Monday, 12 July 2010

Mike Skipper

Our teachers and mentors hold a bizarre place in our lives that transcends reality and occupies the same sort of mental space as those inescapable recurring dreams that can take decades or a lifetime to shake off. I still find myself having repetitive, one-sided conversations with men or women I haven't met for 30, 40, 50 years, and of which they themselves have been utterly oblivious. Not least because most of them are now dead. Typical! What is more frustrating than a teacher who goes and dies before one has had a chance to set them straight? Or, more rarely but even more frustrating, one who dies before you have had a chance to thank them? Do teachers know about this endless esprit de l'escalier? I think they probably do, as they themselves were taught in their turn.

I have mentioned the name Mike Skipper a couple of times in this blog, in the posts "I'd Like To Thank..." and "Tears in the Stop Bath". For reasons I can't recall, I googled his name today, and discovered to my astonishment that he was dead. In fact, had I but known it, there was a memorial for Mike at Oxford Brookes University just a few weeks ago, the week before my friend John Wilson's memorial in Oxford.

Insofar as I have ever had one, Mike was my photography teacher. When I first moved from Bristol to a new job in Southampton in 1984, I decided to take a photography course run at the recently-opened Southampton branch of the Oxford Darkroom, which would teach the basics of developing film and making prints in a hands-on manner, and would culminate in an exhibition of participants' work.

We were a very mixed bunch that included a policeman, a teacher, a builder, and the various species of misfits that are familiar from any evening class environment. Mike would come down from Oxford to take our weekly classes, and he seemed very exotic to us, as he had only recently arrived from the USA. He was a small, dapper man, with cropped hair and a moustache and the sort of distinctive dress sense that led us stolid Brits to assume he was gay, which as far as I know he wasn't. He always wore highly-polished black leather lace-up shoes.

Mike Skipper's shoe

He was a very good, patient teacher. Our sessions in the darkroom were a revelation to me. He kept his own El-Nikkor enlarging lens in a pocket of his voluminous herringbone tweed overcoat, and would polish negatives vigorously between finger and thumb with a cloth before sliding the carrier into the enlarger, which made us gasp. I remember him showing us how to use our hands to paint with light to darken edges, and how to cup the light away from areas that would otherwise print too dark. Standard stuff, of course, but then so is learning to read.

I remember that year with great fondness. I set up my first darkroom in trays on the floor of an easily-darkened corridor of my flat between my bedroom and the living room, and hung my developed strips of film over the bath. Many nights I would print until the small hours. Going for a pee in the night could be hazardous, though, if I had been too tired to empty and wash the trays that evening. Looking at an old box of prints now, I find it hard to believe quite how bad they really are. Learning how to improve is a wonderful thing.

Mike and I got on well during the course -- our backgrounds and aspirations were not dissimilar, and I like to think it must have been clear that this was not a temporary enthusiasm on my part. At the exhibition that was the culmination of the course Mike took me aside and said some very kind things that convinced me I had started on a lifetime journey. After it was over, however, Mike went the way of all teachers (or perhaps I went the way of all students) and I never saw him again.

I knew he had started working as a technician at Oxford Brookes, and it appears he eventually made it onto the teaching staff. I get the feeling his career as a photographer never quite took off -- but then, whose does? -- but I do like the idea of Mike as a technician turning on successive generations of students to the skills and mysteries of the darkroom, and making them gasp as he burnished their precious negatives with a cloth from his pocket.

Mike Skipper 1984

But you were wrong, Mike, just WRONG about colour! I wonder if you ever changed your mind? I certainly did, and I would have liked the chance to talk to you about it. Oh, well.


Graham said...


I first came across your wonderful blog about a year ago when I was googling Mike Skipper. I have to break cover now and respond to your post reporting the sad loss of Mike Skipper.

Mike Skipper ran two ‘Exhibition Courses’ at the Photographers Workshop in Southampton. I believe that you were on the first course and that I was on the second. Your description of your year under Mike’s tutelage applies equally well to mine. I had been playing at photography for about seven years when I enrolled on the course. From the first lesson on it was a revelation, as if Mike had given me new eyes to see the work of others, and how to fairly critique my own humble efforts. He was so good at criticism; always very clear, direct and unemotional.

At the end of the course, all the students put on a show in the gallery space at the workshop, an experience that we enjoyed so much that we continued to meet, calling ourselves the Image Workshop, and exhibiting around twice a year, for about five years after. Mike really did seem to inspire those who were fortunate enough to meet him – your pictures really do evoke strong memories.

