March 8th, 2010 admin

The other week, in the space of a couple of days, I somewhat bizarrely happened across the siblings of two British photographers in two separate circumstances – the first during a lecture I was giving at the Cleveland College of Art & Design and the second during a visit to Martin Parr’s studio in London. Interestingly both the photographers in question were born in the north east of England within a year of each other and have spent most of their photographic careers documenting the community where they grew up and lived. They have both produced historically significant bodies of work and have, to varying degrees, shunned the spot light over the years.

The photographers in questions are Ian Macdonald (b.1946, UK) and Graham Smith (born 1947, UK).

After labouring in a string of jobs in heavy industry, Ian Macdonald went on to forge a career in photography and has spent the last forty years photographing the hinterland of his native Cleveland. He has gained acclaim for his powerful studies of the industrial and post-industrial world he was born into, with its smoking chimneys, its dockyards and salt-of-the-earth people. His work examines the relationship between man and his environment, and has often focused upon the heavy industry based around the River Tees, particularly in the 1970s and 80s. His rich and extensive work includes ‘Greatham Creek’, ‘The Tees Estuary’ and, exploring the villages of the Esk Valley, ‘Quoits’ (photographs from which can be seen on the Side Gallery website here). In 1987, with the painter Len Tabner, he produced the book ‘Smith’s Dock – Shipbuilders’, exploring the later days of the construction of North Islands, the last ship to be built by this shipyard on the River Tees.

Greatham Creek © Ian Macdonald

Ken Robinson © Ian Macdonald

I thought I’d let Macdonald talk about his work in his own words, with extracts taken from a speech he delivered at the Press Conference for the launch of ‘Art of Photography’ exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1989 (which is as poignant now, as it was then):

“Many of the images which photography spawns and which are common to us all are either to report an event or to sell a product. All the material we see is mechanically reproduced. We are fed it in dollops between dramatic headlines, advertisements, sport, fashion and a whole host of other things. This imagery varies in size from postage stamp to giant billboards, each designed for a particular purpose essentially to capture and hold our attention for some ulterior motive which in so many cases has little to do with the actual image. This bombardment gives the art of photography an indifferent name, the images are cropped, manipulated and mutilated which discredits the photograph. Such material, being so unavoidable, can only precondition the ways in which people look at and consider photographs.

Within sight and sound of the largest blast furnace in Europe © Ian Macdonald

Young John Allison © Ian Macdonald

“Two of the most obvious things about photographs intrigue me, their stillness and silence; these are for me also their major strengths. Photographs, being silent and still, preclude reality other than in that most superficial sense of the representation of an apparent likeness. In precluding reality they fall into the realm of myth, where everyone is free to invent by association as they see fit, for the meaning of each photograph is conditioned by those personal experiences the onlooker takes to viewing each image. This makes many types of photograph universally accessible. It follows that it is close to impossible even to contemplate the irrelevant notion, which is, are photographs Art? As Paul Strand so succinctly stated “All painting is not art”.

Largest blast furnace in Europe at Redcar, Teesmouth © Ian Macdonald

“It is the viewing of real photographs, which is singularly important. The actual photographic print, from the negative, as the artist made it is very particular. Each original print though made from one negative is, in fact, unique. The size, tone and surface of the print and not least the image, which is what it is all about, are all specific to the artist. To be of any real value it is better for the artist to have made the print. Considering photographs need to be given both time and space, and like any other “good” piece of artwork the “good” photograph will grow with viewing. It will develop, freeing the mind, as looking and reflecting will inevitably raise other notions, associations and feelings and so a process of enrichment goes on.” Read Macdonald’s full statement here.

Young lad, houseboat side © Ian Macdonald

Macdonald has produced several books, most notably Eton (2007) – Between 2006-2007 he lived as part of the famous Eton College community as artist-in-residence, teaching and making a photographic response to that environment. He has also collaborated with painter Len Tabner on the publications Smith’s Dock Shipbuilders (1987) and Images of the Tees (1989).  Macdonald has exhibited widely and his work features in many collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Arts Council of England; and the Danish Royal Library, Copenhagen.

Eton by Ian Macdonald

You can find out more about Macdonald’s work and purchase copies of his books here. Also, Macdonald’s son, Jamie, has made a film which looks at his father’s unique practices (he still process and prints his own work at home in the darkroom) and individual philosophy. As well as showing photographs from his archive, it captures the artist making new work. Martin Parr is quoted on the jacket sleeve saying “This charming film gives an insight into this process and working methods. We learn how he shoots and prints these spectacular images, using analogue technology and patience, which is so rare in our digital age.” You can purchase a copy of ‘Shooting Time’ by sending an email to

A few days after meeting Jamie Macdonald in Darlington, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Graham Smith’s daughter in London. Like Macdonald, Smith photographed extensively in the north east of England and particularly in the city of Middlesbrough.

