First published, with photography, by T Magazine on 18 July 2016
A town mayor perched on a weighing scale; men dressed as clowns, dancing in the street; a crowd pursuing a rolling cheese down a hillside: At first glance, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on in this arresting series of early-70s images by the British photographer Homer Sykes, who spent seven years documenting obscure annual traditions taking place in communities around Britain. The resulting photos show people at their most eccentric, acting out customs — from symbolic spring rituals to harvest festivals — that often date back several centuries.
Tracking the festivals down in a pre-internet world was a “labor of love,” says Sykes, who remembers making extensive use of a folklore library at London’s Cecil Sharp House: “I used to spend hours going through books, magazines — making lots of phone calls, writing lots of letters.” He would begin by calling the local tourist board; even they wouldn’t always be aware of the events, which in some cases involved only a handful of people. Sykes would be pointed in the direction of the village post office, the police station, or the nearest vicar, until he eventually found someone who could provide more information.
“It was great fun,” Sykes says of the detective work. He published some of the images in a 1977 book, “Once A Year,” and this year has returned to his archives to compile a new version that includes more than 50 extra images. He’s tracked down the subjects’ names wherever possible, too; he sees the project not only as a work of art, but as a historical record. “I didn’t know I liked researching things until I looked back and found I’ve got all the letters,” he says. “All my contact sheets and negs have remained intact, and are all still in order, with captions written on the back of the contact sheets, very often.”
The work’s subject matter may be charming, but the photographs are never twee; they benefit from the interest in street photography Sykes developed during visits to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. There, he saw the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Burk Uzzle and Lee Friedlander, and thought, “I can do this!” he says. Though the annual events (and the ’70s hairstyles on display) are old-fashioned, his photographs feel contemporary and dynamic — his subjects are un-self-conscious and full of enthusiasm.
At heart, Sykes’s photos are about idiosyncratic expressions of pride: It radiates from the people pictured, who look delighted to show off their dances, their contests and their homemade costumes. “It may be smaller than a village community — it may be their very local little part of a village community,” Sykes says, “but the events celebrate, I believe, a feeling of belonging.”
“Once A Year: Some Traditional British Customs” (Dewi Lewis, $40), is available now, dewilewis.com.