Dr Alec Gill MBE – “As if there is no photographer present”

Over 8,000 visitors to the Hull History Centre were witness to a remarkable, moving and insightful exhibition of photographs by local historian, writer and photographer Dr Alec Gill, MBE, this year. As part of the City of Culture 2017 programme of events, “The Hessle Roaders” exhibition featured 100 photographs from a selection of 6,600 images. These were taken over a fifteen-year period from the early-1970s to mid-1980s.

In this interview Dr Gill provides us with snapshots of his life, his time as a psychology student and his work, revealing a story that is as remarkable and insightful as his photography.

It felt wonderful when I started at the Psychology Department at Hull in 1974. My first interview for a place, however, was in 1972. I distinctly recall the pleasant smell as I first walked up the staircase (Cohen Building). Ten years earlier I had left Wilberforce Secondary Modern School with no qualifications. My family thought I had done well to get an office job – even though I was just a messenger boy cycling around the docks with urgent booking sheets or waiting ages in H.M.Customs & Excise offices for some import form to be rubber-stamped.

During the 1960s, I worked my way up to become an export manager. Yet I soon became bored with office work. I looked at the older, married blokes and asked myself: “Do I want to end up like them?” There had to be more to our short lives than that? I did not seek marriage, mortgage, kids, retirement, and death.

My immediate answer was to pack in the job and hitch-hike abroad. Briefly, these destinations included Berlin (1964); through Europe to Malta (1967); Eire/Ulster (1971); and I flew to Israel and hitched back via Beirut, Istanbul, Yugoslavia, Zurich, Germany (1973). Travel was fun, but even that lacked a real purpose – I was going nowhere!

I decided to improve my English language skills (spelling, grammar). I put my name down to do an ‘O’ level night-school course. It cost no extra to do several courses and, as I wanted to get my money’s worth, I put down for an Introduction to Psychology as well. The course tutor turned out to be Lorna Selfe (and we became lifelong friends). She arranged an appointment for me with Professor Alan Clarke. The interview went extremely well. We hit it off straight away. I liked and respected him. He stipulated, however, that: “before I can assess you for a place, you must sit an IQ Test”. That was understood in view of my lack of qualifications – but what the heck was an IQ test? I must have passed with flying colours because I was given an unconditional offered to start in 1972.

Everyone thought I was crazy to turn down the place, but I did! I did not want to compete with 18-year olds with all their qualifications and waste my time at university. Instead, I spent two years at Hull College, obtained three ‘A’ and five ‘O’ GCE qualifications – starting at Hull University in 1974. As a working-class lad, I felt extremely good – especially as a 27-year old mature student.

Going to university seemed, at the time, like I was entering a middle-class ‘mince-meat machine’. That might sound odd, but it was a cultural shock for me. Going to university was not a stepping-stone to somewhere else. For me I just wanted to break away from my working-class surroundings. Perhaps, like office work, I was getting restless with that too? I was escaping from something rather than heading elsewhere. University and learning were a joy. Knowledge is power.

I was the very first person in my family circle to get into university. That meant a lot. I had been profoundly affected by reading the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ in Plato’s ‘Republic’. I was that prisoner. I had seen the shadows on the cave wall, escaped to the surface, felt the sunlight and heard the babbling brook. I was at the foothills of knowledge and only desired to climb the higher mountains in the distance – “to drink deep the Pierian Spring”.

My father George and brother Peter, however, ridiculed me in my role as a student: “Why on earth study Psychology?” The not-too-hidden message: Who do you think you are? Getting too big for your boots are you? Many such stifling clichés were thrown at me. I didn’t care. Plato’s prisoner was running free and diving into Pope’s deep waters to gulp it all in.

Equally, I felt out-of-place at university. As well as being working-class in my origins and speech, I was also of small stature and physically deformed – in my hands and feet. I was never the life-and-soul of any party, nor did I sweep women off their feet with my good looks or sparkling personality. I was shy. I lacked confidence in the realm of love. A first-class honours degree seemed unlikely (I ended up with a 2/i), but I was driven and never down-hearted. I was making progress – not by any external standards, but relative to myself yesterday. A key phrase I often repeated in those early academic years was: ‘adapt to the changes’ in my own ‘brave new world’.

