In Search of Space

In 2008 an impressive hardback book appeared called ‘From the Hip’ containing photographs from the early sixties by John Hopkins, a central figure in the English counter culture of the 60s and a key protagonist in what was to become the video culture of the 70s and 80s.

It includes iconic images of the known and the unknown, The Beatles and The Stones, the British jazz scene of Graham Bond, Keith Tippet, Graham Collier; the New York avant-garde and the jazz giants – Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor, Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane; beat poets at the seminal poetry convention at the Albert Halls in 1965 – Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Trocchi, Adrian Mitchell; as well as the political figures and events that characterized those times of awakening and expansion – Bertrand Russell, Aldermaston Peace March, Anti-Racist demonstrations, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, as well as snapshots of the everyday that you may normally pass by but which takes the power of photography to capture and bewitch.

The book helps reveal the true breadth and volume of Hoppy’s photographic output, covering his early days selling his images in Fleet Street, and his work for Peace News and CND. This photographic time capsule is but one small perceptible part of that much larger zeitgeist of the time, the counterculture. One contributor to that book is Joe Boyd, who describes the ‘Underground’ in his own book ‘White Bicycles’ as follows:

‘When it flourished in the spring of 1967, it was seen as a sub-culture of drugs, radical politics and music built around the International Times, Indica Bookshop, Oz magazine, UFO, the London Free School, Release … and the Arts Lab. To me, the expression referred primarily to the fruits of the energy of one man: John Hopkins …Hoppy always seemed in a process of discovery, treating the city as his research laboratory…’

  1. Joe Boyd ‘White Bicycles’, Serpent’s Tail, 2006.

John Hopkins, or ‘Hoppy’ as he came to be known was originally a reactor physicist, and in the early sixties became a photojournalist, joined CND and Centre 42; early organiser of Pink Floyd and Soft Machine concerts, founder member of International Times and the UFO club – Hoppy was later to take that activism into video with the aim of giving a voice to the disenfranchised through access to media, education and learning. In 1966 Hoppy put down the camera as a tool for recording to participate more fully as a cultural activist:

“I put my camera down because there was a lot of other stuff going on and it was either keep photographing or get involved in the doing of the stuff, you know the club promotion, event promotion, that sort of thing. I was involved in the London Free School of Notting Hill and the UFO Club, International Times and other stuff. I had to made a choice and that was sort of accelerated if you like by the fact that I got thoroughly fed up working for the press barons, where I realised I was a small cog in a big capitalist machine. I didn’t have any choice in the agenda of what I was doing when I was working for them. It was much more exciting to do cultural stuff in the underground so in order to get on with the promotions and that sort of thing; I didn’t have any time to take photos. Unfortunately, soon after that I got busted and I landed up in jail for a few months and when I came out of jail the situation was quite different and I didn’t feel inclined to take any photographs. I got married, I went abroad, I did some other stuff and I had to sort of shake off the prison dust.”

  1. John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins interview by Malcolm Dickson, July 2009.

Pre-dating the British manifestations of the Free University, Hoppy was involved in the London Free School which focussed on the Notting Hill area of the city with its diverse cultural and class communities, having a high concentration of West Indian, Irish and Polish immigrants. LFS offered free classes in photography, French and politics and also gave free advice to members of the community around housing issues, how to claim unpaid benefits, and also in ways to empower people to challenge the criminal justice system. Although Boyd refers to this as ‘heartbreakingly naïve’, it is a function that has been taken up and is replicated in a number of community liaison and campaigning organisations. Significantly, the LFS restarted the Notting Hill Carnival, possibly its major legacy today.

