Redeye's director Paul Herrmann looks at what makes photography strong in the North of England. This is a revised version of an essay written for the brochure of LOOK/15 Festival in Liverpool.

What is it about photography and the North of England? To many people involved in it, photography seems to be particularly strong in the region, but it’s difficult to put a finger on why, how, or in fact whether that’s true. The organisation I work for, Redeye, is based in the North and the subject comes up a fair amount among the photographers we encounter. I’ve talked to or exchanged emails with many of them, and they identify some of the reasons why there might be something distinctive about Northern photography.

Could the Northern character have something to do with it? Photographer Kayne Li Lui Sang, whose heritage is Mauritian and Chinese, wrote: “To me, the most distinguishable trait in a Northerner is character. You might say it’s friendly with a persisting sense of humour as well as a no-nonsense attitude. Maybe it’s a raw determination to get on in life whilst not being averse to fun. It’s hard to describe accurately what it is or what makes it unique, but I believe Northern character can exist in photographs and is what makes them so.”  

The late Don McPhee, often referred to as the Guardian’s Northern photographer, loved the Northern industrial cities for their particular youth, liveliness and warm welcome. Meanwhile photographer Lucie Kerley returned to the North from the Midlands to photograph allotments, and was struck by what she found: “The Midlands allotments were of a more multi-cultural variety – whereas the Warrington allotments were mainly white, and were much more intimate – both in size and sense of community – everyone seemed to know everything about everyone else and was more than happy to pitch in and help if it was needed.”

Could it be the landscape, the industrial past? Photographer Simon Barber said: “The idea of North resonates more as a cultural than geographical landscape. The skeletons of Empire and the industrial revolution remain visible in both the land and the imagination of the North; from the abandoned warehouses of Bradford and their fading advertisements for long dead trades to the union jack knickers for sale on Blackpool Prom. This offers a richness of subject matter to and distinguishes it from the South, where perhaps because the landscape seems to be in a state of constant commercial development much of the ‘organic’ culture has been lost.”

The Northern industrial towns spawned political radicalism, which in turn is linked to certain strands of photography. The resonance between the North’s politics and its human geography chimes with others. The Northern photographer John Darwell describes himself as “strongly engaged with a sense of space”. He thinks Northern photographers might be less self-referential than some of their counterparts, more likely to use photography to investigate issues – cultural, social, political – within the frame of the geographical space.

Many photographers seem to find the North a productive place to work and have spent time in the region or moved there. Loose groups and schools form. Photographers continue to coalesce around the Pennine towns, Yorkshire and the North East. Liza Dracup, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Tessa Bunney, Kate Mellor, John Kippin all make work driven by their surroundings. Further west, think of that rich couple of years at Manchester Polytechnic in the 1970s (one of the first photography degree courses) that gave us Martin Parr, Daniel Meadows, Brian Griffin, Charlie Meecham and Peter Fraser. Manchester remains England’s second city for working photographers, while Liverpool has the greatest concentration of galleries, museums and visual arts.

Martin Parr talks about the games he and his contemporaries played while at college; staying up late, challenging each other photographically. Maybe there’s something in the North encouraging creative playfulness. These Northern cities seem to be good places to try things out. That combination of vibrant communities with a spirit of co-operation, access to physical space indoors and out, lower rents than the capital, and municipal support for creative experimentation seem to attract clusters of artists and generate lots of new ideas. Stef Lewandowski, not a photographer but a specialist in digital hacks and startups based in London, recently called Manchester “the best place to start things”. He made that comment at FutureEverything (Manchester) which alongside Thinking Digital (Gateshead) seem to be two of the best-established future-gazing events in the UK.

This tendency to start things might be one reason why across the North we have relatively many photography organisations. Amber (with Side Gallery), Impressions Gallery, and Open Eye emerged from political and community movements of the 1960s and 70s and have survived, while so many other organisations have not, probably because of the strong communities that surround them. Redeye arrived later during the emerging digital era but is still strongly community-focussed – it’s one of the first Community Benefit Societies in the arts. The Science Museum looked for a Northern home for its new photography centre in the 70s after the success of the National Railway Museum in York – it’s a happy accident that there was an empty theatre available in Bradford, but a Northern location for what’s now the National Media Museum was always intended.

Recently politicians have started talking about the “Northern powerhouse” – a recognition that the aggregation of all this experimentation, creativity and linked communities might amount to something bigger than the sum of its parts. The Wars of the Roses and traditional rivalries are now confined to the sports pitches; across the North, creative organisations find it worthwhile and productive to link up. Photography was slightly ahead of the game. In 2013 we started the Northern Photography Consortium – not a public organisation but an agreement between Redeye, Impressions, Amber, Open Eye and the Media Museum, along with Look Photography Festival and North East Photo Network, and with support from Arts Council England, to work together. It’s not been difficult – the level of common ground and the appetite to share ideas have been high. There are growing links between the programmes of the organisations, and some other projects coming to the boil.

This has been the context for the emergence of Look – a festival that seeks to celebrate photography’s amazing ability to cross over from art to community to politics, and in doing so, build the photography community. The potential is huge – even since the festival was first conceived in 2004, the language of photography, its users and audiences, have multiplied and developed. There’s a lot more to do, and the North seems a perfect place to do it.

Paul Herrmann, director of Redeye

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