Preview: What Presence!

The Dreamboys, with Peter Capaldi on guitar (front centre) and Craig Ferguson on drums (background)
The Dreamboys, with Peter Capaldi on guitar (front centre) and Craig Ferguson on drums (background)
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IT WAS the glory age of fanzines and photo-prints, the era of Aztec Camera, Orange Juice and Simple Minds, when the jangle of Glasgow guitars swept through Britain and A&R men camped in the central belt looking for the next big thing.

The late 70s and early 80s were a fertile time for Scottish pop music, and photographer Harry Papadopoulos was there to document it.

This weekend sees the opening of the first career retrospective of one of Scotland’s great music photographers, who for five years between 1979 and 1984 was at the forefront of British music as a staff photographer for Sounds magazine. The majority of the show, at Glasgow’s Street Level Photoworks, celebrates Papadopoulos’s role as unofficial photo champion of the Scottish music scene, with candid images of Aztec Camera, Orange Juice and The Bluebells. Papadopoulos’s London flat became a haven for young Scottish acts with little cash, in the city for radio interviews or playing at the capital’s clubs.

His photographs often complemented the articles of Dave McCullough, another great supporter of Scottish music. Together, week after week, they promoted Scottish acts in the UK press. Alan Horne once boasted that his Postcard Records label was the sound of young Scotland, but it was Papadopoulos who captured it on film, including a rare image of future movie and TV stars Peter Capaldi and Craig Ferguson in a band called the Dreamboys.

Malcolm Dickson, director of Street Level Photoworks, calls the exhibition a “compelling cross-section of an explosion in pop and alternative culture”. Old front covers of the NME and Sounds adorn the walls to “set the photographs in context and capture the background of the times”. Self-taught, Papadopoulos originally involved himself in the Glasgow music scene by selling prints of the biggest acts to grace Scottish stages. He would travel with his camera to a band’s Edinburgh gig, then rush home to his dark room to develop the prints and sell them outside the Glasgow show the next night. He became a fixture outside the Apollo, hawking a grainy, cool alternative to the mass-produced shots of the mainstream.

It was his work in cult local fanzine The Ten Commandments that eventually got him national attention. He moved to London and became a staff photographer for Sounds, the British music weekly which folded in 1991. The exhibition also showcases his other work from this period: iconic live images of Marvin Gaye, Frank Zappa, David Bowie and the Clash hang next to their Scottish contemporaries. Papadopoulos contributed countless cover photos before quitting to work as an editor at the UK branch of Marvel Comics.

Ken McCluskey of the Bluebells, a long-time friend and driving force behind the exhibition, says it wasn’t Papadopoulos that had moved on, rather it was the scene. “He wasn’t interested in the stuff that started to come into the mainstream. Many of the weeklies went glossy, the Sounds pull-out Kerrang! became more popular than the actual magazine, and it just seemed like the end of that run.”

Papadopoulos suffered a brain aneurysm a decade ago and lives in a care home at the age of 58. He moved back to Glasgow in 2006 and is looking forward to seeing the exhibition, which only came about after a chance meeting between McCluskey and Papadopoulos’s brother a couple of years ago.

“I hadn’t heard about Harry’s condition,” says McCluskey. “But I went round to see him as soon I found out. Harry started showing me his photographs and we were reminiscing about gigs and people we knew. He got his negatives out and I noticed there was a wee bit of fungus on some of the film. I said that I was happy to digitise them for him to keep them safe. So I looked through them and found it was a treasure trove. Sorting them out became a labour of love.”

“It took about a year and a half to get them all sorted,” he says. “I brought them round to Malcolm and he was delighted. He even recognised some of the photos from old articles that he had read at the time. One of my favourites is the big photo of the Clash live at the Apollo. I was at that gig, and the Clash had started that DIY idea, you know, get three chords and start a band. After that, everyone went out and did it, including me.”

McCluskey hopes the exhibition will be a spark that reignites interest in Harry’s work. “The legacy of this would be to get some prints done and make them available on a website with the proceeds going to help Harry with his rehabilitation. And if we managed to raise enough money we would set up some kind of trust for budding young photographers.”

Harry Papadopoulos: What Presence! is at Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, until 25 February