The Black Path, Middlesbrough © Graham Smith, 1986

Smith was born into a family whose work, class and culture, on his father’s side, was rooted deeply in the heavy industry of iron making for at least four generations. His beginnings in photography came at Middlesbrough College of Art and later the Royal College of Art. From the start his subject was close to home and Smith spent more than a decade making photographs of his friends and relatives and the pubs they frequented around the South Bank area of Middlesbrough.

I Thought I Saw Liz Taylor and Bot Mitchum in the Back Room of the Commercial, Middlesbrough © Graham Smith, 1984

Dancing Girls, Middlesbrough © Graham Smith, 1985

In the 1970s Smith was among the photographers central to the Side Gallery in Newcastle, and created a series of photographs that showed working-class people in the north of England that were in a documentary style but were in fact montages. Work from the 1980s would show people within townscapes, and in the words of David Alan Mellor, were “atmospheric, steeped in popular (and personal) memory — dark, romantic places with all the melancholy attributed to Eugène Atget’s familiar locations”. Another Country, a joint exhibition with Chris Killip held in London at the Serpentine Gallery in 1985, was generally well reviewed but to some appeared passé in the light of the new “postmodern” work of Martin Parr and others (Killip’s work from the project became the foundation of his book, In Flagrante).

Thirty – Eight Bastard Years on the Furnace Front Mess Room for No. 4 and No. 5 Furnaces, Middlesbrough © Graham Smith, 1983

No Tickets Taken, Middlesbrough © Graham Smith, 1982

The inevitability of working for life in the iron and steelworks troubled him and disillusioned with photography, Smith stopped making photographs in 1990, when he became a professional frame maker. Although he has continued a life-long investigation of his working class roots through his research and writing. Recently his work could be seen in Granta 95: Loved Ones, published in 2006, where he wrote an essay called ‘Albert Smith’, about his father’s life:

“My dad, George Albert Newton Smith, was born into a family whose culture, work and class were rooted deep in the heavy industry of ironmaking. In hope of a better life, his great grandfather left the ironstone mines at Rosedale during the middle of the nineteenth century to look for work in the fast growing industrial town of Middlesbrough. He was the first of four generations to work for the powerful ironmasters who, with their vision of an iron and steel metropolis, built so many blast furnaces along the River Tees that it was said one man could not count them all in one day. There was a job for any man who had the strength to work and the will to give loyalty for life to the company. As a young boy older than his years my dad knew that when his days at school ended, by tradition he would follow his own dad into the Cargo Fleet Iron Company. Working together under the structure of three formidable blast furnaces, they repaired the large steam cranes used for moving ironstone and slag. His older brother Bill worked as a front man at the foot of one of those blast furnaces, but some years later was crushed to death when the ageing furnace, under too much pressure, exploded.” Graham Smith, 2006

Outside the Commercial, Middlesbrough © Graham Smith, 1982

Despite Smith’s work being held by several major collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, it has been almost impossible over the past twenty years to see his photographs. More recently he seems to have been coming (ever so slightly) out of the shadows with his prints now represented by Eric Franck Fine Art in London – there were some fabulous prints on show at last year’s Paris Photo – and Rose Gallery in LA.

A quote on Eric Frank’s website maybe best sums up Smith and his work – “People, pubs, stories, photographs, writing and ego have all been important to him and Smith’s photographs can be seen as an obsession to understand values, good and bad, of the culture he left behind.”

You can find out a bit more about Smith on wikipedia here.

Both Macdonald and Smith are from a generation of photographers who were driven to document the experiences of the places where they grew up and lived, charting the injustices of society but also the stoicism and richness of the characters they photographed. Neither were interested in awards and accolades, rather they wanted to tell the stories of those around them.


March 1st, 2010 admin

Last June I flagged up a photography project being launched by Stuart Pilkington called What is England?

Since that time, Pilkington has gathered together 50 photographers each of whom will be representing one of the 50 counties in England. Their brief is to represent their own style of photography as well as their nominated county. Some live in the county they represent and some are discovering or rediscovering it for the first time. Photographers taking part include Zed Nelson (Greater London), Chris Floyd (Surrey) and Emily Mott (West Sussex).

Today we’ll be able to see the first results of the project, with the photographers presenting their visual response to theme ‘Person’. Check out the website here.

