For three decades, George Plemper's photographic record of south London working-class life gathered dust in carrier bags, only disturbed each time he moved home. He hoped that one day the images might be recognised as a significant social record of a community and a landscape. At the time, in the late 1970s, this was not a fashionable photographic subject, so Plemper's hopes seemed as unlikely to be fulfilled as his mother's fantasy that he might become chairman of ICI. It would be nearly 30 years later, with the emergence of a new media platform that gives us the potential to be producers, broadcasters and exhibitors, that Plemper finally unpacked his bags. The turning point came with the launch of Flickr, the webpage that does for photographs what YouTube does for home videos and Facebook for friendship.
An online gallery is at once an unlikely environment for Plemper's photographs and the ideal introduction to them. His largely teenage subjects stare at us from a black-and-white past that now seems as crude and simplistic as the future appeared to us back then. The key photographs in the collection are those taken in south-east London at the point in the 1970s when the decade was anticipating the arrival of the 1980s. It is a world inhabited by characters whose lives would be either straightforward, characterised by unemployment, or elevated to heights that their parents only dreamed of. Like the man behind the lens, they would never make it to the chair at ICI, but they would have mortgages, cars, holidays abroad and possibly even their own businesses.
"I did actually get to work at ICI, as a laboratory assistant, back home in Sunderland, but then I decided to move down south and become a teacher," Plemper recalls. "It was a great disappointment to my parents. But it was the 1970s, and I think Harold Wilson had been talking about recruiting teachers to 'educate for democracy'. I felt I could do something that might help to bring about change."
We are seated in Diana's Cafe, within the south-east London housing estate where he found his muse - and discovered his talent as a photographer. Plemper, 58, now a husband and father, lives in Lincoln these days. He is surprised and delighted that, thanks to Flickr, where he goes under the absurd rapper-like name of Mak'm, the images he ignored for all those years are getting an audience. And some of his original subjects, who are themselves heading towards 50, have tracked him down.
It was in the punk summer of 1976, one of the hottest of the century in the UK, that he moved to Thamesmead to take up a teaching post at a secondary school. "I was a chemistry teacher, but not a very good one," he says. "My handwriting was so bad that the pupils couldn't understand it, so I began showing them images and photographs, which they seemed to enjoy".
He was soon taking photographs himself, and recalls that one particular image got him thinking that he was on to something. He says: "His name is Sam Uba. He was a Biafran refugee and therefore a relatively new arrival, stuck on this remote housing complex. There was something about the photograph of this schoolboy from a war-torn country - something shone through."
Plemper himself felt a bit like a refugee, having decamped to an expansive housing estate isolated by a lack of transport facilities or evidence of an actual town centre. A self-portrait from the time, with his wallpapered living room wall as a backdrop, underlines that initial alienation.
At weekends, he wandered through the estate's thoroughfares expanding his archive, later developing the images in a cupboard he'd converted into a darkroom at his flat. Fellow teachers suggested there was a humanity within his photographs that perhaps gave his young subjects a grace and a status. The backdrop to their lives was perceived - certainly by the authorities - to be urban, poor and deprived. Plemper's images spotlight the individuals behind the surveys and statistics.
The boys in his early photographs appear to be clad in the fashions of an earlier 1970s, one related to northern soul, Wigan Casino and elevated shoes. For many, these were the final days of their education; soon they would discover - if they hadn't already - unsafe sex, concept albums and cider.
The girls are more mature, more assured, and surprisingly confident, despite the proximity of the lens. This was, after all, a time when the camera only captured such lives in family snapshots on summer holidays, at Christmas, or in photo kiosks on damp Saturday afternoons. It's a world away from the modern experience of state surveillance, or where every aspect of our lives, from cradle to grave, is a potential digital image - from the pratfalls of the public transmitted on primetime telly to the mobile phones catching mooning mates or the victims of "happy slappers".
Plemper's photographs are dispatches from a past in which Gary Glitter was in the charts instead of in jail; when a single man photographing young girls didn't require a Criminal Records Bureau check, or alarm parents, or lead to a lynch mob warming up in the wings.
"I began to see that I connected with the teenagers through the lens in a way that I didn't as a teacher in a classroom," Plemper says. "I actually sold one of the photographs to the Victoria and Albert Museum for £11, which gave me confidence in what I was trying to do." The image is that of a pupil named Sally Anne. Viewing it more than 30 years on - the Disney eyes, pronounced freckles, Twiggy lips - she could be this year's model or an advert for the NSPCC.
On his photoshoots, Plemper began to place the locals in the wider setting - a wasteland that appears to be awaiting redevelopment rather than one in the wake of regeneration, with diminutive figures flanked by empty pedestrian bridges and desolate tunnels. At this juncture, he had begun to study the work of foreign photographers such as August Sander and Eugène Atget, who ignored the bustling city life of Paris and embraced empty neighbourhoods free of traffic and crowds.
Plemper's photographs from 1976-1982 belong in the tradition of the Humphrey Spender documentaries inspired by Mass-Observation, and the East End imagery of Nigel Henderson. In some ways, Plemper's introduction to photography echoes that of Henderson, who, on moving to Bethnal Green in east London in the early postwar years, abandoned the photograms and collages that identified him as an artist, to photograph the ordinary moments on East End streets in an age of austerity.
Plemper's photographs rarely captured the larger events that become the focus of a community, such as weddings and funerals. But the process by which he became less of an interloper and more at home in this environment is reflected in his photographs, particularly the street parties for the Queen's silver jubilee in 1977.
Now that his work has been retrieved from those musty carrier bags and exhibited in cyberspace, it deserves the status of other photographers identified with documenting working-class lives in the 1970s; those, like Daniel Meadows, featured in the Hayward gallery's current touring exhibition, No Such Thing As Society. In the meantime, Plemper's work can be seen at the former school (now the Bexley Business Academy) where he taught and was inspired to pick up a camera.
A number of his subjects have been in touch and left their comments and reflections on his Mak'm webpage. Doubtless, more will show up to be reminded of their formative years in that other country. Plemper says that some have stayed local; others have moved out as part of the working-class diaspora to Kent or even abroad. One of his subjects, Eugene Soulieman, is a notable stylist for Vogue and its cast of supermodels.
Within a few years, Plemper - now working as a health and safety manager - had given up teaching and, temporarily, given up on photography. "My father died in 1982, at home and alone," he says. "The first I knew was when the police came to my flat to tell me." Returning to his original home to clear it of his father's possessions, days before the funeral, he photographed himself looking into the dressing table mirror in the room where his dad had died. "I couldn't say that I felt sad. I just had this overwhelming feeling of failure. The son in the picture was supposed to stop this happening and make things OK." It would be a long time before he picked up his camera and took another photograph.