40th Anniversary Exhibition: Roads to Wigan Pier, Impressions Gallery, Bradford

In November 1972 Impressions Gallery opened in a room above a shop in York with their first ever exhibition. As one of the first specialist photography galleries in the UK it has gone on to play a vital role in championing photography and has had a huge impact on the development of the photographic culture in Britain. To mark this occasion Anne McNeill, Director of Impressions, has selected from the gallery’s archive an exhibition first shown in October 1984.

Taking as their starting point George Orwell’s seminal 1937 publication The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological investigation into the bleak living conditions of the working class in Yorkshire and Lancashire, six newly graduated students of photography: Russell Boyce, Huw Davies, Julian Germain, Graham Hall, John Kemp, Tim Smith, were commissioned by Impressions to record and document social aspects of the North of England. Each worked independently and each took a personal viewpoint. The exhibition will incorporate original text from the photographers interspersed with quotes from Orwell’s 1930s comments on the miner’s life, class, slums, unemployment and malnutrition. Roads to Wigan Pier serves as a timely reminder of what it is like to have “the dull, evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you”.

Aesthetica spoke to Anne McNeill about the exhibition and her thoughts on the evolution of photography.

A. Can you firstly tell us about Roads to Wigan Pier ?

AM: Roads to Wigan Pier is an exhibition from Impressions Gallery archive. It’s a group show by six photographers – Russell Boyce, Huw Davies, Julian Germain, Graham Hall, John Kemp, Tim Smith. All had recently graduated from various colleges, four from Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham; one from the documentary course at Newport, South Wales; and one was completing his studies at Derby. In the summer of 1984 Impressions commissioned them to respond to George Orwell’s seminal book The Road to Wigan Pier. Each was awarded £250 and given film and photographer paper up to the value of £100.

Orwell’s book provides the common thread to this project. Published in 1937 by The Left Book Club, this was Orwell’s account of the depressed industrial North of England and was illustrated with photographs supplied by various picture libraries and photo-agencies. It is a sociological investigation into the bleak living conditions of the working class in Yorkshire and Lancashire.

The photographers in Roads to Wigan Pier worked independently and each took a personal viewpoint.

Robert Boyce was living just off Hessle Road in Hull and was struck by how the decline of the fishing industry had impacted on this community, not only the people but the way the neighbourhood looked as row after row of housing was being knocked down. He concentrated on the life of Tina, a single Mum, thereby using Orwell’s example of quoting an individual’s struggle as a call for social change.

Huw Davies work was concerned with industries that had grown up along the Leeds to Liverpool Canal. Originally the canal acted as an artery linking coal and cotton production of the industrial towns of Northern England. With the demise of these industries, the canal changed becoming an area for pleasure rather than business. Davies’ portraits reflect people’s alienation as a result of this change. Julian Germain documented the decline of industry and deprivation in Wigan and Rochdale, as the results of automation on labour-intensive industries. He looked at the direct effects this process had on a number of individuals made jobless.

Graham Hall concentrated on the miner as his subject. Working in Nottinghamshire and Wigan, he photographed both working and striking miners and recorded working practices which had remained unchanged since Orwell’s observations in the 1930s.

John Kemp photographed Wigan, Burnley, Rochdale and Bradford and wanted to “capture something of the ambience of modern urban life in the North…concentrating on details of daily routine as indicators of the way we live” (Impressions Press Release, July 1984).

Tim Smith looked at both housing and the traditional industries of Sheffield. High rises, hailed as revolutionary ‘streets in the sky’ built in the 50s and 60s soon became regarded as a legacy of misguided thinking. The majority of people living in these were unemployed, affected by the changes to the local and traditional steel industries.

All six have had interesting career trajectories; working in the fields of photography, film-making and TV. For example, Boyce is now Global Editor, News Projects, Reuters. He works with a ‘global network of photographers looking to find ways to illustrate top news stories, beyond the 24 hour news cycle, in a way that people will understand the story, why it has happened and potential consequences’. For Graham Hall, these were the last documentary shots he took and he then worked for the BBC as a cameraman on anything from Top of the Pops to Only Fools and Horses and EastEnders, to cut a long story short he now works for Virgin Atlantic recruiting pilots.

A. This exhibition was first shown in October 1984, can you explain your reasons behind reigniting it and what are you hoping to achieve by bringing it to the surface again?

AM: On one level I’m interested looking at how photography in galleries has changed in the last thirty years. The images, could be categorised as ‘social documentary’ and ‘humanist’ in their approach. I want to reignite the debates on the notion of ‘documentary photography’, which can imply an unbiased, non-judgemental, objective, factual evidence. Obviously this is not true, photography is subjective. There is no objective truth in photography, what is true is that the photographic image can show us what a set of circumstances were at that given time.

Also, the work was made at the time critical theory, was gaining prominence within the university system with the teachings of Victor Burgin at the forefront. I am interested in how these debates may or may not impact on the photographers’ work. There’s a school of thought that thinks its best to ignore all critical theory as its can be dangerous. That somehow it leads to paralysis and the photographer stops making instinctive images. And then there’s the flip side which believes that that an understanding of Foucault and Barthes; that conceptual rigour and critical debate, is fundamental to the image making process. And then there’s the politics.

A. The incorporation of George’s Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier serves as a catalyst for a dull, poverty stricken, bleak outlook of Northern England -a picture of social and economic decline. Do you think that parallels can be drawn between the original 1984 exhibition and today’s society?

