Black Panthers, punks and brutalist buildings: the micro-publisher exploring Britain’s lost past | Photography4 min read
In 2005, Craig Atkinson was walking around Edinburgh fingering the engagement ring in his pocket, and wondering where to propose. Upon entering the grand Victorian bar Café Royal, he was swept away by its beauty. “But I thought it’ll end up going down as: ‘Oh, he proposed to me in the pub,’” he says. “So, I didn’t.”
In the end he proposed on the steps in front of the Scottish National Gallery, but he couldn’t shake that pub. At the time Atkinson was working as an artist but was growing tired of having to work on a piece for months.
“I wanted something more immediate,” he recalls. “So I started doing little drawings and decided to release them in small books, inspired by those National Trust pamphlets you’d get when you visit a stately home.” He needed a name for his new micro-publishing house and so, when back home in Southport, Merseyside, his mind turned to his trip and Café Royal Books was born.
Atkinson did this steadily for years – publishing sketches of everyday objects or buildings – but by 2012 he started to incorporate his own photography, with a particular eye for brutalist architecture. Then he began releasing books featuring photography by others. The first of these featured work by John Claridge, depicting everyday life in Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Plaistow, east London, in the 1960s. Other photographers such as Homer Sykes and David Levenson got in touch. “It just went from there,” he says. “It’s never been a hard push.”
Since then, Atkinson has tirelessly published a new title every week. With their distinct, uniform and simple covers – monochromatic in colour; titles written in an unassuming Sans Serif font – the books are instantly recognisable. “Function is the priority,” Atkinson says of the design.
A decade on, CRB has published more than 500 titles, documenting the Black Panthers, Notting Hill carnival, terrace culture, music scenes, political marches and an array of historical everyday scenarios from the streets of Hull, Bradford, Birmingham, Liverpool, London and more.
It is often the latter work, with its simple depiction of people, places and eras, that is the most transportive: the shadowy rain-lashed streets of Salford, kids larking in rubble-laden parks, or a chaotic bustling street that is unrecognisable today. Atkinson has achieved this by publishing the work of amateurs and professionals alike. “I welcome the photography crowd, but I’m interested in people who aren’t anything to do with photography,” he says. “Be it a former miner or somebody who worked in the jewellery quarter in Birmingham. I’m interested in general society.”
A self-funded one-man operation, CRB now takes up 60 hours of Atkinson’s week. He has even had to request reduced hours in his job as a fine art teacher to keep up. “Working on several books with photographers, while teaching, being reliant on printers, maintaining the website, marketing … it’s a lot of work,” he says. “Since I was a child I’ve liked the idea of being a shopkeeper and I’ve always loved making things. So with hindsight, things have fitted in well.”
They are sold for £6.50 each and stocked in libraries, galleries, museums, shops and the CRB website. “These books together create an archive,” Atkinson says. “With libraries, museums and education places taking them, it makes it all accessible, which is my ultimate aim. I want them to be affordable, democratic, useful and functional. I’m not into publishing decorative things or something so expensive that most people can’t afford them. Someone once said they’re often less than the price of a London pint, so I use that as a measure.”
“I’m a huge fan of the series,” says Janette Beckman, a photographer who started out shooting for British music mags such as Melody Maker before being lured to New York by the burgeoning hip-hop scene. She has had multiple books published by CRB, including works on punks, mods and hip-hop culture. “Photography has become a thing for museums and art galleries, it’s a little elitist,” she says. “I love things like Magnum photos [the prestigious archive and cooperative] and looking at iconic documentary photographers, but it turns out, thanks to Craig, that there were many unsung great photographers producing images that are Magnum-worthy.”
“The photographers are so supportive and generous,” Atkinson says. “Some books have then led to shows, further books and exhibitions.”
For Beckman, in the age of slick selfies and glossy filters, the series also represents a celebration of authenticity. “They’re not art-directed or styled,” she says. “There’s no hair or makeup. It’s just real, regular people.”
For Richard Davis, who has published seven photobooks with CRB, the series has been instrumental in highlighting his unearthed photos from the 1980s when he was a student in Manchester. “I owe everything to Café Royal Books,” he says. His photographs of the since-demolished brutalist housing estate Hulme Crescent are now housed in the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Research Institute and Library.
Davis lived in Hulme for free, as many did as squatters, and set up a dark room. It became his epicentre for creativity. “The first day I enrolled on my course, at Manchester Polytechnic, they advised us not to go to Hulme, due to safety concerns,” he says. “Thankfully, I paid no attention to that advice. Hulme was this incredibly creative environment which played outside the normal rules of society. We were all outsiders, but we were left alone and allowed space to thrive. It was exciting and motivating – it really pushed me to do more photography.” He embedded himself in the Manchester music and comedy scene, shooting bands and comics such as Steve Coogan and Caroline Aherne.
Books such as these, while containing their own backdrop of social and political turmoil, capture a time in sharp contrast to today, when a spiralling housing and cost of living crisis is killing the potential for aspiring young artists to operate and create in big cities. “It’s only later in life I realised how important that time was in the city,” says Davis. “Especially for creative people working in the arts.”
The books also impact the people who feature, with many getting in touch after publication. “It’s the best feeling in the world,” says Beckman. “One of the women from my punk book got in touch and now she and her daughters are making a documentary about being a teenage punk. She got together with her friends in the picture 40 years later to film them.”
They have also sparked future creative projects. In her mod book, Beckman photographed the Islington Twins, a couple of impeccably dressed brothers who used to hang around the streets of north London. “I got back in touch and photographed them 40 years later,” she says. “They’re homeless now, but very proud and still very dressed up. All of this comes from getting the work out there again. Every time I go to London, I take another photo of them. Maybe in 20 years, I’ll be doing a book with Craig about those pictures.”
The books have become go-to visual reference manuals for costume designers in film and TV, and Atkinson finds himself sending copies to film directors and authors. He receives three to five new submissions a day, and his weekly release schedule is filled until spring 2024. He recently had to whittle down a book from some 1,400 photos sent by a photographer. “But I loved it,” he says. “What better way is there to spend a day than looking at pictures? I wondered a few years ago whether the submissions would dry up and stop but you think about the amount of pictures that must have been taken by people … it’s endless.”