Acclaimed Bradford social documentary photographer Ian Beesley's new exhibition at Salts Mill

In August 2022 the renowned Bradford social documentary photographer Ian Beesley put together a major retrospective of his work, spanning more than forty years of his career, for an exhibition, Life, at Salts Mill.

It was a wonderful showcase of his powerful work, from the 1970s onwards, documenting life in the North of England. His mostly black and white photographs showed ordinary people at work and play and often explored a key theme of his practice – the decline of heavy industry in the North and the effect of that on communities and individuals.

Beesley turns 70 this month and Life was meant to be his last show before retirement. However, the response to it was, he says, “phenomenal”. That is a pretty accurate description – over ten weeks more than 38,000 people visited the show and the book that was published alongside it sold out within a month. “It was supposed to be my swan song,” he says. “But nearly two years later I am still getting messages and calls from people who saw the exhibition, telling me stories about family members who featured in some of the pictures and about their own experiences, and asking when I was going to do another exhibition. It seems to have really struck a chord and that is so gratifying – it found its audience.” It became clear that there was a huge appetite for his work, so he decided to return to Salts Mill with a new show, entitled appropriately Life Goes On, which opens next week.

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There will be around 200 pictures on display, selected from his archive of over 200,000 images, many of which are being exhibited for the first time. “I photographed hundreds of mills in the 1980s as they were starting to close and then there are some of my landscapes which I haven’t shown much,” he says. “It is mostly stuff that hasn’t been exhibited before, as well as some of the big favourites from last time.” One of those favourites is a picture of an elderly lady called Dolly holding a photograph of a baby. The picture was viewed by over a million people on social media. Dolly was incarcerated in Lancaster Moor Psychiatric Hospital for having an illegitimate child in her early teens. She never left the institution and died shortly after Beesley photographed her in 1996. “I knew putting her picture in the exhibition and telling her story would have an impact,” he says. ”But I never imagined the power of showing the world that picture.”

Dolly, The Moor Hospital. Picture: Ian BeesleyDolly, The Moor Hospital. Picture: Ian Beesley
Dolly, The Moor Hospital. Picture: Ian Beesley

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All Beesley’s photographs are full of humanity and extend a level of respect and empathy towards the people who feature in them. Some of that fellow feeling comes from having worked alongside them. After leaving school Beesley first worked in a mill, then at a foundry and eventually got a job at Bradford Council’s Esholt sewage works. He credits his colleagues there with encouraging him to follow his passion for photography. “It is a privilege to be able to tell these stories,” he says. “The whole reason I started back in the 1970s was a reaction to the way in which the industrial North was being photographed. People would come up from London for a couple of days and take pictures that didn’t reflect my experience of working in industry and living in an industrial town. I have always tried to make sure that the people in the photographs can take pride in them.”

He tells a lovely story about an encounter at the Life exhibition when a man came up to speak to him. “He said: ‘I used to work in one of the camera shops in Bradford and you bought black and white film from me; looking at these pictures makes me so proud that I had a little part in that.’ It was a wonderful thing to say – and I really liked the fact that he had a bit of ownership in the work.”

Beesley says that while he won’t be embarking on any big projects, he will continue to take photographs. “I have got a bit lazier, in the last few years I have been using my phone – you can get a picture, put it on social media and reach a wide audience, sometimes you get really interesting responses.” Last year he donated his entire archive to Bradford Museums and Galleries. It is held at the Industrial Museum in Eccleshill, about half a mile from where he was born. “I really wanted it to go into a public collection and be accessible to people,” he says. “It is time for someone different and younger to reinterpret the work – and that is quite exciting.”

Life Goes On is at Salts Mill, April 27-January 2025. The second edition of the book Life will be available to buy. Free admission.

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