Portrait of a changing city

Tony Walker at The Belle Vue Studio on Manningham Lane in Bradford, originally opened in 1926 by the photographer B Sandford Taylor
Tony Walker at The Belle Vue Studio on Manningham Lane in Bradford, originally opened in 1926 by the photographer B Sandford Taylor
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Photographs of thousands of Bradford immigrants which distil a generation’s hopes for the future have been rescued. Stephen McClarence reports.

We pick a number at random. 4625. Tim Smith scans the labels on the drawers of three filing cabinets as big as sideboards. He pulls out a drawer, in a back room at Bradford Industrial Museum, and sifts through the neat white envelopes inside. “4-6-2-5,” he murmurs. “Here it is...”

Inside the envelope, one of 17,000, is a fragile glass plate negative the size of a postcard. We hold it up to the light. It’s a formal studio portrait of a middle-aged Asian man, half-staring, half-smiling, wearing a smart jacket and a striped tie. It was taken 50 years or so ago. “A. Khan,” says the writing along the top border.

Other negatives, rescued from a derelict studio on their way to a skip, are labelled Ali and Ahmed, Abdullah and Akbar. There’s 45 feet of drawer-space of them, and they document a quarter of a century of Bradford’s social history, after the first immigrants – Caribbean and Eastern European as well as Asian – arrived in the city.

Many headed to the Belle Vue Studio in Manningham Lane to have their picture taken to send back home to their families. Look how well we’re doing, these black-and-white photos are designed to say.

A selection of them is on show in Bradford city centre as part of the Time & Place project, which aims to explore the stories behind them. They were taken on an Edwardian plate camera, using long-obsolete technology, but Time & Place will give them the most up-to-date digital exposure on the internet, smartphones and TV as part of The Space, an arts and heritage project run jointly by the BBC and the Arts Council.

People in the pictures, their children, grandchildren and friends, are being interviewed to see how the brave hopes they expressed half a century ago have turned out in reality. Mr A. Khan, in his smart jacket and striped tie, will now be an old man, if indeed he’s still alive. What happened to him after Negative Number 4625?

The exhibition is at Hand Made in Bradford, a venue and gallery in the former HMV store in Tyrrel Street, run by the city arts organisation Fabric and featuring a mock-up of the Belle Vue Studio.

The original studio was set up in 1926 by Benjamin Sandford Taylor, who already had 20 years’ experience as a photographer in the city. He photographed the well-to-do inhabitants of then-fashionable Manningham, creating flattering portraits, often retouched to improve on nature: truly projecting a Belle Vue, a beautiful vision, of people.

In 1946 he was joined by Tony Walker, a 40-year old darkroom technician who continued the business after Taylor’s death in 1953.

Over the next 20 years, he carried on using the studio’s original 1905 Thornton Pickard bellows camera (with tripod), and avoided artificial light; he photographed by natural daylight in the upstairs studio at the back of the building, with its big, North-facing windows.

“Not to use electric lighting to light your subjects was archaic in the 1950s, never mind 1975, when the studio finally closed, but it gave the pictures a luminosity,” says Tim Smith, a Shipley-based photographer, social historian and artistic director of Time & Place.

“After the war, studios were going out of business because people were buying their own cameras, but Tony Walker found a new and enthusiastic clientele.”

Refugees from Eastern Europe, Poland and Latvia were coming to Bradford to work in the textile industry. They were followed by people from the Caribbean. “And then from the mid-1950s, Asians started to visit the studio – single men and groups of men at first,” says Smith. “In the early Sixties, their wives and children started appearing and by the late Sixties the studio had an almost entirely Asian clientele.”

Tony Walker – “an incredibly well-spoken man and quite ‘proper’” Smith recalls – welcomed them and created the reassuring pictures they wanted. His camera didn’t lie; it just offered more palatable truths.

He grouped his subjects – proud, formal and serious, the men with ramrod-straight backs – in front of curtains and around the standard props of studios in the great days of the former British Empire from which many of the customers came: a small occasional table with a fluted vase of flowers. “It must be the most photographed table in the North,” says Smith.