On 1st May the responses to ‘Group’ will be published, 1st July ‘Work’, 1st September ‘Play’, 1st November ‘Urban’ and lastly 1st January 2011 the word ‘Rural’.


March 1st, 2010 admin

Destroying the Laboratory for the Sake of the Experiment is a speculative mix of photographs by Magnum photographer Mark Power along with poems by Daniel Cockrill (mentioned on the blog previously here). The pair were at Host Gallery last week to give a performance of the work.

As Max Houghton reports on the Foto 8 website:

You can view/listen to a podcast here.

An exhibition of the work with more live performances by the pair can be seen at the Atlas Gallery, London in June 2010.

Cockrill is part of a poetry collective called ‘Bang Said The Gun’. You can find out more on their website here and Facebook page here.


February 8th, 2010 admin

During my commission for the Bradford photograph, I took a few shots at some Sunday league football matches. An experience which reminded me of Hans van der Meer and his fantastic body of work European Fields: The Landscape of Lower League Football.

European Fields by Hans van der Meer (Steidl, April 2006)

Several shots in his book were taken in Bradford, including these-

© Hans van der Meer

© Hans van der Meer

© Hans van der Meer

Here’s the publisher’s blurb – At the beginning of the 1995 football season, Hans van der Meer set out to take a series of football photographs that avoided the cliched traditions of modern sports photography. In an attempt to record the game in its original form – a field, two goals and 22 players – he sought matches at the bottom end of the amateur leagues, the opposite end of the scale to the Champions’ League. And he avoided the enclosed environment of the stadium and tight telescopic details and hyperbole of action photography. Preferring neutral lighting, framing and camera angles, he chose instead to pull back from the central subject of the pitch, locating the playing field and its unfolding action within a specific landscape and context.Van der Meer has applied his democratic viewpoint across the playing fields of Europe over the past decade, having travelled to every country with a significant history of the game.taken him from small towns in the remote regions of Europe – from Bihariain in Romania to Bjorko in Sweden, from Torp in Norway to Alcsoors in Hungary, from Bartkowo in Poland to Beire in Portugal – and to the fringes of the major conurbations including Greece, Finland, UK, France, Germany,  Switzerland, Holland, Slovakia, Denmark, Belgium, Spain and Italy.

By the way, my Bradford commission photograph will be unveiled at the opening of the National Media Museum We English exhibition on 11th March 2010. (nb. it’s not of Sunday league football!).


February 8th, 2010 admin

As part of one of my upcoming exhibition of We English photographs at the National Media Museum (12th March – 8th September), and as discussed previously on the blog, we will be including photographs from the Museum’s own collection, introducing the English at leisure from a historical perspective.

Since September last year I’ve been working closely with Ruth Kitchin, Collections Assistant, on the selection and curation of works for the exhibition. Also involved was Stephen Daniels (Professor of Cultural Geography at Nottingham Trent University and author of the essay ‘The English Outdoors’ from We English) who was invited to the Museum to discuss the development of the selection. Here is a short film, shot in the Museum archives on 24th November last year, when we all came together to discuss some of the considerations for the selection.

Since 2005 Stephen Daniels has been Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s programme in Landscape and Environment. He has published widely on the history and theory of landscape imagery and design. His books include The Iconography of Landscape (Cambridge University Press, 1988) co-edited with Denis Cosgrove, Paul Sandy: Picturing Britain (Royal Academy of Arts, London July 2009) and the influential book Fields of Vision (Polity Press, Jan 1994).

Writing in the latter, Daniels describes landscape imagery “as not merely a reflection of, or distraction from, more pressing social, economic, or political issues; it is often a powerful mode of knowledge and social engagement. As exemplars of moral order and aesthetic harmony, particular landscapes achieve the status of national icons, and imperialists, almost by definition, have annexed the homelands of others in their identity myths, projecting on ‘foreigners’ pictorial codes that express both an affinity with the colonizing country and an estrangement from it.” In the book Daniels shows how various artists–including painters, landscape designers, and architects–have articulated national identities in England and the United States from the later eighteenth century to the present day.

You can download Daniel’s essay ‘The English Outdoors’ from We English, here.


January 12th, 2010 admin

If you’re in Nottingham this week, why not check out this show by photographer Chris Etchells at the Surface Gallery.

The demise of the Great British pub exhibition invite


December 15th, 2009 admin

I’ve just noticed that The Caravan Gallery have launched a second volume of their incredibly successful book ‘Is Britain Great?’. Since it’s first outing in 2000, the project has grown into a cottage industry selling everything from postcards, visitor guides and journals to greeting cards, wrapping paper and prints.

