Since 2005, Craig Atkinson has acted as the one-man-team behind the photobooks publication Café Royal Books. Based out of Southport, the publication is dedicated to the archive of British documentary photography. Whether it’s work made in the British Isles, or work made internationally by Brits, Craig roughly publishes a staggering 70 issues each year. With the aim of increasing the visibility of British documentary photography, the archive stretches far and wide in its themes.
The documentation of druids in 1996, Notting Hill Carnival in the 90s, Housing Estates in 1985, Northern Ireland, Black Power Panthers from 1969, gypsies and travellers, Martin Parr’s series on Prestwich Mental Hospital in 1972; the list goes on and on in terms of the breadth of subjects that Café Royal Books covers. For Craig, the series of photobooks is an ongoing “learning adventure” as he came to it “with very little knowledge of photography”, he tells It’s Nice That.
After encountering a number of archived projects, Craig “started to think about these images as societal and historical artefacts and resources”, offering a glimpse into British history through ephemeral moments, captured in black and white. While history books can impart their facts and figures, photographs alternatively provide an insight into how an event looked, and felt, at the time. The books act as a “kind of tool for learning and reflecting”; animated facial expressions, fashions trends of the time, politicised adverts mounted on walls, among all kinds of other phenomena combine together to prolong a moment in history.
For the founder, the main enjoyment of the work lies in discovering the unknown projects that can “change the way we think about a place or time, or British documentary photography.” Collected internationally by a number of archivist institutions including Harvard University, MoMA, Oxford and Cambridge University as well as the British Library, this impressive roster of collectors underlines Craig’s work to shed a light on the importance of documentary photography.
“The books, although important in their own right, are a vehicle to allow the work to be seen,” says Craig. Individually and collectively, the books enact a photographic view of British history through the people that were actually there to witness it. When asked about what we can learn from these documents about “Britishness”, Craig assesses: “We are overloaded by information and that can be very positive, but it can also bewilder and misinform and drive fear.”
He cites the example of how there are many photographs up to the mid-80s showing children playing in the streets. “Those photographs wouldn’t exist to such an extent today for many reasons,” adds Craig. “There are more cars on the road, more media attention to child safety, bad people and bad actions.” With nationwide increased awareness where we are more informed by whichever horrors are taking place at the time, British culture is perhaps more susceptible to fear and anxiety than ever. And, with the help of Café Royal Books, we can track this shift in mood throughout British history through wonderfully shot documentary photography.
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