It was March or April, 2019, and I remembered Café Royal Books, publishers of fine zines from from the British Isles. It may have been something on Twitter, though I only followed the account while working on this review. At the website, I once again found a bewildering array of zines and somehow stumbled into a £27 grab bag of 10 zines. I ordered it straight away. I mean, £27 (+£3.50 shipping) for 10 zines from 9 photographers? Come on! How could I resist?
I’m a sucker for grab bags… It probably began long before I began searching out grab-bags of baseball cards at the monthly Baseball Card “convention” at that old convention center (or high school gym?) in Haltom City on weekends that first year after my parents separated. The next year I discovered comic books went on to buy the grab bags of comic books at the similar monthly comic “conventions” for the year or three after that.
The zines spent the majority of 2019 in a shifting, slip-sliding pile in the corner of my playroom.* Sometime early in the pandemic, I bought two tall Billy bookshelves that sorta match the 4 short ones I already had, rearranged things, and moved the pile of unboxed-but-not-reviewed books into a spare, smaller, non-IKEA shelf next to the desk. At the time, probably only a year ago, all the unboxed-but-not-yet-reviewed books fit on that one tiny bookshelf, with room to spare… Within a few months I started adding unboxed books to a spare Billy shelf, and now there’s a growing pile on the floor (my photobook buying went into overdrive in late 2020 and early 2021). Anyway, it’s time I said something about these great zines, gave them a bit of attention, and talked up Café Royal some.
Craig Atkinson’s Café Royal Books started out as a publisher of mostly drawing-based zines in 2005, and switched to mostly photography zines in 2007. Atkinson puts out around 70 titles per year… 70 titles, all featuring images from British photographers, much of it from the 1970s and 80s (as far as I can tell), and mostly in black & white. Each print run is limited to 250 or 300 or 500; some are reprinted. They run about £7 each, and so are affordable and there’s always a few dozen or more titles to choose from. If you like seeing pictures of mostly Britain from mostly ~40 or 50 or 60 years ago, you can’t go wrong go wrong with Café Royal.
I don’t visit the site, or buy zines from them, as often as I could. In the last year or so my zine buying really fell off. Shame on me, but I sorta have reasons. I find zines harder to store than books. Zines mostly don’t stand up on their own; they are mostly folded, and so the spine side is twice as thick as the rest of it, and so when they’re aligned on a shelf, they slip and slide around, move forward and back, and sometimes come cascading off. Zines are lovely in hand, perfect for so many things—small projects, trying out ideas; can be made and assembled cheaply, and so are available to many—but kind of a pain to store. I’ve taken to shoving them all in a little-used closet, on a shelf, wedged into place overly tightly by some heavy things. It’s not ideal, and I forget that I have them… when I rearrange again, I may make the small, non-IKEA shelf into the zine shelf and begin displaying again. I’ll need some bookends for that… Anyway. Café Royal is one of the worst for aligning on a shelf due to the thickness of the paper. They’re really a nightmare to try to keep aligned, and the thick paper is rather slippery.
Still. Café Royal is an excellent imprint and you (and I) should really show Atkinson some support.
Ok. Here are some brief, thumbnail reviews of the zines, in the video order (I think… it’s the order I listed them in the video description, anyway…). If the zine is still available, I’ve linked to it. Others are out of print.
Ian Macdonald ‘Greatham Creek 1969-1974’ (2018)
Greatham Creek appears to be adjacent to a heavy industrial park: cooling towers and smokestacks appear in the distance. The creek is sometimes a small lake, sometimes a muddy ditch, and always populated with some working class young people and some shack-like houseboats, often up on blocks (Macdonald maybe should submit a few to Cabin Porn… or maybe not). For being made long before I was born, it looks remarkably like many of the out-of-the-way places poor and working class people lived and hung out when I was younger, and that live and hang around now, more than 40 years later.
