I was lucky enough to have studied photography in what now seems to have been a ‘golden age’ of photography education, and that it happened in one of the less ‘photographically’ famous colleges is even more remarkable. In fact the course I did wasn’t even a pure photography one; it was one area of optional specialism within an overall Graphic Design degree course. Each decade seems to have at least one location where a combination of lecturers, students and outside cultural events create an unrepeatable creative atmosphere, and looking back it felt like Exeter had its glorious moment in the mid 1980s. The creative buzz that was at the heart of photography at 26 Queen Street would fire a passion for photography that burns as fiercely in me today as it did when first ignited 30 years ago.


I had applied and been accepted by Exeter College of Art to study for an Honours degree in Graphic Design and photography was only a mildly interesting hobby for me. I only picked Exeter as it was the furthest South West I could go in the country and study a degree. I was as young as could possibly be, entering the college after completing a one year Foundation course post A level exams.


It came as a surprise to me, and an even greater one to my parents, when I decided at the end of the first year that I wanted to specialise in photography. The photography department was lead by the dynamic and charismatic Dave Meredith, a legend within the college. He smoke, drank with the students, kept the college darkrooms open well into the night, drove a sporty BMW and was one of the best motivational teachers I have ever met. He was ambitious for the photography department and I believe he sowed the early seeds that enabled it to eventually flourish and become an internationally renowned photography course after its absorption into Plymouth University. Dave Meredith, assisted by Sebastian Knight, demanded a lot from the students who wanted to progress. We were expected to be able to combine professional work practice as well as pursuing our own personal work with the view to exhibiting and producing books, and all this within two years.


It was this exciting atmosphere that was too tempting for me, and I took a great leap of faith into the unknown away from the ‘safer’, conventional route I had originally forseen.


By my recollection there were only nine students in my year in that particular department. We were required to be in the college from 9.00am - 6.00pm every day unless we were out shooting. Most evenings were spent in Coolings Wine Bar, often joined by our lecturers, where photography debates would continue well into the night sometimes interrupted by a quick dash back to the darkroom to take prints out of the wash.


Those two years of studying were a heady and exciting time and also contextually a time of change within the world of photography, though we didn’t really know it at the time. In the academic year ‘84-85 our part time lecturer was Paul Graham, who overlapped in the summer term with Jem Southam. Jem would become a full time member of staff during my final year at the College. When I look back it is remarkable that I was taught photography by two people who along with Martin Parr and others, would later be seen as leading figures in the emergence of the new wave of British colour photography. Paul had just published his first book ‘A1 the Great North Road’ and although I didn’t see the pictures until years later, was working on his critically acclaimed series ‘Beyond Caring’ and ‘Troubled Land’. Jem was working on his book ‘The Red River’ but again we didn’t see these pictures at the time.


In a sense ‘lecturer’ is the wrong word to use as lecturing implies a group of students sitting passively in a lecture theatre being taught by some dry, intellectual figure. Photography education in the 1980s was a lot more hands on, a little more about image-making academia. Because of the way our course was structured and the incredibly small number of students within the department, we were able to talk to Paul, Jem or the other lecturers at any time of the day, often thrusting still wet contact sheets into their hands for a quick appraisal, and this carried on in the pub afterwards. We were also lucky in having a photographic technician, Dave Smaldon, who was an accomplished photographer in his own right. In fact my first exhibition was a joint one with Dave at Plymouth Arts Centre in 1989.


Dave Meredith left at the end of the summer term in 1985 to run a Polytechnic in Hong Kong and Seb Knight took over as course leader, with Jem being appointed as a full time lecturer. The course carried on within the same exciting framework with one notable exception, the introduction of C type printing from colour negative film. Dave Meredith had resisted this, arguing that working professionals needed to produce pictures to fit demanding timescales and this meant using colour transparency E6 film that could be processed ‘while you wait’ at professional laboratories. Transparency film, although useful in the commercial world, was less appealing for artists wanting to make colour prints. The associated Cibachrome printing process seemed to produce images that were ‘soot and whitewash’ unless one perfected the laborious process of making contrast reducing masks. Additionally, transparency film had a very narrow d-max which meant its tonal range from shadow to highlight was very limited, also the colours could appear oversaturated.


Before a proper print processor was installed at Queen Street for the summer term, prints were processed in the dark in open trays sitting on dish warmers with manual agitation of the paper and chemicals. This was hardly scientific but the resulting prints far outshone what we as students had been able to achieve previously.


I was one of the first to dive into C type printing and the pictures from the series ‘Sunday in Teignmouth’ were the result. The idea behind the pictures was as simple as possible. I jumped on a local train to Teignmouth, a small nearby coastal town, to see what happens on a typical Sunday in winter, I think it was in early February but my memory is a little vague. I do remember going for one of the obvious subjects and knocked on the door of the presbytery of the local Catholic Church and asked the priest if I could take some pictures during the morning mass. The priest told me that it was going to be a special service as the local children were making their first Holy Communion, and I would be welcome to take pictures before, during and afterwards. This led to some of the best pictures of the day and I was warmly welcomed by the parishioners and parents. I suppose it is a sign of how times have changed when, then, no-one questioned why a young student was taking pictures of them.


The rest of the day was spent walking round Teignmouth trying to make pictures. Now when I look through the negatives from that day it is interesting to see what I shot as a young student of 21, still very shy and naive and but beginning to feel more comfortable working with people and importantly how to be as unobtrusive as possible whilst photographing. The prints I made from these negatives were important, as they were what helped me get permission to photograph at Blundell’s School when I showed them to the Head Master John Rees.


I am grateful for the two years I spent at 26 Queen Street, I think the heady excitement that pervaded the photography department is probably unrepeatable in modern universities. I think due to the sheer number of students, courses invariably have to become more structured and because of student loans most students need to hold down part time jobs, whereas my era benefited from grants which meant we could concentrate on being full time students.




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