Picture 1

From their website- “The Caravan Gallery is a mobile exhibition venue and visual arts project run by artists Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale who are on a mission to record the ordinary and extraordinary details of life in 21st century Britain. Eager to examine clichés and cultural trends, they are particularly drawn to absurd anomalies and curious juxtapositions, typical of places in transition and in the process of reinventing themselves as regeneration fever sweeps the land.

Simultaneously seduced by and suspicious of the rose-tinted tones of tourist information brochures, and frustrated by their yawning omissions, Williams and Teasdale set out in the year 2000 to redress the balance, sidestepping the brown signs and interpretation boards to see what lies beyond. Their findings constitute a substantial and ever-growing archive, a highly subjective survey-cum-tour guide to the ‘real’ Britain in the new millennium.

The Caravan Gallery, a diminutive mustard model (circa 1969), with white walls and beech floor on the inside (like a ‘real’ gallery), provides the perfect setting for an evolving exhibition of  photographs made in response to places visited; at any one venue, location-specific work arising from a previous research visit is exhibited alongside other material from the Caravan Gallery archive.”

caravan gallery2

“Audience diversity and social inclusion are fundamental to our project. The Caravan Gallery project is accessible to all and operates in a range of public and highly visible locations. Although access to the caravan itself may be difficult (although not impossible) for people with certain physical disabilities, we will ensure that provision is made for full participation in the area set up around the caravan. This could include taking part in surveys, looking at exhibits and shows in an adjoining marquee etc. People unable to enter the caravan can view a certain amount from the outside and are able to look at a portfolio containing images displayed inside the caravan.”

Here are a sample of the photographs, taken from their online gallery-



November 30th, 2009 admin

As Peter Hamilton identified in his recent article in the BJP, some of the most acute observations of Englishness have been made by foreign photographers. Hamilton writes- “An outsider can stand back from the society and look at it dispassionately, finding equally odd and worthy of note the things the locals take for granted. This was probably why the German-born Brandt found the juxtapositions of his The English at Home so much grist to his mill.”

Alongside the photography of Brandt, Hamilton cites another body of work – Charmes de Londres (1952) – a collaboration between Izis-Bidermanas and Jacques Prevert, which uses place in the sense of the great metropolis as a signifier of Englishness. Though intended for a French market, it was also published in English as Gala Day London in 1953, with an additional text by John Betjeman, a quintessential expert on Englishness. As Hamilton explains “Izis deals in many ways with cliches about the English. There are foggy streets, Tower Bridge glimpsed through a grimy warehouse window, Thames-side activity, Battersea power station, street markets and the East End. But it is also a view that humanises the streets and offers a visual perspective that was influential for the Picture Post generation.”

A more contemporary study made by a foreign photographer would be Byker Revisted by the Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen. She is perhaps best known for her book Byker (1983), a seminal portrait of the terraced Newcastle community, eventually bulldozed to make way for the Byker Wall and the wholesale redevelopment of the area. She began her project in 1969, when she moved to the North East of England and lived in Byker for seven years, until her own house was demolished. Thereafter she continued to photograph and to collect testimonies from the residents for a further five years. Sirkka returned in 2003, negotiating an individual journey through the new Byker, building a portrait of the estate as it stands today. Here are some of the new photographs-

2846 David with daughters Kadie and Robyn and Ty-dog © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, 2008

2847 Colin © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, 2009

Some individuals had been photographed in the original project. In an official explanation of the work, we’re told that Sirkka “found a few of the remaining extended families of the traditional working class for whom the estate was designed. There are the self-defined individuals who seem to flourish in a street plan outsiders find impossible to navigate. Perhaps because she had been a stranger in the original Byker, Sirkka found herself drawn to the refugees, housed in the hard-to-let properties at the bottom of the estate, where the limitations of its planned lifespan have become most visible.”

2850Asylum seeker family from the Middle East © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, 2007

2854Jean with daughter Gemma and her friend Kara © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, 2007

You can see more of the photographers here.

Born in Myllykoski, Finland, in 1948, Sirkka began taking photographs at the age of twelve, inspired by her aunt Oili, who was a skilful amateur photographer. She developed a keen interest in documentary photography and later decided to study film making in the UK, enrolling at the Regent Street Polytechnic film school in London. Whilst there, she met up with Murray Martin and a number of other fellow students, with whom she formed the Amber Collective. In 1969, the collective moved to Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England, with a commitment to documenting working class communities, in film and in photographs.

