Harry Papadopoulos: What Presence!

There’s a brilliant, evocative exhibition of Harry Papadopolous’ rock photography running at Glasgow’s Street Level Photoworks until February 25. I wrote about the exhibition before its launch late last year…

This article originally ran in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on Friday December 16, 2011 under the heading LIFE BEHIND A LENS.

In the midst of Scotland’s punk explosion, a Glasgow maths teacher hung up his mortar board and picked up a camera.

His name was Harry Papadopoulos and his photos would come to define and inform Scottish popular culture in the eighties. Papadopoulos’ animated portraits of Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and Josef K symbolised The Sound of Young Scotland, which became a global arch-pop phenomenon. Their whimsical panache enlightens our indie aesthetic to this day, as demonstrated by Belle and Sebastian, The Pastels and Franz Ferdinand.

The Penilee snapper also captured the radical vanguard of post-punk (Blondie, The Birthday Party, Joy Division) and the billowing frontier of New Pop (ABC, Heaven 17, Spandau Ballet) thanks to his tenure at London music weekly Sounds, from 1979-1984. This alliance of vintage home-grown stars with international rock‘n’roll icons will dominate a major career retrospective, What Presence!, at Glasgow’s Street Level Photoworks.

Papadopoulos, now 56, suffered a brain aneurysm ten years ago, and his annals would have been consigned to bin-liners, were it not for one of his best-loved subjects, Ken McCluskey of The Bluebells. “Harry’s brother Jimmy is my local electrician,” says McCluskey of the project’s inception. “We got chatting about two-and-a-half years ago, and I asked how Harry was getting on. [Papadopoulos had gradually moved away from photography, into comics and then web design]. Jimmy told me that he’d moved back to Glasgow and about his illness, so I went to see him.

“There were hundreds of images, thousands of them, lying round Harry’s house,” continues McCluskey. “Eventually I said to him, ‘we should try and clean these up a wee bit.’ They were in cardboard boxes, and bags, and lying loose, and some of them were a bit damp.” As Papadopoulos prepared to move into a care home, McCluskey set to work salvaging thousands of negatives and scanning them with a hand-held digital converter. “It was quite painstaking but it was exciting too,” he says. “One minute you’d find a Joy Division picture, the next it’d be Orange Juice or [Buzzcocks’] Howard Devoto.”

McCluskey estimates that it took him around eight months to scan the majority of shots, before he approached Street Level Director Malcolm Dickson. But you get the impression the former Bluebell would have worked on them forever if that was required, in tribute to a man whose photos reframed rock, and redefined Glasgow – and who took artists under his wing.

“He was like a big brother,” remembers McCluskey. He relates the tale as we explore Street Level’s striking, in-progress Papadopoulos archives – Annie Lennox here; Altered Images there. “He really looked after us, and he let us stay with him when he moved to London.” Papadopoulos’ Kensal Rise flat became a home-from-home for Scottish acts like Aztec Camera, The Bluebells and Orange Juice.

“Harry was a very laid-back guy,” he continues. “The Bluebells did quite a lot of different shoots with him and he’d just go for a walk to places he knew. One time he took us to a tunnel underneath Kelvingrove Park – there was only one shaft of light coming down from a drain,” he laughs. “Or he’d say, ‘I really like that car showroom over there’, and take your picture in an E-Type Jag. He was very good, but he wouldn’t ever try and change anything about you, or change what you were. I think that was important.”

Writer and former Herald journalist David Belcher has been documenting the retrospective, and is struck by the versatility and expression in Papadopoulos’ work. “I think one of the great things is that none of them really look like your archetypal pop band press photographs,” he says. “They’re all pictures in which, generally speaking, something is happening – some moment, just of people messing around – and he’s captured it. None of them look staged, but you get a sense of who the people are from the photograph: how their look is allied to their sound, to their music, and what they’re about.

“It also shows the power of the music weeklies at the time,” continues Belcher, in reference to Melody Maker, Sounds and NME. “They were the only outlet for people’s interest in music, and people’s notion of what music was, and what was going on in different parts of Britain.”

Co-curator Malcolm Dickson of Street Level salutes the images’ enduring cultural significance. “There are people who remember the eighties – my generation – and for us some of the images have a personal resonance,” he says. “And then there’s Max, our printer, who’s much younger – but his uncle, Mick Slaven, is actually in the pictures somewhere, so everything’s connected,” he smiles. “By bringing this back to life it reminds you of the continuities across the generations, and it reminds you how central Scotland was to the indie scene at that time.”

Papadopoulos’ influence was far-reaching from the moment he downed classroom tools and assumed the life of a guerrilla-snapper. (A 15-year-old McCluskey would buy a Clash live shot from him outside Glasgow Apollo in 1977. “That gig was what first got me into music, so that photo captures it for me,” he reflects). Yet even when he moved to London, the photographer was synonymous with Scotland.

Would Papadopoulos, the son of a Scots mother and Greek-Cypriot father, have taken the same style of photographs if he had not grown up in Glasgow? “No, I think the environment always influenced Harry,” suggests McCluskey. “He liked taking pictures of ceilings, I noticed – so it’d be like your head and the rest of the photo would be of that cornicing you only really get in the West End.

“And there’s a whole series of photographs where it’s outside your maw’s back garden,” he laughs. “He’d get bands and he’d be like, ‘where are you from? Oh, you lived in a Glasgow scheme? Let’s see your back garden then. Good. Now jump about.’”

Belcher believes Papadopoulos’ work was also inspired by the culture of Glasgow – often by virtue of railing against it. His Sound of Young Scotland prints in particular (and those of fellow post-punk lens-men Robert Sharp and Peter McArthur) set their subjects apart from local seventies rock modes –the hard-core braggadocio of Nazareth; the livid speed-punk of The Exploited – and from social typecasting. “It was all about going against the Glasgow hard-man stereotype. It was about being fey, and feminine, and waspish. I think that was very important,” Belcher notes. “It defined what Glasgow bands were not.”

If the Papadopoulos retrospective serves to excavate and showcase vital pop artefacts, so too does it seek to encourage cultural dialogue. There are connections yet to be made and stories yet to be told – as evinced by a handful of exhibition photos that feature as-yet unidentified people and places. Visitors are welcome to share their memories; to contribute to the oral history of the era. “This is the start of something, rather than just a retrospective,” offers Dickson.

A website is planned, with a view to making Papadopoulos’ work commercially available via the Harry Papadopoulos Foundation. “The idea is to help Harry live a bit more comfortably,” says McCluskey.

How does Papadopoulos feel about the exhibition, given his life’s work was almost discarded? “He’s happy that his photographs are being archived,” says the man who rescued them. “He’s happy that they’ll always be here.”

What Presence! The Rock Photography of Harry Papadopoulos runs at Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, until 25th February 2012.  They’ve been hosting a series of ace related talks, the last of which is on February 24 and features Stuart Murdoch (Belle & Sebastian) among others – more details / booking info here.

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