“It was before mobile phones, before the internet. It was the initial form of mass communication, a way you could chat to your friends for free,” says David Titlow as we talk about CB Radio, the now-obscure 1970s and 80s technology.
“I remember lots of people in Suffolk got a CB radio and thought they were in the Dukes of Hazard,” he laughs. “It was the same all over the country. It was a fascinating phenomenon.”
It’s the subject of Titlow’s new photobook, which brings together portraits of Citizens Band (CB) Radio users with their ‘calling cards’, known amongst the community as ‘eyeball cards’. These cards were a form of personal promotion – pseudonyms and artistic illustrations were used as a means of identifying the CB user, expressing something of their personality as well as giving the recipient their details.
The eyeball cards were also the inspiration for the project, though it had a lengthy genesis – Titlow came across two photo albums packed with eyeball cards 20 years ago, at a jumble sale in his home town of Leiston, Suffolk. Interested in the CB community having grown up alongside many people who had participated in the trend, he thought it would be interesting to photograph some of those who had been involved, but didn’t act on the impulse until 2012.
“I found a lot of the people were quite old, quite a lot of people had died. It was quite difficult to get hold of them,” he says. “I started with my friend Simon; his parents were Sugarbeet and Fruit Cake. They let me photograph them. I found a few more people in my town but it was really difficult. Lots of people were in their 70s and 80s who weren’t keen on being photographed.”
Others were reticent because they were fearful of repercussions, because CB Radio was illegal when it first started. He found he might sit and talk with people for hours and learn a lot, but then not be able to convince them to be photographed. “Sometimes I met with an initial kind of ‘Wow, I love it, I remember this, it’s brilliant’ and as soon as I said can I come round and photograph you, meet you, have a chat? they all clammed up,” he says, a little disappointed.
“I photographed Grasshopper and Midgetman who were involved from the same family and his wife was there. She had an amazing card but she just said ‘No, you’re not taking my picture!’ It was so frustrating.”
Even so, Titlow has managed to create a record of this past community, a “half-and-half affair” with portraits shown next to some of the eyeball cards. These little squares show the creativity and ingenuity of the people who regularly used CB radios, with no two cards ever the same.
“The cards were at the mercy of what the cheap material of their local printer was. A lot of them we found were blank wedding invite templates, or mobile disco cards. some of them are printed on credit card type plastic or different stuff,” explains Titlow. “One guy was an undertaker and he actually made a card out of the brass templates you get on the coffins. Quite gruesome, but quite cool.”
The cards came to add another social dimension to the CB community, with people meeting up to exchange cards and ideas with fellow users. “There was a sense of community about it and it was a social activity. A lot of people I spoke to have said that they miss those days and think it was a lot of fun. I thought it was funny that you had this group of people who never would have had their own business cards, but they went to the effort and trouble of making these Eyeball cards, which are quite sophisticated,” says Titlow.
“Some of the names are quite crazy. It would be a great juxtaposition [to show the people next to their cards]. My friend’s dad was called Sugarbeet because he was a farmer, but then there were more outlandish names like Widow Maker. It would have been great to see what Widow Maker looked like in real life. The Praying Mantis one is quite funny. Some people had such bold names when they were ordinary people with ordinary lives. Can you imagine people handing out those cards with those names on it now?” he jokes.
CB Radio has now fallen into disuse, though truckers still sometimes get on the air waves, and there was a recent case of a pensioner contacting his family using CB radio in Bristol. Titlow hopes that his photobook will spur more people on to reminsice about their experiences with CB, and get involved in a new series of portraits that he hopes to show next year.
“When people see that we’re serious, they might be more interested. I hope to flush out a few more people with the release of the book. There’s a big photo festival in Suffolk called Photo East so we’re going to do an exhibition of the photos and the book there next year. That’s going to have more portraits in it. I’ve started tracking more people for that.”
Eyeball Cards: The Art of British CB Radio Culture photobook, co-edited by Will Hogan and David Titlow is published by Four Corners Books.