Here are some of her original Byker photographs (more of which you can see online here):

558 Kendal Street © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, 1969


Children playing house with discarded junk near Byker Bridge © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, 1971


William (Willie) Neilson, Lawrence Square © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, 1971


Young woman in Mason Street © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, 1971


Isaac in front of his ‘Raby Swap Shop’ © Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, 1974

Another foreign photographer whose work you can find on Amber Collective is that of Peter Bialobrzeski. Bialobrzeski spent a year documenting Britain between 1991-1992 for a project called ‘Give My Regards to Elizabeth’. The work was shown at Side Gallery in 1993, however, it was never published as a book.  You can see a selection of images on the Amber website here.

Over the years Amber has built up a significant photographic collection, much of which you can now view online. And it’s well worth a look (here).


November 23rd, 2009 admin

There’s a feature in this week’s British Journal of Photography (Issue: 18.11.2009) written by Peter Hamilton. Now the time returns again explores the new crop of photobooks, including We English, that document England/Britain. Hamilton’s article looks at the tradition of the national survey, discussing work from the likes of Bill Brandt and Ian Berry to Edwin Smith and James Ravilious.

Hamilton writes “Englishness has been a constantly recurring theme for documentary photography in recent years. In the last few weeks Chris Steele-Perkins has brought out England, My England, Simon Roberts has contributed We English and Sirkka Lisa- Kontinnen Byker Revisited. Each slots into a different niche of the national question about who ‘we English’ are, yet all intersect within the larger Venn diagram of photobooks about England or Britain.”

Picture 4

Now the time returns again by Peter Hamilton, BJP, 18.11.2009

Hamilton concludes “At the end of the day, the English famously have a sense of humour, something which touches so many of these pictures and books. Few English photographers are lauded as ‘great’ in the conventional histories of photography, that is to miss just what makes English photography so notable. By not taking itself too seriously, it has always managed to look at Englishness itself, and the rest of the world, with unjaundiced eyes.”

You can download a pdf of the article here.

And on the subject of the BJP, I’m going to be doing a book signing at their Vision 09 event this coming Friday in London. I’ll be doing the signing from 1.30pm on Chris Boot’s stand.


November 16th, 2009 admin

I’ve recently come across a few references to the work of the British photographer, Peter Mitchell (some of his work was included in ‘How We Are: Photographing Britain’ at Tate Britain in 2007) and I’m intrigued to find out more.

peter mitchell 01

Kingston Racing Motors, Leeds, 1974 / Hudsons Newsagents, Seacroft Green, Leeds, 1978 © Peter Mitchell

So far I’ve been able to garner this information-

In the 1970s, Peter worked as a truck driver for Sunco, and photographed the sights of Leeds on his journeys around the city. He had the first landmark colour photography exhibition in the UK at Impressions Gallery in York in 1979 (the gallery is now based in Bradford). Titled ‘A New Refutation of the Viking IV Space Mission’, the show depicted the factories and small shop owners of Leeds, all photographed in a very formal manner with the aid of a stepladder. The idea was that this is how Leeds might be seen by aliens departing from their spaceship when the Mission from Mars finally lands on the unsuspecting city!

peter mitchell 02

Small funfair in Roundhay Park, Leeds, 1982 / Home of the Underhill Brothers, Starbeck Lane, Stoke on Trent, 1982 © Peter Mitchell

In June 2007 Mitchell was included in a group show curated by Martin Parr at the Hasted Hunt gallery (now Hasted Hunt Kraeutler) in New York entitled COLOUR BEFORE COLOR. Parr selected a group of European photographers who were working with colour photography in the early 1970s either before or at the same time as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore in the US.

In an attempt to redress the balance, Parr’s exhibition attempted to demonstrate that an equally lively colour photography culture was evident in Europe both before and during the 70s. This work has been largely overlooked as it was not put together as a movement, nor was it promoted by high-profile institutions in the way that work by Eggleston, Shore and Joel Meyerowitz was.

In February 2008 Mitchell had an exhibition at the PSL Gallery in Leeds along with the work of Eric Jaquier called Strangely Familiar. Together they captured a bygone age in Leeds, with dance halls and coal yards, factories and mills.

You can read an interview with Mitchell and Jaquier in the Yorkshire Post here and see some of the photographs from the exhibition on the Guardian’s website here. There’s also an essay over on American Suburb X here written by Professor David Mellor.

Picture 1

Screengrab from Amercian Suburb X

Other than these links, there’s precious little about his photography on the web. If anyone knows of other references to Mitchell’s work, then please let me know.

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