Jude Palmer is a photojournalist who has captured a year in the life of Leeds in a series of striking images that are the focus of a new book and exhibition. Chris Bond reports.
Over the past 25 years or so, Leeds has undergone a remarkable transformation. From being seen (by some) as a post-industrial backwater in the North of England, it is now a thriving metropolis capable of attracting big business and hosting sporting and cultural events of global significance.
This reinvention saw Leeds establish itself as the second biggest financial centre in the country outside London, and led to it being dubbed “the Knightsbridge of the North” by Lonely Planet a decade-and-a-half ago.
Since then, the First Direct Arena has opened and the city took centre stage when it helped welcome the Tour de France’s triumphant Grand Depart in 2014.
Jude Palmer was Welcome to Yorkshire’s official behind-the-scenes photographer for the Grand Départ and last year she teamed up with Leeds Council to create a photo essay entitled Love of Leeds.
It came about following a conversation between the photojournalist and the council’s leader, Judith Blake, to capture a year in the life of the city in a series of photographs. “There was so much going on in 2019,” says Palmer, “we had World Cup cricket, the Ashes, we had the triathlon and the UCIs, and Leeds United celebrated its centenary.”
It wasn’t just sport that was grabbing the headlines. In terms of culture there was Yorkshire Sculpture International, Leeds Playhouse reopening following its multi-million pound revamp, and Northern Ballet celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“We thought it would be a great idea if we could document that and it evolved into having two key themes – sport and culture – but with the local community very much at the centre of it all. It’s great that Leeds can attract all these major sporting events and attract big stars to the city, but how does that impact on the people who live in Leeds? That was the idea that I was really interested in exploring.”
Many of the images feature in a new book, Love of Leeds, which is launched tomorrow at Waterstones, in the city centre, with former Leeds United star Eddie Gray among those making an appearance, while a new photo exhibition opens in the Corn Exchange today.
“I was trying to get to the DNA of the city,” says Palmer. “Leeds is great at hosting all these big events but it isn’t necessarily great at shouting about what it does.
“So part of the aim of the project was to do this and reframe the narrative about what’s going on in the city – to show that we can attract international stars here and that we also have a wealth of homegrown talent as well.
“It was like joining the dots – you have stars in their own right but when you join them up you have a very bright constellation.”
Another important strand of the project was to photograph the lesser known community work happening all year round.
“I wanted to photograph the ‘unseen’ people who don’t normally get much recognition,” says Palmer, who praises Leeds Council for its support.
“We can say a lot about local authorities but I was given free rein with this project, no-one was telling me where I could or couldn’t go.”
She spent time with charities and cultural organisations, highlighting some of the work they do behind the scenes. “I went out with Opera North into the community where they’re teaching kids to play instruments in schools, and I went to a charity called Dazl that focuses on dance for young children in some of the deprived areas in Leeds.”
She also spent time with the Syrian community, which culminated with Leeds United Foundation running football courses for Syrian youngsters, and she visited Jewish communities, South Asian arts groups, as well as attending events such as the Black Music Festival and Leeds Pride.
“When you delve into it you find there’s some really interesting things happening on the ground every day that a lot of people might not know about.”
She met and photographed Nicola Stonehouse, a professor at the University of Leeds. “She does third world vaccines and she said to me ‘I’m in the book with people like Billie Eilish and Nicola Adams’ which she thought was amazing. And that’s exactly what I was after. I wanted to intersperse those stories with the big stars, with people like Billie Eilish, Kay Mellor and Nicola Adams.”
By charting these stories and events over the course of 12 months, Palmer gained an insight into the city and the people that live there.
“I think Leeds is enjoying real momentum right now and it’s been building for quite some time. You’ve got people working behind the scenes who are very open and creative and willing to look at different ways of doing things and that’s now manifesting itself in terms of what we are able to attract in sport and in the arts.”
This extends to the network of communities that exist side-by-side in the city. “There are things happening in our communities that take my breath away and have moved me to tears. Lives are being saved, lives are being changed, and lives are being inspired.
“Perhaps what’s pleased me most is how much support there is from the people of Leeds to what’s been happening and the genuine passion for, and love of, their city. That’s why I call the book Love of Leeds because you see it as you look around, whether you’re talking about Leeds United or The Playhouse, and I wanted this book to be a voice reflecting that.”
So what does she think makes Leeds unique? “One of the big things for me is there’s a quiet grittiness about the place, people get on with things. They don’t necessarily want to shout about what’s going on, but I think that’s something of a Yorkshire trait.
“I also feel there’s been a real move towards embracing culture and the arts. That’s moved on quite dramatically, in my view, and the cultural offer in Leeds now is phenomenal. It used to be the case that you had to go to London if you wanted to see the best contemporary art or theatre, but that’s not the case any more.”
The same could be said of sport. “Leeds has produced some great sporting talent whether it’s Alistair Brownlee or Nicola Adams and there’s a new generation coming up behind them now that is just coming to the fore.”
She likens the project to piecing together a tapestry. “It’s been an Olympic effort to get to the heart of it all, because I didn’t want it to be just a load of photographs of sporting events and cultural events, I wanted to get under the skin of it all and hopefully that’s what I’ve done.”
Big events captured for book
Last year was a big one for Leeds in terms of art, culture and sport.
These are some of the events and organisations involved in Jude’s project: the Tour de Yorkshire, AJ Bell World Triathlon, Cricket World Cup, West Indian Carnival, Leeds Pride, Screen Yorkshire, Yorkshire Sculpture International, Transform Festival, Leeds University, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds City College, Leeds Rhinos and Foundation, Opera North, Leeds Festival, Northern Ballet, Leeds Community Foundation, Leeds United, Leeds United Trust and Leeds United Foundation.
Jude Palmer is hoping to produce a second volume of photographs to tie in with Leeds 2023 – when the city hosts 12 months of cultural events.
The Love of Leeds book launch takes place on Saturday at Waterstones, Leeds, at 11am. The exhibition runs from today at the Corn Exchange until March 5.