
“It was like they were thinking: ‘What’s this soft southerner want here?’. And they took the mick something rotten at first – almost every time I tried to take a picture I was teased.
“After a while, I just became a regular fixture, and folk didn’t even seem to notice I was there. I was almost invisible to them, and took picture after picture with no one really noticing.”
A year later, the lounge bar in Rayner’s was the venue for the resulting photographic exhibition, called ‘Star and Garter’, and in 1985 Russell was commissioned by a York-based gallery for a further social documentary collection taken on Hessle Road.
All the folk who appeared in the photos were given prints, and the then landlord was given a collection to keep.
After leaving Hull, Russell found work as a press news and features photographer with the Colchester-based Anglia News and Pictures before joining the international news agency Reuters, for which he travelled the globe covering major events. His 32-year stint with the agency included running bureaux in London, Singapore, Africa and the Middle East.
Late last year, Russell, now aged 60, was made redundant by Reuters – and found himself back in Hull for a new project.
This time he was photographing and filming another well-known Hessle Road figure – rag and bone man George Norris – for a piece for the BBC.
George’s son – also called George – is a documentary photographer and helped with that project, and it was while visiting him late last year that Russell decided to pop into Rayner’s, where he had had his successful exhibition four decades ago.
Russell was astonished at how little the bar had changed. He still had his old black and white prints, and decided to take digital images of the old photos in exactly the positions they had been taken all those years ago.
He put some of the resulting image-within-an-image photos on Facebook, YouTube and his website, and they got thousands of views.
“Back in the 1980s, of course, such things did not exist, and when you were taking pictures, you were often asked what you were going to do with them. The truth was I didn’t always know.
“Now with Facebook and the internet there are limitless possibilities.”
The BBC highlighted the photo-within-a-photo collection from Rayner’s, and the story also made local and national papers and got widespread attention online.
Russell was struck by the stark contrasts between the original monochromes and the digital colour pictures. “The modern pictures are obviously much clearer, but not just because they are modern or colour.
“When you take black and white photos you see tones, not colours – and I noticed that the light had changed in Rayner’s. In the 1980s, the light was more diffuse as it came through cig smoke! It seemed darker then too – there were heavy red curtains on the windows that the light struggled to come through, and when it did it was filtered through clouds of tobacco smoke.
“Rays would break through like light through a cloud – what my daughter, who is an animator, calls ‘God’s light’. That’s quite an apt description, as it creates something you cannot define.
“Bringing the old photos back to where they were taken is a bit like taking these old boys back for a pint, like ghosts returning for one more drink.
“I love pictures that tell stories – that is my passion, telling stories, and showing the stories behind the pictures, captured forever.
“It is not really looking back, but more bringing the past forward.”
Russell is now putting together ideas with his friend and colleague George Norris junior for future projects featuring Hull’s fishing heritage, and they are talking to the local council about potential funding.
Russell has also created social documentary exhibitions in London, Peterborough and Coventry. His work can be seen here.
And photos from the original ‘Star and Garter’ exhibition have been made into a book of the same name, published late last year by Café Royal.
Thanks to Russell Boyce for permission to reproduce his photos here.
This story was taken from the archives of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here.
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