On Inspiration and Influence

My biggest inspiration and lifelong influence came from, as mentioned before, Prof. Alan D.B. Clarke OBE. He was my personal supervisor – perhaps because he wanted to ‘keep an eye on me’! He had taken a bit of a risk by initially offering me an unconditional place and wished to closely monitor my progress or otherwise! His specialist area of research included children who had experienced childhood deprivation, but bounced back in later life [it was only later I assumed I was part of a mini-test for his theory! – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Early-Experience-Life-Path-Clarke/dp/1853028584].

Alan Clarke’s influence was twofold. First, he told a class: “If you want to get on in life, then you must specialise.” He intended students to focus upon a specific field within psychology. I, however, immediately thought of my photography. Instead of taking pictures of this, that and the other, I would specialise in one particular area – Hull’s Hessle Road Fishing Community. I became a ‘tourist in my hometown’.

CLARKES Ann + Alan at Royal Station Hotel + AG 16 March 2008 003
Alec with the Clarkes at Royal Station Hotel in March 2008

Not long after, in another lecture, the Prof compared children growing up in different social classes. He contrasted middle-class youngsters who played in gardens and had books with working-class kids who primarily had “the freedom of the streets”. That was it! I would focus upon Hessle Road kids playing in the streets. Eureka! I also had an affinity with them.

I never really had a long-term plan (certainly not over forty years). Prior to my Hessle Road photography in the early 1970s, I tried various art forms. I wrote poetry and won a couple of minor, local prizes. I drafted lyrics for hundreds of songs, but failed to find a musician to work with (I felt like Lennon not finding McCartney – joking, of course). I wrote a Dr.Who series, sent off the script, but the BBC – in their wisdom – rejected it. I was pushing at various doors. It was photography that fell open first.

Positive feedback and praise is good for the old ego – so I did more exhibitions.  After The Kids of Hessle Road (1979) came The Elderly of Hessle Road (1980), Fishermen’s Year (1981) and I was delighted to have two simultaneous exhibitions over in the States (1981). But it soon dawned upon me that exhibiting prints was hard work and an ephemeral process – fleeting. I wanted to produce something more permanent – something for posterity.

The answer was books – so I became an author and wrote about Hessle Road as a historian. Yet again, it was the University of Hull that first helped me on to that path. It came about thanks to my Elderly of Hessle Road exhibition. I was invited to display a selection of these prints at the Social Sciences Department (1981). Gary Sargeant, the graphic designer at the campus, curated the show. We got chatting and became friends.

Gary subsequently mentioned that he had done a set of sketches around Hull’s fishing community for his next book. This was in conjunction with Dr.Alan Bower (a big mate of his) who happened to be Head of the English Department. Gradually, it transpired that Alan was originally a Sheffield lad and had only limited knowledge of Hull (never mind, Hessle Road). The ideal and very happy solution was that I write the book to go with Gary’s drawings and Alan became its editor – I benefitted enormously from his advice. It was published by the Hull University Press (run by Jean Smith – some alumni might recall Jean from years back).

After exhibitions and books, the nature of the work and how I related to the Hessle Roaders evolved into my role as a filmmaker. During the 1990s / 2000s, I used video to tell their story. During this period, I was teaching part-time at Hull University on courses such as ‘I Remember When…’ (Reminiscence Writing) and ‘Happy-go-Lucky English: the Colourful Evolution of our Mother Tongue’.

Come 2002, I moved over to more regular employment at the university. This took me away from my research to some extent, but allowed me to earn ‘proper money’ and pay off a backlog of National Insurance Stamps for my pension. It was a marvellous ten years with the Study Advice Service under Katy Barnett. She had a dynamic team of around ten staff and delegated specific areas to each of us. As I was keen to learn about websites, I was made responsible for developing the service’s learning skills material online. It was very rewarding as more and more departments from other universities began to share our advice resources. The total reached around eighteen UK departments plus some from the USA and Australia. I was delighted to see this figure growing fast over a short period.