“The other day I met someone who’d been photographed by Tony. He said: ‘The photographer would come out and arrange things meticulously and then disappear under the black cloth over the camera.’ It was like being in the presence of a magician. It was the magic of making people’s dreams become an artistic reality.”

The dreams were of having a better life. So the customers posed with symbols of success and prosperity – transistor radios and, ironically, the sort of modern cameras that were killing off other studios. Shirt cuffs were pulled well back to reveal expensive-looking watches. Jackets’ breast pockets were stuffed with rows of ballpoint pens to suggest the men worked in offices rather than mills. Tony Walker retouched their lives.

Cool dudes with slick quiffs wore shades and velvet flares and smoked sophisticated cigarettes. Bus conductors wore their uniforms with pride, badges prominent. Some subjects clutched five-pound notes.

One burly wrestler stripped to the waist and was photographed with garlands of fivers. A martial arts champion posed in his trunks. A cook brandished a pair of bananas like circus throwing knives. Some of these pictures are so surreal that a man who had himself photographed with a simple wooden flute looks as though he’s not trying hard enough.

Discreet retouching could lighten skin colour. And occasionally, two brothers would be photographed standing apart; an image of a third brother, still perhaps in Pakistan, would later be superimposed in the gap.

Some pictures would be hand-coloured. “Jumper brown,” Walker wrote on one storage envelope to remind himself. “Trousers black. Shirt white. Watch gold.”

“Tony had an arrangement with a gents’ outfitter next door,” says Tim Smith. “If people turned up in their work clothes, he’d send them to the outfitter where there was a range of suits and ties they could wear for the sessions.

“It’s very easy to look at these pictures and regard some of these people as slightly naïve, but we all show off in front of a camera. People take pictures of themselves in their new house or in front of their new car.

“Facebook is a shop window for showing off your new cool stuff. What Belle Vue Studio was doing was the 1950s version of Facebook. People could send pictures back to their families to say: ‘Look mum, I’ve arrived.’”

The studio was still doing good business, attracting customers from all over the North, when Walker retired in 1975 to nurse his wife through her last illness. He started to clear the shop and dumped thousands of negatives on a municipal tip.

“He started at one end and threw out the pre-war stuff, and the rest lay forgotten in a dark, damp cellar for almost a decade,” says Smith.

Walker was all set to dump them after another photographer, Simon Fisher, offered to buy the business in 1983, but Fisher realised their potential importance and approached Tim Smith at the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit.

“When he called, I thought: ‘Well, studio pictures are two a penny.’ But when I saw them, I thought: ‘What an extraordinary collection of photographs!’ We said we’d take them on and the 17,000 glass plate negatives arrived in filthy old shoe boxes.”

Smith’s only regret is that the earlier negatives had been dumped. “In my imagination I can hear the sound of breaking glass.”

The business never in fact restarted, the shop is now a bookshop, the studio survives only in photographs of it in semi-dereliction, but the pictures still exist. They have inspired exhibitions over the world – in Jakarta, St Petersburg, Dhaka – and the latest, Time & Place, is now the launchpad for the Space project. Interviews to flesh out the stories behind the pictures will be edited into five-minute films with music and archive footage, due to go online from mid-May.

Nicely counterpointed with this at Hand Made in Bradford is a selection of commanding colour portraits from Tim Smith’s own touring exhibition, Making Britain. Launched at the National Media Museum last November, it features successful British Asians. They include Zesh Rehman, Bradford City FC’s first British Asian captain, TV journalist Mishal Husain and the award-winning magician Shahid Malik.

As vibrant as the Belle Vue pictures are studied, they’re an affirmation that at least some of the hopes captured by those studio photographs have been realised. As the exhibition’s subtitle says, these Asians have triumphantly made a journey from “margins to mainstream”.

Back at the Industrial Museum, Smith recalls a visit by Tony Walker a few years before his death in 1990.

“When he closed the shop, he thought no-one would be interested in his pictures. But I pulled out a drawer of his cleaned-up negatives and he just welled up. I think he realised there was a more than passing interest in his life’s work.”

Time & Place is at Handmade in Bradford (www.fabricculture.co.uk), 1 Tyrrel Street, to May 25. Information on The Space project will be available on www.thespace.org, launching this month.

Exhibition runs until Friday May 25; digital project due to be launched mid-May.