Stress on portrait of the artist as a poet

Sir Andrew Motion photographed by Madeleine Waller
Sir Andrew Motion photographed by Madeleine Waller
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They’re a mysterious breed, but a new portrait exhibition hopes to shed new light on the art of the the poet. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Poets, like many writers, are often quite private people – practising their craft is necessarily a fairly solitary occupation – but a new photographic exhibition at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield aims to present a glimpse into their lives.

Curated by the National Portrait Gallery, Picture the Poet, features 50 striking portraits of living poets.

Most of the images were chosen by the London gallery, but Sheffield was given the opportunity to select poets who had a local significance – hence the inclusion of Simon Armitage and Ian McMillan.

“Ian is obviously very well known in the area,” says Alison Morton, exhibition and display curator at the gallery “And Simon Armitage has recently been commissioned to create a piece of public poetry for the city. He is also professor of poetry at Sheffield University.”

Another aim of the exhibition is to dispel some of the mystery surrounding poets and their creative process. “It is quite a mysterious profession and it’s interesting to find out how a poet works and structures their day,” says Morton. “As part of the show there is a new commission which is a new portrait of Andrew Motion by Madeleine Waller and they were both interviewed about their roles as photographer and sitter.”

Waller has been making photographic portraits of poets for several years. In 2006 she began a series of pictures of poets and before photographing her subjects, she set each of them the task of thinking of a place that was special to them for the location of the shoot.

“She was keen to really find out about their day-to-day routines and other aspects of their lives that they might share with her,” says Morton. “Some chose a garden, or the place where they grew up – others, not surprisingly, chose a library.”

A number of Waller’s portraits feature in the exhibition, alongside images by a host of other well-known photographers including Donald McLellan, Jemimah Kuhfeld, Peter Everard Smith and Norman McBeath.

The portraits cover themes such as sense of place, love, loss, identity and struggle, with photographs going back to the 1950s right up to the present day. The labels feature some of the words that the poets are best known for and in some cases more detail about how they work and the significance of the place they have been photographed in.

“What is interesting is the variety of the images,” says Morton. “A number of them are traditional head and shoulders shots but many of them put the poet in situ in a study with books around them, while others are in a place that is important to them – and when you get the context of that it is often quite meaningful.”

The collection is a mixture of colour and black and white photographs which cover several decades.

“It is interesting looking at some of the early photographs because your eye picks up on the fashions or hairstyles of the day,” adds Morton. “You can feel time passing in the way that the photograph has been cropped or the finish or colour.”

In the exhibition space, the team have created a resource area where visitors can browse through books of poetry and look at the work of the poets featured. “That’s been really interesting,” she says. “I have returned to poems I haven’t read for ten or twenty years – it is a great reintroduction to poetry.”

• Picture the Poet, Graves Gallery, Sheffield to November 29. www.museums-sheffield.org.uk.