Most of my time with the SAS team, however, was in 1:1 or group consultations with students. They booked slots with different members of the team. The students were great. If anything, it is the students I miss the most about university life. Coincidentally, Katy and I both retired from the university in 2012. The service was subsequently transformed into the Skills Team under Paul Chin – and goes from strength to strength (adapting to the changes in technology and student intake).

On Photography

010 = 456F Maxine Cone + Louise PRINT SIZE on SAFD 15 June 1980 by Alec Gillresize
Maxine Cone and Louise, 15 June 1980, by Alec Gill

Each picture, to me, is like a poem. Curator Paul Berriff likes the fact that most of my images tell a story. As the cliché goes: “Every pictures tells a story” – and I hope that is true. But out of the hundred in the present (2017) catalogue, if I have to choose just one, it is No.10 Maxine and Louise on St.Andrew’s Dock. These two friends are sitting on some old wooden fish boxes with stacks of 10-stone aluminium kits behind them. This really highlights the profound interaction there was between the Hessle Road Fishing Community and the port’s Arctic trawling industry. Unlike some of my photos, I took about three separate images of the two girls – the first one was of them climbing up a metal tower.

They seemed to treat the empty dock as a playground – an extension of the community. The girls had the ‘freedom of the dock’ on this lazy Sunday afternoon. What I especially like is that they seem completely oblivious that I am taking their photo. This is always my goal when I am around people with my camera – to be anonymous. If I can name drop: Sir Andrew Motion loved my pictures and told me “it is as if there is no photographer present”.

Indeed, this philosophy might well have subconsciously been influenced by my academic, empirical training. Contact contaminates, therefore, keep it to a minimum. Being of a small stature, perhaps also helps me to be unobtrusive. But the Rolleicord TLR camera was also an essential asset in this regard. Once in focus on the subject and held at waist level, I then tended to chat with the person / people to distract them from the camera. I do not know how but, instinctively, I clicked the shutter when it felt right. This image, therefore, seemed to succeed in that respect and is one reason why it is a favourite.

What does it say to me? It went well beyond my original theme of capturing the “Freedom of the Streets” that Professor Clarke set back in 1974. This image boldly shows how these two young girls (certainly without permission from their parents) had the confidence to go and play on the derelict fish dock. The juxtaposition of them amongst the fish boxes and kits is amazing to my mind. They are the pre-digital generation and the images have acquired vintage status.

On the City of Culture

Hull people will never be the same again. Hull2017 has and is having a powerful and positive impact upon the majority of Hullites. It can only get better.

Self-identity is essential to each individual’s being and actions. The way we view ourselves also influences how others see us. It is the same for a city such as Hull and its people. For a couple of centuries, we had a negative self-esteem – a sort of northern chip on the shoulder.

As ‘an expert’ on Hull’s fishing superstitions, I suspect that the port’s trawling heritage and culture has a part to play. I cannot trace who said, “Of all seafarers, there are none more superstitious than fishermen”, but it is true. One example of a powerful taboo is not to boast about one’s achievements, possessions, health or whatever. To do so “Tempts Fate”. Consequently, you will be ‘brought down a peg or two’ and suffer as a result.

But all that is changing now – thanks purely to 2017 UK City of Culture. And I like to think (if I can be allowed a little boast!) that I played my small part in helping that process along. I will blow my own trumpet – because I am the only one who knows what tune to play. “The Hessle Roaders” photo exhibition celebrated the city of our (Hull’s) culture. That is the secret of its success! The legacy for Hull people will provide a tremendous increase in our self-identity. And the University of Hull, as a principle partner, has also helped in that positive process that will endure from now and into the future.

One thought on “Dr Alec Gill MBE – “As if there is no photographer present”

  1. Wonderful article Alec! What a full, adventurous and rich life you have lead. Your university achievements set the stage for many more of the Gill’s offspring to head to university. It’s great to see your photos getting such respect and recognition. Very proud of you!

    Liked by 1 person

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