Portraits of Hull - a city of contrasts

Yankee's Diner. PIC: Martin Parr
Yankee's Diner. PIC: Martin Parr
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Two photographers from the renowned Magnum agency have been getting to the heart of everyday life in the City of Culture. Yvette Huddleston reports.

It has been an extraordinary year for Hull. As UK City of Culture, it has stepped up to the mark, risen to the occasion and magnificently proved any doubters wrong.

Despite being in the spotlight for ten months now, the city retains its unique character, its ‘unknowable-ness’, perhaps derived from a sense that it is somehow a little out on its own – ‘on the edge of things’ as Philip Larkin famously described it.

A new exhibition of work by Magnum photographers Olivia Arthur and Martin Parr, commissioned by Hull UK City of Culture, aims to get under the skin of the city and offer up different ways of viewing it. Hull, Portrait of a City, at the Humber Street Gallery until the end of the year, opens a discussion on how to define the culture, landscape and people of Hull. While Parr has explored the culinary culture of the city, Arthur has focussed on its young people.

“I had never actually been to Hull before,” says Arthur. “That can be a good thing because you are coming to a place with fresh eyes and you have a different take on it. The brief of the commission was fairly open and I decided to do traditional, quite formal portraiture. I came up in May just to do a ‘recce’ trip and talked to and met a few people in youth centres. Some of them were incredibly open and I started taking pictures straight away, then I came back again in June for a week to follow up on some of the contacts I had made.”

There is a certain level of trust that has to be established between a photographer and their subject in order for the images to work in the powerful way that Arthur’s do. “People often look at my pictures and say ‘you must have spent a lot of time with them’ but the reality is that I don’t usually have a lot of time. Most of the pictures in the exhibition were taken within an hour. It’s not so much about the amount of time I spend with them – it is about making people feel comfortable.”

She attributes that sense of engagement and openness partly to the fact that she uses a large, old-fashioned camera. “It lends a sort of seriousness to it – particularly with young people, they have never seen a camera like that,” she says. “And I think that contributes to the feeling that comes across in the pictures. It creates a more intimate atmosphere – people respond to that and open up to it. It is psychologically interesting.”

Her striking black and white images certainly reflect that connection between viewer and sitter. She has been working in black and white a lot recently and processing the pictures herself as a way of “stepping backwards in photography, reconnecting with it and slowing things down; it becomes more of a thoughtful process.”

The young people in the photographs generally look relaxed but serious – one, Ross and Ryan, sees two boys (they are so similar they must be brothers) standing next to each other, one holding a football, in front of a brick building which looks like it could be a community centre; another, Alicia Abbott, features a young girl, her pet snake coiled around her neck so it almost appears to become an extension of one of the plaits in her hair.

Equally striking is the image of a young Elvis impersonator, Alfie Pearson, sitting in his bedroom, a poster of his hero on the wall behind him. Some of Arthur’s subjects are looking straight at the camera, others are absorbed in an activity, like the boy, B Boy Jocky, break-dancing on the polished floor of a slightly shabby-looking hall, the side of a piano almost out of shot, or a girl practising ballet, leaning back, her arm partially obscuring her face. All the images pose questions about the young person’s life and aspirations.

Questions are also posed by Parr’s series which looks at the rich culinary landscape of Hull – taking in everything from fast-food joints to old-fashioned fish and chip shops, specialist upmarket vendors to the regenerated Fruit Market and European supermarkets. In Crisp & Fry, Spring Bank, Hull 2017 – two young women look out from behind the counter of a fish and chip shop; oddly a red stripe in one of the young women’s headscarves seems to blend into the markings on the fridge door behind her; either that was painstakingly set up or it was a happy accident. These are photographs that make you look at, and think about, the details.

In Yankee’s Diner, Hessle Road a man sits alone tucking in to a burger against the vibrantly coloured cartoon imagery on the tables and walls, while in Stack it High, Hessle Road an elderly couple carefully select items from a no-frills supermarket.

Together the series of photographs create a compelling and vivid portrait of Hull. The style of the two photographers complement each other – with their different approaches they capture a moment, sometimes posed, sometimes snatched – and the stark contrast between Parr’s characteristically bright images and Arthur’s more sombre black and white works adds an extra layer of characterisation. This is a city both colourful and monochrome, busy and still, ordinary and remarkable.

Hull, Portrait of a City is at Humber Street Gallery, Hull until December 31. www.humberstreetgallery.co.uk