One point though – there is no doubt in my mind that Mike was gay. I remember him sharing some personal prints with us that left us in no doubt and shocked some of the respectable ladies in our class!

I too wish that I could have caught up with him again. I did try to, inviting him and Keith Barnes (who owned the PW) to an exhibition of mine a few years back. But they didn’t turn up, and now the chance is lost. Even after almost a quarter of a century, I guess I would still like to get his approval or otherwise for my photos taken since.

Graham Dew

Mike C. said...

Thanks for commenting, Graham -- sounds like the Skipper Effect was pretty reliable. I hope he's missed at Oxford Brookes, and got a well-attended memorial. Thanks for reminding me of Keith's name, too -- I was trying to remember that yesterday.

As to Mike being gay -- well, maybe, maybe not -- I think Brits do tend to misread lots of cues about sexuality. Though I wouldn't be surprised if he felt a group needed a little creative shaking up...

Like a lot of Americans who've been through the "critique" furnace, he could be pretty impatient with complacency. Though compared to the roasting I once saw Thomas Joshua Cooper give a guy with camera club "Winner" stickers all over the back of his mounts he was gentleness incarnate...


Paolo P said...

I met Mike Skipper in Oxford on a photography composition and studio photography course. It was good fun! I still remember most of the pictures he used and today something happened...
I was wondering in Oxford and I found one of his pictures in Oxfam!
A beautiful black and white print on fiber coated paper...signed and dated Brighton 1980.

It represent the Athina B, a ship that ended up beached in Brighton on 21 January 1980.

to Mike C. - I can send you a picture of it and you can upload it if you want. thank you

Mike C. said...

Hi Paulo,

Thanks for posting -- I also remember that picture. What a great memento to find!

No need to copy it for me, as somewhere I have one of Mike's postcards of it, but thanks for the offer.

Mike left a legacy which he was probably unaware of, but it's one that anyone could have been proud of.



The Miserable Swine said...

I did a photography course with Mike in Oxford back in 1994-95. He was abrupt and to-the-point about a lot of things, and in my circuitous, faffy and indirect way of approaching things, I know that annoyed the hell out of him!

As a work colleague I loved the way he deployed cutting comments to deal with people running the department who tried to mess him around; in the end the department management tended to leave him alone. I learned a lot from him. A real character in every sense.

Small guy, big talent. RIP Mike.

Mike C. said...

The Miserable Swine,

Thanks for adding to this little cache of memories of Mike. Sounds like he had become slightly embittered by 1994 -- lack of worldly success will do that to a man...


pj said...

Hi Mike, I've just found your blog after also googling to find out about Mike Skipper, and I'm so glad I found this. I didn't know until today that he had died, I don't know how as I think of him often. He taught me photography and video/editing in 1998 - 2001 at Oxford Brookes University. He was such an excellent teacher, I spent a huge amount of time in his photography department and in the dark rooms there and when I asked him if I was hanging around too much and asking too many questions he said that the best kind of student was the kind that bled their teacher dry...! I loved him. When I first started learning photography I remember nipping outside for a quick cigarette break (I quit a long time ago) and he actually came out and found me and told me to 'get the hell inside and do some work'.. I've never forgotten this, he really made me into a very good student and I think he really cared about our futures not just as students on his course but as people turning into adults too. I was on his course when he first became ill, and some months into his illness (in 2000) he still came into the university to keep in touch with us even though he was very unwell. I saw him again in around 2006 when I went back to Brookes for a visit and was so happy that he remembered me. What a brilliant character, I'm so glad to read here other peoples' accounts of working with him and the effect he had on their lives too.

795andcounting said...

I too have just googled Mike Skipper on a whim. I remember him very fondly from what was Oxford Poly - he was my photography tutor. Very, very sad to find out he died.

Katy Acquaye-Tonge said...

I too, finally got round to writing about Mike in my blog. I loved how you described him here, so apt! I'd love to get copies of these photos you took of him. If you would be happy to let me have the them, i'll send you my e-mail address. A bit cheeky but if you don't ask … many thanks for these wonderful words and wonderful memories.

Mike C. said...


Of course -- send your email to me at:

mic "at"

and I'll mail you copies. I'm assuming you'd rather have moderate size JPG files than actual prints (which would -- obviously -- require an actual address).