According to some history I read, Greatham Creek was a popular salmon fishing spot from the early 1900s until around 1980, when people largely abandoned the practice, so Macdonald photographed it during its last active decade (and after), so that’s probably why the area looks a bit forgotten. In the 1980s, Macdonald put out a book, Images of the Tees about the Teesside area (where Greatham Creek is), and some images from the 1970s and later work is available.
Paddy Summerfield ‘Distant Times’ (2018)
I’m not sure if the photographs are old (made before, say 1990) or more recent, not sure time the photograph was made is distant or if the picture itself evokes some kind of distance, emotional or nostalgic or whatever. Summerfield has several books out, with reviews all over, and most featuring photographs made in the 1960s-1980s, though in photographs I’ve seen from these books (and reviews) the time could be much more recent: the costumes and buildings and all look like they could be anytime.
I’m reminded of my brief idea for time-bound panoramas, somehow. Summerfield’s pictures aren’t in sequence like that, but the idea of time in this zine, for me, is similarly elastic. Good stuff, in theory/idea; the pictures aren’t bad either. (I ordered one of his books: expect an unboxing in early/mid 2022 and a review many months after…)
Paul Trevor ‘Street Level’ (2018)
Trevor was a founder/early member of the Exit Photography Group (with Nicholas Battye and Chris Steele-Perkins), and put out a few books in the 1980s, then again more recently (with three titles from Café Royal). ‘Street Level’ is a collection of small-s street photographs made between 1972 and 1989 in various cities all over: mostly London and New York. I say “small-s” because it’s not that decisive moment-type work that was so popular and so much talked about when I got into photography (only about 10 years ago, 2011 or so). There aren’t any jokes or too-clever juxtapositions, but more just photographs made at, well, ‘Street Level.’ Some are sorts of things I try to make, more or less, and I like it.
Jean-Luc Olezak ‘England South 1985-1992 (2018)
Olezak is something of a capital-S Street Photographer, if not as well known or quite as quick with the puns and split-second precision of some of its more famous practitioners. His photographs from in and around London in the latter half of the 1980s feature a surprising amount of eye contact and the sort of expected amount of typically British costumes. The suits and ascots and bourgeois jumpers are of the same type and cut that I imagine every British male wearing from, say, 1910, right through to the early 00s. It’s probably not true, but still. You know what I mean, and if not, many of the pictures are available on his website (en français).
Brian Griffin ‘England 1970s’ (2018)
Just about the only way I can think to describe Griffin’s ‘England 1970s’ zine is as a survey of the country at that time: from the holiday park to the boardroom, the countryside to the job centre queue, punting on the Thames to dancing with myself. There doesn’t seem to be a clear theme, unless it’s pretty much that. Comparing to the others, this one seems to be a bit more bourgeois and office-class: the dole queue is only seen from a passing car; the seaside is clean and well kept; if the boardroom looks ominous, if the CEO looks a bit silly, holding the book of hot air balloons up to the window, well, we’re seeing the inside of the boardroom, the inside of the executive office.
I’d recommend his website, say you could find some of the pictures there, but I think it’s still running flash and it moves too slowly for me these days.
Luis Bustamante ‘Kingston upon Hull 1970s. On Holiday’ (2018)
Luis Bustamante (we find out in the introduction to the next zine) came to Hull as a political refugee during the Pinochet regime in Chile, and has some fairly strong views of the way England went after Thatcher and all. You wouldn’t know it from his pictures of people holidaying in Hull. There’s the boardwalk and super slide, bocci ball, some kind of dog entertainer hanging around with some kids, a balloon blowing competition on the beach, loads of couples of all ages hanging around, waiting on something (or just chilling) together. It looks like everyone’s having a good-enough time, and at a nice-enough place to have it.
Luis Bustamante ‘Kingston upon Hull 1970s’ (2018)
As mentioned above, there’s no love lost between Bustamante and Thatcher (or Pinochet, or Milton Fucking Friedman for that matter). He writes one of the strongest (and only, in this selection of zines) introductions/political screeds I’ve read in awhile. The selection of photographs present Britain just before the free market revolution (and globalization) really got going, and there’s a mild sense of something not quite right, not many people smiling, lots of waiting around, etc.
