Sheffield: The early years

I shot my first roll of black and white film in 1999. I was at university in Sheffield and had joined the photographic society at the student union. I had my first proper camera, a Canon AV-1 with a 50mm lens and had bought a box full of all different brands and types of monochrome film for around 99p a roll from an online shop. It was a good time to be doing photography (back before it was re-branded ‘film photography’) as I had plenty of free time between lectures, free access to a decent darkroom and a group of like-minded friends to do this stuff with.

Working back through some of my old negatives I’ve pulled out a collection from the first few rolls I ever shot. I printed most of these images in the darkroom but I didn’t have a negative scanner back then so this is the first time I’ve really digitised them with any level of skill applied.

I find these images to be deeply nostalgic. Not for any real artistic merit, but because they were created at the point where I started thinking of photography as a creative medium rather than just a way to record things that were happening. For the first time I had a camera I could control (and indeed I’m still predominantly using aperture priority automatic exposure) and I was shooting to make good negatives that I could then experiment with creating prints from. Photography as a two-step process for the first time in my experience, like Ansel Adams said, the negative is the score, the print is the performance.

This opened the door to developing a style of my own, making pictures that meant something to me, pictures that expressed something about the way I see the world, pictures that no-one else would make the same way. I started to think in tones, in light and dark, and to look at the world as my raw material for making images. I shot a lot of junk, but buried in there was a decent amount of potential that I could exploit. Light, shadow, shape, tone and texture were my starting points, and my method was to seek out that which interested me and find a composition that fitted these elements together.

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The first subject I remember shooting was one of the campus buildings, a 19 storey tower called the Arts Tower. I think it was the tallest building around at the time and most new members of the group shot a roll of film on it at some point. I’d never seen a Sky Scraper before, and I found it a dark and brooding beast, a look that I portrayed through a combination of a deep red filter and printing on Grade 5 paper to create huge contrast and inky black skies.

The ability to heavily manipulate the tonality of an image was something that I was really drawn to. I could shoot in bright daylight and then manipulate the image so that the full range of mid tones between black and white fell in a narrow zone between the shadows and the highlights so anything not directly lit by the sun was black as night.

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The dynamic range that film gives you to play with meant there was always just enough detail left at the extremities of the image top avoid looking like a graphic novel. The shot above is one of my favourites, shot looking down from the tower on a bright sunny day, but exposed and printed with a stark film noire look.

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I was also trying to find some meaning in the images I was making. I never really photographed people in any significant way, but I think my very favourite photograph from my early years is the above image, taken at a time when the local waste incinerator was occupied by protesters who scaled the smoke stack and painted their message for all to see. I shot two frames of this, one portrait the other landscape, and have printed it many, many times. I think it was using a 50mm lens with a cheap 2x teleconvertor, so not the most technically accomplished image, but I find it striking for both the subject matter and the visual style.

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I used to regular Sunday morning walks (back before we called them ‘photowalks’) around the city with my camera to shoot interesting things without the distraction of other people being around. I like to contemplate a subject before shooting my images, and I always feel a certain pressure with other people around that flattens my creative spirit and. I’m sure the issue is fully internal, but never the less Sunday mornings remain my most creative time of the week.

Having moved on from the obvious subjects I started to seek images in the less obviously photogenic. I saw Sheffield as a post-industrial city, a mix of old and new with plenty of roughness around the edges. This gives it a rich tapestry of subject matter, well above and beyond the usual urban mediocrity. My exploration allowed me to capture places in a state of obsolescence, between use and redevelopment, a state that I find fascinating.

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Within the sprawl of abandoned locations and in the gaps between redevelopment I found fleeting visual moments to capture. My images started to be more about detail and less about the whole, I went looking for the bits other people wouldn’t notice and made my images there. This is a thread that has continued through to today, I rarely shoot the whole of something, instead looking for the composition within to find some graphic element in isolation.

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A common response to my work is “I like that one, what is it?” or “where was that shot?” which pleases me. I like to think of it as fractal photography, if you isolate an element within a tableaux then that element can become an equally rich and complex tableaux of it’s own. The micro becomes the macro and a whole new level of micro is revealed.

One thing I do notice about all of these early images is a strong sense of the ‘rules’ of composition. There are a lot of 1/3rds going on, with lead-in lines and symmetry in a supporting role. Back then I was reading a lot about photography and applying what I learnt to my images. It’s rare that I would ever crop an image other than to remove something right at the edge of the frame, so composition was something I was thinking about with my eye to the viewfinder. I would look around the viewfinder as if viewing the image itself rather than just concentrating on the subject, something that a medium format camera with a waist level finder on is excellent for teaching you, and as I was shooting with 3 or 4 prime lenses I would be moving myself around to frame an image which is the only way to really learn how shooting the same composition up close with a 35mm lens or further away with a 50mm changes the image.

From this experience I learned to ‘see’ in different focal lengths and to this day a 35mm lens is the first thing I buy for any film SLR I add to my collection.

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So that’s how all this started. A bit more than I usually write, but it’s been too long since the last post, so I’m trying to make up for it.

When I left university I bought my own darkroom equipment and carried on shooting and printing for several years before I bought my first serious digital camera, and then it was several more years before I bought a decent film scanner and started collecting film cameras properly. And now I have the best of both worlds, plus all that darkroom equipment sitting waiting until I buy my own place and set it up again.

Oh, and now a Nikon F5 that I’ll be writing about soon (one is finding one’s self severely smitten…)

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