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The big picture: space-hopping into the future in 1970s Newcastle

By Tim Adams
Girl on Space Hopper, Byker, 1971 by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen.
Girl on Space Hopper, Byker, 1971. Photograph: © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, DACS/Artimage

Having come to London from Finland in the 1960s to study photography, Finnish-born Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen moved to the Byker district of Newcastle in 1968, with a plan to document the lives of the people who lived around her. She took this picture of a girl in her dressing-up box frock on her space hopper in 1971. “She bounced past my camera that day to disappear down the cobbled lane with her dreams,” Konttinen told the Tate gallery more than 40 years later, suggesting that the girl’s “maverick splendour personified the vibrant working-class community where I lived”.

Those cobbled streets of Byker were mostly being demolished by then, to make way for the futuristic high-rise Byker Wall housing estate, designed by Ralph Erskine, which became the inspiration for the TV soap Byker Grove. Konttinen made two books of photographs of the area, Byker and Byker Revisited, a “before” and “after” of that redevelopment that gave a profound visual language to an experience that was happening across cities in the UK. Another Newcastle project of hers, on dance classes, was one inspiration for the film Billy Elliot.

This picture of the girl on the space hopper is included in Another Country, a new book of British documentary photography since the war. For 40 years, Konttinen wondered about the identity of the girl in the picture. In 2011, a woman called Jackie Tait contacted her, having seen the photograph, to say the little girl was her. She told Konttinen that she sat transfixed looking at the picture on her screen for two hours, with childhood memories overwhelming her. The family had moved from Byker soon afterwards. “I want you to know I am happy,” Tait told the photographer. “My life has turned out well.” The pair eventually met five years later, 45 years after the six-year-old girl had bounced down the street, from one idea of England to another.

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Dive Deeper:
Through the lens, darkly
Photographer Spandita Malik’s Nari series, printed on fabric and accentuated with traditional embroidery, breaks away from the colonial lens
Black and white: striking images of South African townships
Anne Rearick is one of those photographers who likes to take the long view, literally. For the project "Township", the…
Teenage twins from Newcastle among top 10 finalists in song writing competition
The Stobart sisters write songs about the challenges faced by teens, in friendships, peer pressures, self-doubt and loneliness
Sarah Jenkins' passion for drone photography was kindled during COVID lockdown. Now she's an award winning creative
Sarah's limb-girdle muscular dystrophy means she can't hold up a normal camera. But taking up drone photography helped her discover…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
‘It makes our voice as a country louder’: A Ukraine photographer’s battle against Russian propaganda
Photographer Alina Smutko explains the challenges of documenting the invasion, fighting misinformation, and keeping the world’s eyes fixed on the…
Obituary: Letizia Battaglia, photographer who depicted the murderous excesses of the Sicilian Mafia
Letizia Battaglia, who has died aged 87, was a Sicilian photographer whose unflinching photographs depicting the appalling crimes of the…
Get all your news in one place