• "Standing on top of Byker Hill in 1790, clergyman John Wesley exclaimed  of the breath-taking panorama beneath his feet: 'A vision of Paradise!' Presumably, it actually excluded Byker, since Byker then was a village. His vision of Paradise was the city of Newcastle down in the valley.


    For me, in 1970, the vision began from the hill, sweeping down along the steep cobbled streets with row upon row of terraced flats, into the town, over the river and the bridges and beyond. The streets of Byker, serene in the morning sun with smoking chimney pots, offered me no Paradise; but I was looking for a home."


    — Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, in the Introduction to her book "Byker", 1983

  • Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Kendal Street in Snow, Byker, 1969

    Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

    Kendal Street in Snow, Byker, 1969

    Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen is a Finnish photographer who has lived and worked in Britain since the 1960s. She was born in Finland in 1948 and came to study film in London in 1968, at the polytechnic in Regent Street. Together with some of her peers she founded the Amber Film and Photography Collective, with the purpose of creating and collecting work to represent marginalised communities and their disappearing landscapes. The group decided to move to Newcastle in 1969, to live and work in an industrial, working-class community. “We felt that the working class were not represented and if anything, were parodied rather than given a genuine voice,” Konttinen said.


    Konttinen came upon the area Byker by chance, and immediately fell in love with it. This marked the beginning of her relationship with the local community there and the seminal photographs that she produced documenting local life over the next seven years. She was drawn to the laughter, the children playing in the streets, the energy. For her, this blue-collar district of Newcastle brimmed with life as it teetered on the brink of a huge cultural shift, a period when the shipyard industry collapsed and developers had eyes on the area for new housing schemes

  • Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

    Customer Leaving Gents' Hairdresser, Raby Street, Byker, 1974

  • “People were baffled by my choice to live there. Not that many people had any idea where Finland was, but if they did, they thought it such a beautiful clean country, and why would I choose to come to Byker?”

  • Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Jimmy Dodds, Walker Road, Byker, 1980

    Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

    Jimmy Dodds, Walker Road, Byker, 1980

    “Being a foreigner gave me one advantage: I could be nosy, and be forgiven. Many doors were opened for me that would possibly have remained closed to another photographer, and invitations extended to the kind of hospitality and intimacy that would normally be reserved for family only."

  • Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

    Two Families Sunbathing in Carville Road/Mason Street Backlane, Byker, 1975
  • Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Girl Playing a Piano in a Derelict House, Byker, 1971

    Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

    Girl Playing a Piano in a Derelict House, Byker, 1971

    I decided to photograph every household in my street. I wasn’t that happy doing studio portraits anyway because I didn’t like the totally black background. I always feel that in portraiture, every inch of the frame is part of the story whether you like it or not, so I might as well tell a bigger story by doing it in people’s homes.

  • In her compelling hand-printed silver gelatin prints, row upon row of terraced houses sit on the hillside, an old man inspects his pigeons, a young woman applies make-up over the kitchen sink. Konttinen renders the people living in this sparse, urban landscape with a playful and intimate humanity. She chronicles much more than the culture of a single community in one northern English town; the images are evocative of a moment in time.


    “Newcastle was a stunning visual place to be in,” she says. Konttinen found herself in Byker by coincidence, but soon realised it was symbolic of the regeneration projects happening around Britain at the time. “It was never a slum, it was always a very proud community established over generations, and they wanted to stay that way. But the gap between demolition and the houses being built was sometimes many years, and people had to move out and never came back.”


  • Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Girl on a 'Spacehopper', Janet Street Backlane, Byker, 1971

    Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

    Girl on a 'Spacehopper', Janet Street Backlane, Byker, 1971

    "The girl on the Space Hopper! I took that in 1970. She flashed by me in a moment, bounded into a back lane and disappeared. I never found out who she was. Then, quite recently, the Space Hopper girl got in touch. She called and said her brother had found the image on the web. When she saw it she said she was transfixed and her whole childhood flooded back. She got in touch with me because she wanted to let me know that her life had turned out well. She lived in Manchester, had a family and a good job. She thanked me for taking the image. I made a big print of the image and sent it to her."

  • Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

    Tynemouth, September 1978, from Writing in the Sand, 1978
    Silver gelatin print
    Printed 2020
    Paper size: 40.5 x 50.5 cm
    Image size: 25.5 x 38.5 cm
    Frame size: 43.5 x 55 cm
  • “One way or another I had grown to be part of my street, and the community. It had been my first own home, and a real home for me. As my neighbour Nancy points out proudly: "When she first came in our street, she couldn't tell 'hello' from 'tarra', and now she speaks Finnish with a Geordie accent!””

    This sentiment is reflected in Konttinen’s intimate portraits of the people she encountered, whose trust she garnered through her honesty and compassion.The resulting body of work, “Byker”, from street photography to composed portraits in people’s homes, finds a resilient and proud human spirit amid the outwardly modest living spaces. When the developers finally moved in, Konttinen moved on to other projects, but her photographs toured the world as social documentary and sublime compositions. This series has been described as being of "outstanding national value to the United Kingdom" by UNESCO.

  • Sirkka-Liisa KonttinenFred in Raby Street Backlane, Byker, 1971

  • Byker, Young couple in a backyard on a summer day, 1975

  • " While piecing together a living from freelance and educational work, I started to photograph Byker in earnest. I roamed around the streets by day and hung about by night: chasing my heartbeats, stumbling in and out of other people's lives; striving to share my excitement through photographs where words would fail me. This was the beginning of my great adventure."


    In 1983, Konttinen published a book, Byker, and put together an exhibition that toured the world. She did not expect to ever return to Byker, but in 2004 she met someone who ran an education project there and who encouraged her to go back with her camera. Konttinen returned and shot a series of colour photographs of the new residents in the area, assembled in her book “Byker Revisited”. 



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