Arts and Design

The big picture: space-hopping into the future in 1970s Newcastle


Having come to London from Finland in the 1960s to study photography, Finnish-born Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen moved to the Byker district of Newcastle in 1968, with a plan to document the lives of the people who lived around her. She took this picture of a girl in her dressing-up box frock on her space hopper in 1971. “She bounced past my camera that day to disappear down the cobbled lane with her dreams,” Konttinen told the Tate gallery more than 40 years later, suggesting that the girl’s “maverick splendour personified the vibrant working-class community where I lived”.

Those cobbled streets of Byker were mostly being demolished by then, to make way for the futuristic high-rise Byker Wall housing estate, designed by Ralph Erskine, which became the inspiration for the TV soap Byker Grove. Konttinen made two books of photographs of the area, Byker and Byker Revisited, a “before” and “after” of that redevelopment that gave a profound visual language to an experience that was happening across cities in the UK. Another Newcastle project of hers, on dance classes, was one inspiration for the film Billy Elliot.

This picture of the girl on the space hopper is included in Another Country, a new book of British documentary photography since the war. For 40 years, Konttinen wondered about the identity of the girl in the picture. In 2011, a woman called Jackie Tait contacted her, having seen the photograph, to say the little girl was her. She told Konttinen that she sat transfixed looking at the picture on her screen for two hours, with childhood memories overwhelming her. The family had moved from Byker soon afterwards. “I want you to know I am happy,” Tait told the photographer. “My life has turned out well.” The pair eventually met five years later, 45 years after the six-year-old girl had bounced down the street, from one idea of England to another.



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