The past recaptured

As Impressions Gallery celebrates its 40th birthday, Sarah Freeman finds out why it is restaging one of its landmark photographic exhibitions.

In May, 1972 Andrew Sproxton, who had just opened a gallery dedicated to photography above a shop in York, received a letter. It was from a student at Manchester Polytechnic.

“I don’t know how you are fixed up for exhibitions,” began the short handwritten note. “But I have been trying to find a suitable place to show some of my work... and would be very grateful if you could give me an opportunity to show you my folio.” It was signed Martin Parr.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Later that year, Parr, now one of documentary photography’s most recognisable names, and fellow student Daniel Meadows held their first exhibition at Impressions Gallery, which is now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

“In the 1970s photography was not taken seriously as an art form and there were few opportunities to exhibit,” says Anne McNeill, who took over as director when the gallery moved to Bradford in 2006. “Photographers were very much the poor cousin of painters and sculptors and it was galleries like Impressions which gave them an audience when no-one else would.”

As part of the anniversary celebrations, Impressions is winding back the clock not quite to 1972, but to the summer of 1984 when it first staged Roads to Wigan Pier.

That year the charts had been dominated by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, George Michael and Duran Duran, yuppies were enjoying the riches bought by a career in the city and that same ambition was reflected in fashion, with its extravagant shoulder pads and colour palette.

However, behind the gloss of expensive music videos, shot in increasingly exotic locations, for many ordinary people life had never been tougher.

That summer, tensions between the government and striking miners deepened and by the autumn as the dispute entered its sixth month, for many it marked a turning point in the fortunes of the working classes. In response, Impressions commissioned six photographers, all recently graduated from art college, to submit their response to George Orwell’s seminal book. First published in 1937, Road to Wigan Pier laid bare the bleak living conditions for many in the industrial north. Fifty years on, the six photographers were each awarded £250 and given film and photographic paper up to the value of £100, to see what, if anything, had changed.

Russell Boyce, who was living just off Hessle Road in Hull, produced a collection which showed how the decline of the fishing industry had impacted on the wider community. In the centre of his photographs of row upon row of housing earmarked for demolition was Tina, a single mum, whose own future looked just as uncertain.

Huw Davies focused on the industries along the Leeds-Liverpool canal which had once acted as an artery, linking the coal and cotton producers of the North. The atmosphere of decline was one that resonated throughout all the works, from Julian Germain’s images of deprivation in Wigan and Rochdale and Graham Hall’s striking miners to John Kemp’s snapshots of ordinary life in the north and Tim Smith’s photographs of Sheffield’s Park Hill flats. When the first residents moved into “streets in the sky” in 1961, the development was heralded as a revolution in housing. By the 1980s they were already an ugly symbol of misguided thinking.

“I like to think that Impressions Gallery helps people understand the world through photography,” says Anne. “In 1984, Britain was changing under Margaret Thatcher’s government and although it would be another three years before she uttered that famous statement, ‘There’s no such thing as society’, the seeds were already being sown.

“The exhibition shows us a way of life that was in terminal decline, a northern landscape and its people on the brink of irrevocable social and cultural change. People say that the ‘past is a foreign country’, but it is important to look back, because it gives us a sense of perspective and also shows us what we have lost.”

Following the Roads to Wigan Pier exhibition, Impressions will show the first retrospective by leading documentary photography Paul Reas and new work by the award-winning Yaakov Israel on the country that shares his name.

“If the last 40 years have proved anything it’s that photography is no longer a Cinderella art form,” says Ann. “Having said that I have begun to notice a subtle change in the levels of funding and understanding compared to other visual art organisations. The gallery’s strap line is ‘photography that gets people looking, thinking and talking’ and for me that sums up what we do.

“Moving the gallery to Bradford in 2006 was a brave move. We had outgrown the Georgian townhouse in York and because it was Grade II listed, it meant we were limited in the scale of the exhibitions we could put on, but starting again in Bradford was not easy. However, it was definitely the right decision. The city feels like it’s on the brink of something new, temporary art spaces are popping up and our photography festival last year attracted 47,500 visitors. My aim is that in 10 years time Bradford will be seen as Britain’s centre and cultural hub for photography.”

As for the photographers whose work appears in Roads to Wigan Pier some did end up making a career behind the camera, while others were led in a completely different direction,

Boyce, for example, is now employed by Reuters, in charge of a worldwide network of news photographers, but Hall, left documentary photography behind shortly after the exhibition and today he works for Virgin Atlantic recruiting pilots.

Martin Parr, is of course, still working and has donated one of his original prints to the gallery, which will be first prize in a limited edition raffle.

“While I was researching for the 40th anniversary I came across a document from 1973 by co-founder Val Williams in which she said, ‘the gallery was based on hope, a certain amount of good will and the conviction that photography must be recognised as an important part of art and everyday life’,” says Anne. “Prophetic words that still hold true.”

Roads to Wigan Pier, Impressions Gallery, Bradford, runs to January 5. The gallery will host a 40th Birthday Party on November 9 and for more details about the anniversary celebrations visit www.impressions-gallery.com or call 01274 737843.