Bradford is perfect home for new photo festival

Peasants Revolt 1381, 2010 by Red Saunders at Impressions Gallery.
Peasants Revolt 1381, 2010 by Red Saunders at Impressions Gallery.
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A month-long contemporary photography festival opens in Bradford next month. Nick Ahad spoke to the woman behind the event.

Sitting in Impressions Gallery, in Bradford City Centre, it is easy to feel like the city has been forgotten, abandoned by the people in charge.

The Arts Council funded gallery sits in the horseshoe shaped row of buildings, opposite the magnificent town hall. Three of the large retail units along the same block lay empty. In front of the gallery is a city centre development that looks like a bomb site. The City Park, due for completion this autumn has now been postponed until winter.

Fortunately, there are those who still believe in the city and who also believe that culture is crucial to put at the heart of regeneration.

Anne McNeill is one such person.

The director of Impressions Gallery is also a co-founder of Ways of Looking, a new, month-long festival of photography taking place in the city throughout next month.

McNeill has led a consortium which will create the city-wide festival showcasing the work of leading contemporary photographers in established venues, pop-up sites, and in public spaces around the city.

McNeill has high hopes for the festival. “We really do think Bradford can become the UK’s top destination for photography,” says McNeill.

You’d be forgiven for raising your eyebrows at this statement. That Bradford is beleaguered, there is no doubt. McNeill, who moved Impressions Gallery to the city from York, says it is time for a change in attitude when it comes to Bradford – and a city-wide, month-long photography festival can play a major part in achieving that.

“I think the reputation of Bradford is a misperception. People perceive Bradford as a certain thing, as a city on its uppers, but it has beautiful buildings, the university, it has been named the City of Film and it has this great swell of cultural activity happening all around the city.”

The seeds were sown for next month’s festival over a decade ago, when a similar photography festival took place across Yorkshire in 1998. A decade later, McNeill combined with Nicola Stephenson, director of Leeds based Culture Company to run another photography festival which ran in venues in Bradford and Leeds in 2008.

McNeill says: “Having a festival spread between two cities was confusing for visitors, who didn’t understand why or how a festival could run in two different places. We knew there was an impetus to do something like this, but realised the way to make the festival a success would be to have it based around a single city in and around the city centre.”

It was a good idea, clearly and a consortium was pulled together, with partners including Leeds Met and The National Media Museum. An application was made to the Arts Council, which stumped up £100,000 to fund the festival.

McNeill says it was enormously encouraging that, in a time of stringent cuts, the Arts Council had the faith in the project to invest such an amount.

With the funding in place, you’d be forgiven for thinking Leeds might be the obvious venue for a cultural event of this magnitude but, despite a number of Leeds-based companies involved in the consortium organising the festival, Bradford, it was agreed, with its history in photography and with a national museum dedicated to the art form, was the natural home for Ways of Looking.

The venues taking part include Gallery II, Impressions Gallery, National Media Museum, the Hungarian Cultural and Social Centre and there will be photographs on billboards around the city.

The quality of the artists taking part is impressive, with Turner Prize winners Douglas Gordon and Jeremy Deller, renowned Magnum photographer Donovan Wylie, and photographer Red Saunders all working to the festival theme of Evidence.

Saunders’s work will be on show at Impressions Gallery and feature stagings of historical events. He has created a number of new works specifically for the festival.

The highly political photographer, whose stunning photographs are reminiscent of paintings by the Old Masters, said a festival like Ways of Looking is vital at this moment and important for Bradford.

“As the cuts being made to our cultural life threaten to undermine the arts in this country, it is so important that there is something like this that celebrates art in a city.”

Ways of Looking venues and artists

Impressions Gallery: Red Saunders, Hidden.

Bradford 1 Gallery: Jeremy Deller’s found photographs from Belle Vue Studios.

National Media Museum: Donovan Wylie and Daniel Meadows. Wylie exhibits photographs from Afghanistan.

Hungarian Cultural Centre: Diane Bielik exhibits photographs taken during the closure of the centre.

Platform 3, Bradford Interchange: Alan Dunn and Shanaz Gulzar share the space.

Ways of Looking, Bradford, October 1-30. www.ways