Nowadays, if a school teacher insisted on taking lots of unofficial photographs of all the kids at school he would (at best) be looked on with some suspicion. This hasn’t always been the case though – thank goodness – let me introduce you to George Plemper.
To the south east of London lies the new town of Thamesmead – built on reclaimed marshland, it consists of a huge, brutalist sink-estate, created to house the working-classes (if you’re UK-based and have ever watched ‘Misfits‘ on E4 – this is set in Thamesmead). This experiment in social housing meant that it was a community in isolation, even though they were just a few miles from London – the Riverside School must have been one of the few social hubs available there.
At this school is George – a young teacher. It’s 1978 and he’s got his first job teaching science. He introduces photography as a way of engaging with pupils and demonstrating ideas – and at the same time takes portraits of the children.
For a good 30 years the photos followed George through various house moves, mouldering in carrier bags. Then, with the emergence of photo-sharing websites and an urge to make available his social record of a now by-gone era, he uploaded all these wonderful faces to flickr for us all to see.
I wish I could put my finger on what makes these images so totally amazing. It’s simply incredible looking at those teenage faces full of hope, happiness, sadness, worry, joy and puzzlement – they are haunting and wonderful.
Having our photos taken is a common, almost daily occurrence for us nowadays – back then though, to have a formal photograph taken which wasn’t for a special occasion must have been very much out of the ordinary – which is one of the reasons these vignettes of everyday teenage life seem so emotive, so very compelling.
When I look at them I feel we haven’t changed at all and at the same time are so totally, totally different. And it’s all there to see in black and white. An amazing legacy. Thank you George!
All photographs in this article are © George Plemper
Check out George Plemper’s flickr photostream where you can see the full collection of Thamesmead photos – many of the images have details about who is in the photo and why it was taken and some of the the children in the photos have recognised themselves and left comments!
Millie20 October 2011 at 23:49
Wow! Thanks Angie for sharing this.
These photographs are truly beautiful, amazing and humbling.
George Plemper really is an incredible photographer.
Angie21 October 2011 at 10:32
Thanks Millie – I think he’s great too!
Cass21 October 2011 at 17:10
Wow. These were taken two years after I was born (when I clearly wouldn’t have been at high school) and yet they feel like memories… I don’t know, they just stir something inside of me. They are totally fantastic. The more you stare at them (and I could stare for hours) the more fascinating details you notice. Thank you for sharing this wonderful find!
Angie21 October 2011 at 19:52
That’s how I feel too – they’re hypnotic aren’t they!
Colin30 October 2011 at 11:05
I’ve seen other pictures from Thamesmead school by George Plemper, but not these ones – they’re stunning. You get such a strong sense of these kids as distinct individuals, but also of the time that’s passed between then and now, which results in an almost overwhelming sense of poignancy. I started reading your blog recently so it’s quite a coincidence that you’ve featured this work as I’ve been visiting Thamesmead over the past few months to photograph the estate and the surrounding area. It’s flanked by the ruins of medieval Lessness Abbey to the south, marshland and industrial works to the east, Belmarsh prison to the west and the Thames to the north. I’ve not published the project yet, but this is an early draft of the intro: http://www.eleventhvolume.com/photos/intro/21st-century-town.html. Thanks for featuring these pictures – it might just kick-start me into finishing my series!
Angie30 October 2011 at 19:46
Hi Colin – Thamesmead sounds like such a fascinating place, I hope you get to finish your project – what I read was great!
PS – There’s a new season of Misfits on E4 starting tonight (Sunday 30th Oct) – it’s all filmed on the Thamesmead estate.
Bronwyn24 November 2011 at 14:10
George has an amazing collection of photographs! He was kind enough to let us include some of them in our new online photography magazine (shameless plug) – http://backyardbackyard.com from when he was working on his PhD.
He continues to shoot film too!
Angie29 November 2011 at 19:33
Backyard magazine looks fab – have signed up!
Colin26 November 2011 at 23:06
I finally published my Thamesmead series! http://www.eleventhvolume.com/photos/intro/thamesmead.html
Angie29 November 2011 at 19:29
A great collection of photos, Colin – the area is so atmospheric – quite eerie and inhuman almost!
Colin19 December 2011 at 18:16
Thanks, yes it is an eery place, in part because it’s on reclaimed marshland I think and because it’s so oddly isolated. It feels almost medieval at times.
Angie21 December 2011 at 13:04
There’s definitely something spooky about land that partly belongs to the sea – especially when it’s urbanised.