The potentialities of the counterculture are electrifyingly captured in Jeff Nuttall’s 1968 book ‘Bomb Culture’ which chronicles the emergence of the international underground in Britain. Nuttall, another key player, was a poet, publisher, painter, and jazz trumpeter. In his book he comments on the Notting Hill Festivals as being:

‘models of exactly how the arts should operate – festive, friendly, audacious, a little mad and all taking place on demolition sites, in the streets … Hopkins, however … had a whiff of the psychedelic movement and knew more clearly what he was after, that stemmed from the Free School, and via a series of benefit gigs launched the Pink Floyd, the first English psychedelic pop-groups, complete with lightshow. In early 1967 he shifted to the old Blarney Club in the Tottenham Court Road and with Joe Boyd opened UFO which was the scene of the wildest regular public events London has yet experienced. A number of inventive artists staged happenings at UFO. The Exploding Galaxy, a particularly Goonish dance-troupe run by David Medalla (who had previously been active at Signals, the London centre for kinetic art) made its debut there. The People Show, a theatre group who combine techniques from music hall, happening, straight drama, cabaret, funhouse and children’s party, sometimes ventured out of their domain in Better Books Basement to perform at UFO. All this juxtaposed with underground movies, old silent comedies and Mark Boyle’s perpetually changing lights created an atmosphere in which young people could relax quietly or create frenetically.’

  1. Jeff Nuttall ‘Bomb Culture’, p200, Paladin, 1968.

Michael Horowitz remarked upon two ‘defining moments’ for Nuttall – CND and the poets convention at the Albert Hall in 1965*. Nuttall and John Latham had planned a performance happening for that gig but they missed their cue as both allegedly passed out after painting themselves blue and blocking all their pores. This work, ‘Fiona’s Shoe’ was re-enacted at the South London Gallery on March 7th 2009, alongside screening of work from the period, including Peter Whitehead’s film ‘Wholly Communion’ a film which documents the 1965 Albert Hall International Poetry  Incarnation, and includes footage of readings by Allen Ginsberg, Alexander Trocchi and Adrian Mitchell.

Involved with Hoppy at the time in the UFO were Joe Boyd, Jack Henry Moore, and Mark Boyle, whose artistic liquid light experiments moulded in with the ambience of the club and the times. Other acts to be introduced to London through the UFO were The Soft Machine, Tomorrow, Mick Farren and The Social Deviants, and Arthur Brown. Jim Haynes, an American, had previously been based in Edinburgh where he established The Paperback Bookshop, and along with publisher John Calder, organised The Writers Conference in1962, opened a coffee shop and performance space called The Howf, and then The Traverse Theatre in 1963. Haynes left the Traverse to set up The Arts Lab in London, an experimental cultural centre combining cinema, gallery, tea room, information resource, music, books, and a theatre.

‘The Arts Lab exploded on London and became overnight the place, the heart of London’s underground movement. We had a cinema in the basement, a gallery on the ground floor, a theatre in another connecting warehouse and a restaurant upstairs’


The London Free School and the Arts Lab are early structural models for learning and creativity. The former was about empowering those without a voice, and the latter was about the synthesis of different art forms that later become known and funded as Arts Centres. The Arts Lab (like the model of the APG later reconstructed as artists residencies) became a model for a number of other arts-lab like places that grew up within 6 months of the Drury Lane Arts Lab opening. Jim Haynes recounts:

‘People were arriving from virtually every town in Britain… We also had visitors from various towns on the Continent, who then went off and set up Arts Labs of their own. The Milky Way in Amsterdam is probably the most successful copy, but there are two in Paris which are still running today.’

  1. Jim Haynes ‘Thanks for Coming’, Faber and Faber, 1984.

It should be noted that other geographically spread centres of note were the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow and the Project Arts Centre in Dublin. Tom McGrath, former first editor of International Times started by Haynes, Moore, Miles and Hoppy, was the first Director of the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow.

Following several months in prison for cannabis possession in which the judge branded him a ‘pest to society’, Hoppy set up BIT information service then Fantasy Factory as part of a larger initiative TVX. With these endeavours, Hoppy and his associates were key to the early growth of the social uses of video through community action and development**. ‘It was the idea of controlling the means of production and being able to do something to amplify one’s own community of interests’ said Sue Hall, Hoppy’s long-time collaborator, in their Rewind interview.***

In his editorial for the Studio International issue on video in 1976, Richard Cork quoted Hall and Hopkins’ assertion that ‘we see video primarily as a communications medium which has an “aesthetic” or “expressive” component (or subset); and they ask the video artist to consider the questions “shouldn’t the democratization of culture, and in our case the liberation of communications technology for public access, be an integral part of our actual art activity?”’

