Inside the publishing house crafting visual histories of social change

Inside the publishing house crafting visual histories of social change

A new exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery tells the story of Café Royal Books through hundreds of titles charting shifting modern life.

Back in 2005, abstract painter Craig Atkinson was steadily on course for a Masters in Fine Art when he came to realise the path before him was not his to walk. “The paintings were big, slow, heavy, cumbersome, and could only be shown in one place at a time,” he remembers. “I began to think about who I was painting for, and why. It started to seem quite self-indulgent.”

Then 28, Atkinson wanted to make work that was an antidote to the problems posed by the exclusionary nature of the art world. Seeking an affordable, accessible, and functional medium, he turned to zines just as the world was going digital — a counterintuitive move that would prove prescient with the creation of Café Royal Books (CRB).

“I'd save up £1000 with the intention of making some zines and distributing them, hoping they'd pay for themselves,” says Atkinson, who set up a one-man operation out of his home in Southport, Merseyside. In 2012, he began publishing a weekly series of titles focusing on post-war documentary photography.

With an eye towards the stories of the people whose lives are inextricably rooted in place, Atkinson was drawn to overlooked artists, underrepresented communities, and unseen histories. He began crafting a panoramic visual history of social change sweeping across Britain and Ireland, creating an inclusive space for photographers whose works might otherwise go unseen.

Nearly 700 hundred titles later, CRB has become a repository of soul that weaves together epic chronicles of daily life. Stories like Syd Shelton’s frenetic scenes from the frontlines of the ’77 Battle of Lewisham, David Hurn’s utopian images from the ’69 Isle of Wight Festival (IOW), or Judah Passow’s electric photos of Belfast in 1982.

Amidst the protests and riots, carnivals and raves, schools and sporting events, city streets and sandy beaches, a map of modern life emerges — one brilliantly charted in the new exhibition, Café Royal Books at The Photographers’ Gallery in London. The show brings together 250 titles that chart the stories of community unfolding in public everyday.

Behind the visual splendours, lies deeper feeling of kinship and solidarity across ethnic, cultural, and geographic backgrounds across time and space. Visitors move between Chris Miles’s photos ’74 Notting Hill Carnival, Shirley Baker’s hypnotic portraits of ‘80s London punks, and Elaine Constantine’s frenetic snaps of the ‘90s Northern Soul explosion, witnessing the evolution of youth culture embrace the spirit of rebellion, self-expression, and community on its own terms.

Over the years, Atkinson has received recognition for his work from a host of directors, producers, musicians, and fashion designers who recognized the vision of CRB. “Publishing a book each week, they get about. I'm always amazed by who they reach,” he says.

“Someone sent a video of Jarvis Cocker on stage at the Isle of Wight festival. He was mid set, holding David Hurn's IOW Café Royal Book, telling the crowd about it! I couldn't believe it. All from these things I started making at home with a stapler and some paper.”

Café Royal Books is on view through June 2, 2024, at The Photographers’ Gallery in London.

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