Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941) - the unexpected photojournalist

“I was born forty years to soon…what might I have done working for modern illustrated journals’ FMS diary, 1940.

Whitby Harbour looking towards the Abbey
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, self portrait

I’ve always admired the work of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe,(right) a portrait and landscape photographer who worked in Whitby on the north-east coast of England in the late Victorian period to the early decades of the 20th century.

While he made his living taking portraits of holiday makers and sitters who came to his studio in Skinner Street, it is for his photographs of ordinary people and places around the wharfs and quayside of this picturesque and thriving fishing and coal exporting town that he is best remembered. But Sutcliffe was also an innovator, writing numerous articles for photographic journals and a regular column, Photography Notes, for the Yorkshire Evening Post and although his most famous pictures show the controlled composition and polished technique of a large format master, he was also a devotee of what was at the time a new and racy medium – the snapshot.

Harry Freeman, sole survivor of the Whitby Lifeboat disaster, 1861

Sutcliffe was among several professional photographers who came to an arrangement with Kodak in the mid-1890s; they would supply him with the latest cameras and film and in return he would produce marketing photographs to show the public what was possible with these new, pocket-sized, handheld cameras. As Sutcliffe himself said the tourist could, ‘with intelligent use get his own views of the places he visits, as he sees them, and these photographs will remind him, as no stock view can, of the places he has visited.’

Such was Sutcliffe’s enthusiasm that he could be found in the Yorkshire countryside with four Kodaks slung around him. After an incident in a rowing boat, when he collided with a boatload of sightseers losing his plate camera overboard (only the air in the bellows prevented it sinking to the bottom of Whitby harbour) he also took his pocket cameras on the water. He valued the Kodak’s portability and its performance in poor lighting declaring that unlike the heavy stand cameras, ‘the Kodak need never be left at home, it is not much heavier than a walking stick, and every photographer knows that the best subjects appear when he has no camera with him.’

Sutcliffe appreciated the flexibility that both large and small formats gave him. Plate, or stand, cameras required an investment of time and thought but ultimately brought rewards of quality and detail. The Kodaks had the advantages of speed and portability. He commented, ‘In some cases, if a photographer hesitates a single second, the picture is lost. This is the case when beauty is dependant on figures or quickly-moving clouds. To be able to raise the camera to the eye and fire it off quickly is a great help towards pictorial photography.’

He also valued the Kodak as a visual diary, presaging social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. Writing in Amateur Photographer in 1900 he said, ‘The Kodak has freshened my interest in outdoor photography, though my friends chaff me and ask if I keep “that thing” under my pillow and take it to church with me on Sunday…My only regret is that I did not have it years ago, for it would have written a diary for me of many things I can never see again. Perhaps this coming century will see many diaries so written.’

Striking a Bargain, Yorkshire Horse Fair by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe

Looking at the narrative quality of Sutcliffe’s work perhaps it’s not surprising that he explored the idea of the photo-story long before newspapers took up the idea, and 40 years before magazine like Picture Post first appeared. His 1902, Amateur Photography article, ‘Striking a Bargain’, is a series of candid pictures of a Yorkshire horse fair (above) with accompanying text. Sutcliffe commented, ‘Everyone looks at the pictures first and only reads any letterpress when the pictures have no more to say.’ The roll film format of the Kodak cameras also had the advantage of speed over traditional plate cameras enabling Sutcliffe to make a rapid series of exposures almost unnoticed by his subjects.

It’s ironic that when I worked in photojournalism almost every photographer I met, no matter how accomplished wanted to be a landscape photographer. Don McCullin is a famous example, turning his hand from warzones to meditative images of his home in the Somerset Levels. It is revealing to know that Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, one of our greatest landscape and portrait photographers, also had ambitions outside his specialities. This illustrates one of the great truths about photography. There is always some new field to discover, some new technique to be learned and one more photograph to be made.

Whitby Abbey by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe

Recommended reading - Frank Sutcliffe, Photographer of Whitby by Michael Hiley, The Gordon Fraser Gallery Ltd, London & Bedford, 1974.

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