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The Guardian
Interview by Andrew Pulver, 2011
The Independent
Photo slideshow, 2011
The Telegraph
Audio slideshow, 2011
Exhibition review, 2011
Interview by Lucia Davies, 2011
Michael Hess' book Bingo & Social Club explores the fascinating world hidden in many of our high streets and neighbourhoods. Michael's photography beautifully captures the mood and feel of the characters he has encountered throughout this project shedding light on an old past time. The Book Club in Shoreditch will be exhibiting his photos in March (3rd - 30th).

We caught up with Michael to chat about Bingo and Social Club…

Why bingo?
It's surprising how many people have asked me that question. I think people are so used to them being on every British high street that they don't even notice them anymore, but there's a fascinating world hidden inside those big windowless buildings. Maybe I noticed them more being from Germany where bingo culture doesn't exist. I just really wanted to know what they were like inside. I went to play a game in a bingo hall in Southampton in 2005 with a housemate - who's English but had never been inside a hall either - and it was like stepping back in time. I fell in love with the characters and the nostalgic feel and knew it was something I needed to capture on camera.

What do you think of the advertising attempts to make bingo 'a night out for girls'?
Well it's no secret that bingo halls are closing down all the time since their heyday in the 60s. I suppose they need to try and reinvent themselves to survive and hen parties and girls' nights out are just one of the ways of attracting younger people. I don't see why not. They're comfortable, safe places to be and can be a lot of fun. There are actually quite a few young people playing now, although they often play more for the money or the night out than the social interaction. I focused on the older generation for the book, as I found them the most interesting in terms of looks, character and the stories they could tell. Also they were much more comfortable in themselves and tended to be more relaxed about being photographed.

How much time did you spend in social clubs? What are the people like?
The clubs I photographed were 'bingo & social' clubs, which have a social role alongside bingo. They arrange party nights, karaoke, dance classes, even trips away for their customers and have a core group that come as much as every day to play and meet their friends. I only photographed one bingo session in a 'proper' social club, by the docks in Newcastle. We were invited there after the bingo games across the road had finished. It was a lot more raucous! In bingo halls you can't talk at all between games, but that didn't seem to apply there. They were fantastic people, they definitely know how to have a laugh.

Where did you take the pictures? There are bingo clubs everywhere but these have a particularly northern feel to them.
They were taken all over the UK, almost everywhere you can imagine. Nearly 70 altogether from Edinburgh to Blackpool, Rhyll to Plymouth - and many tiny places in between. However, you're right, the majority of photographs that ended up in the book were from Newcastle and Liverpool. Bingo culture is still very strong there and I went back to some of the halls there a few times, getting to know the players. The people in those towns haven't always had easy lives but they have a fantastic sense of humour.

There's an aspect of America in this too - which I like, it almost makes the images glamorous. Was that your aim?
Many people have said that, which makes me very happy. I'm a big fan of classic American movies and my first impression of bingo halls was that they were like frozen microcosms of America in the 50s. I wanted to give the idea that these pictures could have been taken anywhere, at any time. I think it was also about giving also the players the grace and dignity they deserve. It could have looked very different if I'd chosen to photograph in colour, and concentrated on younger players, but it was the timelessness that I wanted to get across.

However 'glam' the pictures are there is certainly an air of depression about them. Did you sense that when taking the pictures? Men sitting alone at a table where their wife may have once sat and so on.
I didn't intend it to be a sad story at all. The overall impression I wanted to leave was one human interaction - and maybe a sense of filmic drama - but yes I can see what you mean. A lot of that is simply that people are concentrating on the numbers. Of course there are people whose spouses have died, which is sad, but I think that can be one of the positive aspects of bingo halls, that they still have a place to go where they can talk to people and still be part of the community. They may sit alone during the games but they'll be sure to chat in between games. In fact some husbands and wives choose to sit separately because they like to arrange their table in a certain way.

What camera do you use? The pictures look aged - that may be the people and the way that they choose to dress, the way they look… but without looking at the NYE playlist it would be hard to pinpoint the time they were shot.
Again, that's the feeling I wanted to get across, so I'm very glad you picked that up! As with any photographic project, the final mood you get is a lot to do with the editing process. I included people I thought had a certain style. No Levis, Nikes or anything that would place them in a certain time, and ultimately age the photos very quickly. I used two film cameras, with black and white film to give it that grainy, nostalgic feel.

Did you play?
A couple of times but not much. I could never keep up with the speed they'd read the numbers out! Maxine, the writer, played a lot more than me, while I was taking pictures. However I'm now a member of bingo halls all over the country.

Did you win? What was it like going up to collect your winnings?
Maxine won once. £7. She didn't want to call out so she put up her hands to catch the attention of the guy who walks around between the tables. He thought it was hilarious - said it looked like her team had just scored at football. You can see the winning ticket and envelope with money in it in the book. As for going up to collect the winnings there's never any need to get out of your seat in bingo halls, the winnings come to you - whether it's cash, a box of Maltesers or a voucher to choose from shelves full of household appliances.

Would you go back?
Maybe in the future, who knows. I'd like to visit Jack again, the bingo manager in Newcastle who features throughout the book. I spent a lot of time photographing him and he became a good friend. And perhaps Paradise Island in Liverpool where I spent a few great nights and met some amazing characters. I'm not sure if the game itself is quite my thing…
Exhibition review by Oran Blackwood, 2011
Interview by Liz Foggit, 2011
Nude Magazine
Book review by Suzy Prince, 2011
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Interview, 2011