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Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen - Step by Step

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen - Step by Step

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Photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen traces the lives of mothers and daughters from a dancing school in North Shields into the outside world over a period of seven years, documenting their dreams and realities in conversations and photographs.

”A woman came to the dancing school and she said: ‘Can I enrol my grand-daughter for dancing classes?’ I said ‘Yes, come in, I’ll take down her details.’ I was busy taking down the details and I asked: ‘How old is your grand-daughter?’ The woman’s face lit up and she said: ‘She was born this morning!’”

The sombre tone of the photographs and the scrupulous avoidance of sentimentality create an overall sense of bleakness, yet many of the actual images, along with the quotations, portray a kind of tough optimism, a determination to seize enjoyment wherever possible. Some of the outdoor shots – a washing powder ad on a billboard, a Conservative election poster (“Britain is great again” – overlooking litter-strewn waste ground, mannequins in the window of a bridal shop, tired-looking women carrying shopping and small children – suggest an oblique, understated commentary. (Sue Wilson)

”With an unusual balance of clarity and sympathy, sadness and warmth, they manage again and again to provide striking portrayal and penetrating commentary”. – British Journal of Photography

_”Step by Step, which contains 72 photographs with short texts written by some of the people photographed, is divided into two parts. The first part takes an affectionate and sometimes witty look at pupils and their parents and teachers, at home and at the school. The second part sets the school, together with its girl and women pupils and their families in a wider context – at play, at work and in their homes in industrial and post-industrial North Shields. It is proof of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s skill that she is as adept in photographing the urban landscape as she is in making portraits and studies of people in private and sometimes intimate situations. In both fields she demonstrates her ability to strike a balance between developing rapport with her subject and maintaining the degree of detachment necessary for good documentary work. These she combines with technical mastery, to which, happily the high quality of photographic reproduction does ample justice.

In the early 80’s Amber Films made Keeping Time, a film based on the activities of the Connell-Brown Dancing School in North Shields, screened on Channel 4 in 1983. Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen stayed on after the filming to take still photographs, resulting in an exhibition at Side Gallery in 1985. She then continued her documentation, taking a very broad look at the school and its Tyneside environment”_ – Wide angle, March 1990.

_”She intended the study as an ‘attempt at putting a finger on the troublesome nucleus of female experience’, hoping it would act ’ as a springboard for both critical and sympathetic examination of women’s lives within our society’. The resulting photographs interspersed with excerpts from conversations – offers an unusual, intimate and engaging insight into the life of a working-class community.

The realities of unemployment, poverty, divorce, hard work, are interwoven with the fun and excitement of the dancing school: run-down terraces and tower blocks are juxtaposed with tutus. Various themes develop from the words and pictures: the importance of home and family, the hard-headed yet often humorous resilience with which difficulties are faced, the importance of the school as a female community, the women’s robust combination of romanticism and pragmatism.
The clarity and warmth of the images complement the eloquence of their own words”_ – Sue Wilson.

Paperback – 128 pages (1989)
Bloodaxe Books and Amber/side; ISBN: 1 85224 059 8

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