I took the photos at two funfairs in Richmond upon Thames over 30 years ago in the first half of the 1980s, writes Roger Clark, the broadcaster, writer and photographer. Cecil Beaton once said getting a new camera was like getting a new pair of eyes. That was true in the 1980s when I abandoned my medium format Rolleiflexes taking 6 x 6 cm film and turned to 35 mm. I bought an Olympus OM SLR and a tiny carbon fibre Olympus XA that was ideal for candid shots. These small cameras loosened up my work as I embarked on shooting thousands of human interest pictures – candids and environmental portraits.
But where to start? I decided to learn by photographing people at two travelling funfairs in Richmond upon Thames where I lived. One was housed on the outskirts of Richmond town in the Old Deer Park and the other near the entrance to Hampton Court Palace.
The Richmond Old Deer Park funfair was situated between a railway line and a main road, with a car park at one end and trees and River Thames at the other. Yet inside this inauspicious setting fairground people created a magic kingdom. The fair, despite a few modern innovations, preserved many of the traditions so many of my pictures looked as if they were taken in the previous 50 years. Children adored the old-fashioned roundabouts, large crowds swarmed aboard the bumper cars and everyone enjoyed the sideshows. In those days you could win cigarettes, LP records and gold fish as prizes, plus cuddly toys.
The Hampton Court funfair was larger, but still atmospheric.
‘Don’t go on the ghost train,’ warned a friend I ran into. ‘It’s really scary.’
So I went along to have a look. People were staggering off the little ghost trains as they crashed through the doors into the daylight after an alarming ride – gasping with fright and delight. I snapped them as they emerged.
No one noticed me there, or anywhere else in the fairgrounds. I might have been invisible as I wandered among the crowds. For years people had asked how Cartier-Bresson managed to take his pictures unseen? The answer was simple. If you move among crowds enjoying themselves they are too wrapped up in what they are doing to notice a photographer at work.
I wanted to capture not only the wide range of people who go along to a fair, but also the showmen and women who ran the rides and the stalls. Many of them looked very English – English working class – as if they had stepped out of Picture Post magazine, or 1930s and ’40s films.
The crowds were more diverse and up-to-date. Funfairs are good places to study everyday fashion. Younger customers wore stylish smart casual clothes. Some Asian women dressed more formally in elegant saris and looked as if they were going to a wedding. The fun atmosphere relaxed everyone – or nearly everyone. Many romances are established at funfairs where, wrote one observer, ‘thrill rides provide ample excuse for embracing. Displays of skill at shooting and winning a cuddly toy for your girlfriend is a rite of passage for many young men.’
These were funfairs before the digital age. No mobile phones, Internet, home computers, compact discs, DVDs, or electronic wizardry. Mountain bikes had yet to become popular. Teenagers preferred racing bikes with drop handlebars and nobody wore helmets.