Peter Jones ‘Wales’ (2018)
I really like this one. Wales looks like a nice place. From the mountainy wild places to the puppet shows in the park or on the seashore. From the procession of sheep to the procession of older folks doing some kind of strange dance or something, like a parade or something. From the farms, to the schoolhouses, to the priests leaving the Hereford Photography Festival. It just looks like a nice place, and Peter Jones did a nice job of capturing it.
Bill Jay ‘British Photographers Photographed’ (2018)
“British Photographers Photographed” was published to coincide with the release of Do Not Bend: the photographic life of Bill Jay, and is exactly what it says on the tin: pictures of Tony Ray Jones, Bert Hardy, Bill Brandt, Daniel Meadows, David Turn, Don McCullin, Fay Godwin, Georges Rodger, Grace Robertson, Homer Sykes, John Benton Harris, Keith Arnat, John Charity, Martin Parr, Patrick Ward, Paul Hill, Sue Packer, and Phillip Jones-Griffiths, all made by Bill Jay and curated by Grant Scott (of United Nations of Photography fame), who was mostly responsible for the Bill Jay film.
Victor Sloan ‘Northern Ireland Three’ (2018)
Now I don’t know anything about One or Two, but ‘Northern Ireland Three’ is almost entirely portraits. There’s a bird man (collector or seller); an iron worker; a blowhard on TV; a young guy that looks sorta like George Harrison (but probably isn’t) adding a bit of cream to some tea; a collector or dealer of tchotchkes holding a fiddling dwarf; and a local nu wave three piece; a gymnast showing her skills; a grinning clarinetist; a woman with a prize-winning watermelon; a mother and son sign-painting team; a stamp collector; a fencer; and a shrouded statue. Plus, some family-type scenes, people walking or sitting around, and etc.
And so that’s 11 Café Royal zines! Good ti… wait… wait. That’s only 10… what the? Gah.
In my sloppy storage in 2019 and 2020, I managed to get a separate order, a one-off, for Bob Watkins’ ‘The English Way: English Carnival Pictures’ mixed in… No matter.
Bob Watkins’ ‘The English Way: English Carnival Pictures’ (2018)
I saw “English Carnival Pictures” and couldn’t help myself. I have a thing for fairs and carnivals, theme parks, anything like that. I’m not sure what I hoped for, but the carnivals Watkins captures weren’t it. The carnivals he attended seem like horror shows, with appearances by: a little girl in an angel costume who looks bored out of her mind; the homemade, unlicensed Donald Duck and Goofy that look like zombie monsters from the flipping Twilight Zone or something, and that would scare the bejebus out of me as a child (and, to be frank, as an adult too); the March Hare, who looks normal enough, I guess: a late-20s/early-30s lady drinking her juice box in front of a tank; but the Queen of Hearts smokes and looks like the wicked witch from Sleeping Beauty or something. Nearly every man around is in that obnoxious straight-man-with-a-coconut-and-yellow-yarn-wig drag, and guzzling canned beer. Plus, there’s a flasher in the crowd, and two, count ’em, two blokes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail cosplay.
It’s great, and wildly recommended… Go buy a copy before they’re gone.
And pick up some other Café Royal zines while you’re at it. I haven’t seen a really bad one yet, and at £6.50 or £7 each, you really can’t go wrong. (Shipping to the US increases the cost some, so if you’re on this side of the pond, order enough to make it worth your while.) I had a hard time not putting in a big order while working on this… I may yet, but, sheesh. I really need to slow down for a bit, let the reviews here sorta catch up to the stream of unboxings (if you haven’t already, please like and subscribe… ring that bell and all that…)
*Someone else would call it an “office,” but I have an office already where I go to work everyday that doubles as the guest room closet. Others might call the room with all my books and toys a “studio,” but that seems a bit too much for what actually goes on in there… I’d work from this room too, but wifi is spotty there, at best, and so the closet is the best place (for now). So, anyway, “playroom” it is. If you have alternate, more manly/adult suggestions, please pass them on.