At this point, Plemper picked up a camera – an instrument to make his lessons more interesting, taking pictures of books to show to his pupils and, at the same time, a way to boost their and his own confidence. Gradually, he started to compile a visual diary of his daily, personal experience as a working-class teacher, accumulating hundreds of portraits of schoolchildren in the classroom and in the school yard, capturing their pensive, inquisitive, insecure but also impudent and cheerful gazes so naturally that they seem to come to life through the black and white shots, many of them taken in the two years he spent at Riverside School in London’s Thamesmead. Plemper worked two jobs for four years to finance his photographic project, which he hoped could document the face of Britain in the 20th century, but never got the Arts Council Grant he needed to complete it. “When my contract ended in the September of 1982 I took this as a sign that I should stop messing around and follow my mother’s advice, which was to get myself a proper job and find a nice girl – which I did.” Before locking pictures and negatives away, he managed to exhibit them only once, in 1979, with the title Lost at School
, which was unfortunately interpreted a bit too literally by many. Libraries and council offices refused to advertise it, assuming that the title was referencing to the kids and unconcerned by the fact that Plemper was, in fact, talking about his disillusionment as a school teacher. This reaction and the Arts Council indifference only deepened his impression of being an outsider among his contemporaries working on social and documentary photography.
“Oh well. It has only taken thirty seven years for someone to tell me that they “get it!” I knew it was a brilliant idea.” Plemper is talking about his first exhibition’s title, but the claim sounds equally true for his pictures, which have started to resurface only in 2007, along with his renewed interest in photography. Thanks to Flickr
and the power of online sharing, since then they have been re-blogged and liked multiple times on different social media platforms, catching the attention of many publications. Now that their striking powerfulness has been finally acknowledged, as well as their importance as an undiluted and unique documentation of recent British history, what is Plemper focusing on? And how does he judge his past photographic work?