  1. Studio International, May/June 1976, p.286.

TVX was also to collaborate with artists exploring the use of colour and soundtrack, and with their Fantasy Factory facility, with its 3-machine edit suite, provided subsidised and supported access to the means of production, which was used equally by community groups as well as artists. An example of the groups who used it give some flavour of the milieu: Rock Against Racism, Liberation Films, Consumers Association, Women in Manual Trades, West London Media Workshop; whilst a namecheck on the artists using the subsidised resource were Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield, Terry Flaxton, Dave Critchley, Tamara Krikorian, Stuart Marshall, and The People Show.

The advent of the portapak prized open the utopian well to explore the democratic possibilities of media. Through the work of Hoppy, TVX, and Fantasy Factory, video’s potential cross-fertilization in the discourses of art, science, technology, mass media, and politics is deep-rooted, and it has never evaporated. The critical blend of medium awareness and social democratization was to characterise a philosophical tenet of the video workshop movement that blossomed in the UK in the late 70s and 80s. The continuity throughout Hoppy’s activity and which serves to guide us is the deeply held allegiance to humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought. This takes us full circle back to the unique photographic record that Hoppy made. Joe Boyd again:

‘The colourful ferment of the ‘underground’ years grew out of a comparatively un-chronicled period where music, politics and a racial and class revolution combined to provide the soil in which Hoppy’s revolution flourished. Without setting out purposefully to document the 1960-65 era, Hoppy the photographer has nonetheless provided us with images that tell stories of that time and of particular places he knows so well and that proved to be the cradle of what came later.’

  1. Joe Boyd, from the book ‘From the Hip’, 2008.

Whilst some of his images have become iconic, there have been very few public exhibitions of his work – in 2000 at The Photographers Gallery organised by Addie Vassie, who had been introduced to his work by a friend of Hoppy’s and therefore brought this work to public awareness; two larger exhibitions at Idea Generation (‘Against Tyranny’, London, 2009) and Street Level Photoworks (‘Taking Liberties’, Glasgow, 2009), and a smaller representation at Brighton Photography Biennial (‘Freedom is a Career’, 2012). The title of that Glasgow ‘retrospective’ ‘Taking Liberties’ in 2009 has been retained as a way of paying tribute to a project which Hoppy worked very closely on with myself. A further outing of a selection of the work from that show took place at Dunoon Burgh Halls in Argyll and Bute, by the Holy Loch, a place familiar to Hoppy from his CND days. For various practical reasons and failing health, Hoppy was unable to make it to that show.

Finding an appropriate platform to bring his work to a wider public again gained greater importance since his passing in 2015. Since then, the Estate of the photographer have been attentively archiving his work all over again, a process which involves the rescanning of thousands of negatives. The exhibition at Diffusion is newly curated and includes a great many works which have not been seen before in a public setting, all printed from new scans from those original negatives. This is part of a journey which will ensure that this period of time is chronicled to a greater degree than had been previously and that opportunities for Hoppy’s work to function as an active resource ‘in perpetuity’ is amplified.

Malcolm Dickson, April 2017

  1. * Michael Horovitz, Jeff Nuttall obituary, The Guardian, Monday January 12, 2004
  2. ** Hopkins co-edited Video in Community Development in 1973, published by Ovum Limited, which helped articulate the role of video in community action and social change, based upon a number of works they had made at Fantasy Factory. ‘The portable videotape recorder has made television a fast and cheap medium which can be used in social change and community development. This collection provides a practical handbook for planning a community development project in the form of detailed references and a programmed test. Techniques for setting up a project and working with the community are described and illustrated with numerous examples in the form of project descriptions from previous experiences.’
  3. *** Rewind: Artists Video in the 70’s and 80’s, interview with Sue Hall and John Hopkins, by Dr Jackie Hatfield, 17th November 2004.