September 22nd, 2008 admin

Although I’ve already mentioned Homer Sykes’ work in a recent blog post on Sir Benjamin Stone (Knight of the Camera) I felt his work on traditional British customs warranted it’s own post. 

Born in Vancouver, Canada, Sykes has been in the UK since 1954 and working as a photographer for over 40 years. It was while studying at the London College of Printing (now LCC) between 1968-71 that he came across the work of Sir Benjamin Stone. A discovery which provided the inspiration for his book ‘Once A Year – Some Traditional British Customs’ (Pub: Gordon Fraser, 1977).


Sykes has described his motivation for Once A Year in an interview on Luminous-Lint

“I thought it would be interesting to re-photograph some of these customs and others I researched seventy years later, but not in a static way with a large format camera as he had, but in my own style, that I hoped would be a fusion of the American street photography genre that I loved, and had seen in MOMA in New York – Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Burk Uzzle, Robert Frank, and Bruce Davidson, (because of the way their images appear spontaneous, accidental and stylish) and that of the humanitarian reportage and documentary photography of the great Magnum photographers.

The project lasted 7 years, I travelled all over the country to take these photographs and covered about one hundred traditional events, that for the most part took place once a year. I tended to avoid folk club revival country customs, and those events that seemed to be more to do with town hall tourism than local history. As a young documentary photographer I was interested in the contemporaneity of the participants, the coexistence of ancient and modern, and of course of the documentary value of what I was doing.”


The Burry Man (Jacko Hart), South Queensferry, Lothian, Scotland

© Homer Sykes, 1971

The Burry Man with his helpers Billy Scott and David Scott in the South Queensferry Ex Servicemans Club taking a break from his perambulations of the towns boundaries (1971). 

There are reports from the nineteenth century of the Burry Man appearing in other Scottish locations when the fishing harvest was failing. The twentieth century Burry Man makes his perambulations of the town boundary on the date preceding the annual Ferry Fair. It is thought that this was once a fishing fertility rite, although these days it is associated with the local borough or burgh. The fair has been in existence since 1687, and now takes place during the second week in August. By 1971 nothing of what was once an eight day fair remained save the road race, run for a traditional pair of black boots.

It’s a beautifully photographed, tender and often humorous document. I’d love to get my hands on a copy. Unfortunately it’s out of print and a used copy will set you back £100. I think I’ll have to wait for the re-print!

For those of you who want to find out more about Skyes’ recent work, you can read an interview from 2007 on the Photo Histories website here.  

I’ll be interested to know what Sykes thinks of my attempt at documenting England thirty years later, especially given my choice of a “static” large format camera.



  1. Hi,
    Just looking at your site, great to see a picture of my two Uncles. Sadly both of them have passed on and so has jacko Hart who as you know is the Burry Man. I was named after Billy who was one of four brothers. Billy, David, Ian, Teddy ( all passed on ) and three sisters which two are still alive and kicking. One in Dalmeny and one in Bournemouth. If you would like to know anything more about them please contact me.

    Many thanks
    Billy Scott

  2. Hi nice piece on a great book, there a great 70s feel to much of that work and good to say all but one custom he reports are alive and well.. Perhaps you’d like to check out my blog on English calendar customs. Traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com

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