It’s big, it’s ambitious and by the time that Hull grabs the UK Capital of Culture title in 2017, it’s going to be even better. Set up by Alan Raw, a familiar name on BBC Radio Humberside, this is only the second year of the Hull International Photography Festival, but for 2015 he has roped in a set of collaborators and is hoping to attract 25,000 visitors, as against last year’s figure of 8,000.
The festival (with the nickname of HIP) is based, in the main, in the Princes Quay shopping centre. But, far from being centred in one area – the Photographic Gallery – it has taken over several shops and spaces on the decks of the building, so that it can all be brought to a far wider public. Other venues over the coming weeks include POP Gallery, St Mary’s Church, Hull Central Library, Red Gallery, Hull Western and Bransholme Libraries, and Kardomah 94.
As well as exhibitions, there will be talks, discussions and practical “how to” sessions for young and old, professional and amateur alike. One of the new faces in the organisation is acclaimed Doncaster-born photographer and visual artist Graeme Oxby who now lives in Beverley.
Graeme, 50, has worked on major publications and magazines in London, Manchester and Dublin, as well as internationally – and has featured on many occasions on these pages.
“We are definitely working toward building this annual event,” he says. “Not to rival anyone else, but to be a force to be reckoned with in its own right. And we are hoping to forge bigger and stronger links with photographers from all over the world, particularly in Europe.”
Star names this year include the Bafta award-winning photographer John Bulmer, whose stunning work in The Sunday Times Magazine of the Sixties and Seventies is now published in a book called The North.
“John’s images of Yorkshire, of course, feature very heavily in that,” says Graeme. “He was a genuine pioneer, is much respected and was one of the first to use colour in newspapers – something that we all take for granted today, but which was eye-stopping back then. And, even though he’s now in his eighties, he’s still taking photographs to this day. His latest book, Wind of Change, is very powerful indeed – he looks at conflicts across the world, with all their social and political ramifications and issues. We’re showing some of his very best work, and he’s also promised to come and discuss his incredible career.
“In contrast, we’ve also got Peter Dench, who was the co-founder and then the director of the White Cloth Gallery in Leeds, and whose work in advertising, editorial, portraiture and video image work is second to none. He’s another award winner and also a very observant writer.
“The hugely talented Frieke Janssens, from Belgium, is also featured and anyone who knows her work will tell you how original and surreal it is. For anyone who doesn’t, then you have an amazing treat in store. And then, nearer to home, we have Hull’s own Ami Barwell, who has made a specialisation in rock and roll and music images. It would be quicker to list those who she hasn’t shot rather than to give you one of those she has, but think Thom Yorke, Motorhead, Kings of Leon, Paul Weller….the White Stripes, and so many more. She’s collaborated on collectors’ edition T-shirts for Ben Sherman, she’s been featured in everything from Vogue to GQ, and she makes outstanding videos.”
Another local name is Mat Finn, from Leeds, who has taught in many of the region’s leading colleges, and whose exhibition this year will be “Mother”, a series of images of his own mum, taken over a period of more than half a century.
And for those who want advice on how to tackle street photography, Matt Hart will talking about his passion on Saturday, October 3, and then taking a lucky group of would-be practitioners around the city’s street in a masterclass the following day.
And there’s also a major exhibition from Graeme Oxby himself, which takes over many of the walls of the Central Library. It’s called “Kings of England” but if you are expecting staged portraits of people like Richard II or George V think again. “It’s all about Elvis impersonators,” says Graeme. “You may think that they are total buffoons in giving over their lives to this obsession, but they are completely sincere about it – and they come from all walks of life, creeds, colours. Men and women, young and old. There are no boundaries. These pictures aren’t laughing at them, I’m laughing with them, in their sheer exuberance and sincerity.
“Yes, they are a bit eccentric, but they are also brash and colourful. There will be about 50 portraits in all, and most of them form the basis for a book – of the same name – that I’m publishing later in the year. The exhibition won’t just be for Hull, it’s going on to tour for some time to a lot of galleries around Yorkshire and beyond.
“Elvis Presley died way back in 1977, but his allure and fascination lives on so vividly. I wanted to know why – it’s not just an American phenomenon, as you might expect, because he never played live gigs anywhere but there – but a worldwide one. People impersonate him and try to keep his spirit alive everywhere from Fiji to Finland. No-one else gets that sort of adulation and attention, do they? A lot of them give up their day jobs to ‘live their dream’. Name another rock or pop star who gets that attention. I’ve met a chap who has MS who does his impersonations from a wheelchair, a young Cheshire lad who comes from a travelling family and who is only 14 years old, and a lady from Doncaster who is a spiritualist medium and who actually saw Elvis live on stage. You couldn’t make up the range of people who simply adore the man. Without exception, they are all beautiful souls”.
Graeme was led into photography when his grandfather handed him a Russian copy of a Leica camera at the age of nine. “He said: ‘Go away, and master that, if you can’, and I did. He was pretty surprised when I came back a few weeks later and told him how smitten I was. My family said: ‘Get a steady job, go and work in the Co-op’, but I held out. I was being paid for doing wedding pictures by 16 and I loved it. Not only did I have a hobby that I enjoyed hugely, but I was also getting paid for it. What’s not to like about that?”
One of the issues that will undoubtedly raise its head during the festival will be the current trend for selfies.
“On the one hand, it is indeed narcissistic self-obsession,” says Graeme. “But on the other, it has given the people in the street the power to take photographs of everything around them as well, and to use their imaginations. I just wish that they’d do far more of the latter, and cut out the former. I was in Berlin the other week, and I saw some kids taking selfies in some horribly inappropriate locations – one was the Holocaust Museum. It made me shudder.
“But, if selfies are used as a tool for individual creativity, that’s marvellous. Let’s face it – it’s the biggest explosion in the world of photography since Eastman gave the public his Box Brownie over a century ago. Suddenly the photo was in the hands of the public, and not a prerogative of the posh. But professional photographers back then were up in arms, and so they are again today. What goes around, comes around…”
• Hull International Photography Festival, October 2 to 30. www.hipphotofest.com