AM: Absolutely. I like to think that Impressions Gallery helps people understand the world through photography. In 1984 Britain was changing under Thatcher’s government and although it would be another three years before she utters that famous statement “There is no such thing as society”, the seeds were being sown. The exhibition shows us a way of life that was in terminal decline. It is a picture of Orwellian dystopia, of a northern landscape and its people on the brink of irrevocable social and cultural change.

For this 2012 presentation I decided to incorporated quotes from Orwell, and his comments on the miner’s life, on class and on unemployment. For example –

Why, then, do they [the unemployed] make so little use of their talents? They have all the leisure in the world; why don’t they sit down and write books? Because to write books you need not only comfort and solitude – and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home – you also need peace of mind. You can’t settle to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you. (my emphasis)

George Orwell The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937

Whilst, the quotes bring an added layer of poignancy to the reading of the photographs, they are also my deliberate interventions. My intention is to point the visitor to the parallels not only from a time when the book was published but also the intervening 28 years since the photographs were taken.

There’s the saying ‘the past is a foreign country’ and perhaps we are inclined to forget the recent past and it’s symbols of poverty and neglect. I think it is always relevant to question what is happening, at any given point, within communities and society as a whole. In my opinion, Cameron and his cronies embody the principles of Thatcherism; only this time their principles are dressed in sharp designer sharp suits and PR spin. The coalition cuts are dismantling the state, it’s as Tim Smith says “privatising the state itself, fuelling an economy driven by short-term profits for the few at the expense of the welfare of the majority”.

A.What is your philosophy as a gallery, and in what direction would you like to see it develop?

AM: The gallery’s strap line is “photography that gets people, looking, thinking and talking” and our education programme is called Look, Think, Talk, Do. For me, these sum up we do. Our philosophy is to take artistic risks, often working with photographers on their first major exhibition. We do not shy away from work that is perceived to be difficult. We’ve always had an interest in nurturing and supporting the creative process and career development. In recent years, we’ve begun to work with mid career British artists on solo retrospective shows that provide fresh ways of understanding their work.

Audiences and people are at the heart of what we do. Education, learning and public engagement are all integral to our programme. We are friendly and welcoming, creative, challenging and thought-provoking.

In terms of development, moving the gallery to Bradford was a bold and brave move. In 2006, we built our bespoke venue, in the heart of the city centre. This space with its urban, almost industrial feel is so different from the Grade II listed Georgian townhouse in York has given us the freedom to more ambitious large scale exhibitions.

Interestingly, whilst researching for Impressions 40th anniversary I came across a typed document, from 1973, by co-founder Val Williams, in which she writes –

The gallery was based on hope, a certain amount of good will…and the conviction that photography must be recognised as an important part of art and everyday life.

Prophetic words that still hold true today.

Bradford feels like it is on the brink of something new, people are discovering it as a creative place. New temporary art spaces are ‘popping up’. Impressions was instrumental in setting up and staging , last years, Ways of Looking photography festival, which attracted 47,500 visitors. My ambition is that in ten years time Bradford and photography will be synonymous, worldwide, as Britain’s centre and cultural hub for photography.

A. Impressions Gallery plays a vital role in championing photography, especially impacting on photographic culture in Britain. Can you explain how photography has changed and developed since the opening of the gallery in 1972?

AM: It’s important to be clear about the context. My answer is in the context of my professional life, which as always been in the public funded arena and not ‘photography as a commodity’. The art market is anthemia to me. I am not saying the art market is wrong, after all photographers and artists have to earn a living and the fact that people are more open to buying and collecting photographs is a good thing. It is, simply, a world I don’t understand.

Impressions has played a key part in changing people’s thinking about photography

The photography galleries that sprang up in the early 70s were essentially makeshift, undervalued and disregarded by the established art world. Photography was not taken seriously, there were few opportunities to exhibit, and our photography heritage was relatively unknown or confined to an initiated few. I think that because photography is ubiquitous and a form of mass communication meant that its true artistic status was hard to realise. Photography was the ‘poor cousin’, sneered at by the cultural establishment and had to fight battles unheard of in other art forms.

By the late 80s/early 90s Impressions, and the formation of a network of other photography galleries, represented a turning point for photography. These small spaces gave new photographers time and support in which to earn reputations and communicate with wider audiences. The medium had begun to receive its well deserved critical attention and establish some presence in the context of British art.

By the late 90s British photography was enjoying a strong period. A new generation were exploring afresh the medium’s potential; its aesthetics; its capacity to reflect back at us some of the things we think, feel and believe.

Now, some of the best art critics examine photography in depth, it receives critical coverage in mainstream press. Impressions through its presence and lobbying, through all the countless photographers, writers, curators, cultural commentators has raised the understanding and profile of photography and placed it firmly on the centre stage of contemporary art practice. Audiences for photography exhibitions and publications are still growing. It’s no longer the Cinderella art form. Now even Tate has a curator of photography, unimaginable back in the day.

But having said all that, I have begun to notice a subtle sea change in the level of funding and understanding within the cultural agenda of major funding bodies, when compared to other visual art organisations. I do worry that specialist photography galleries are facing new and different battles, and that we might, once more, find ourselves ghettoised.

A. What is your exhibition programme looking like in the coming months?

AM: In January we are showing the winner of PHotoEspaña Descubrimientos 2012 (New Discoveries) award. This is new work by Yaakov Israel that documents the people and landscapes of the country that shares his name. Made over many years of wandering in Israel, in the Occupied Territories, and the spaces in-between, these large-scale colour photographs depict the people and landscapes of the country that shares his name. They are an exploration of modern Israel with its many facets and contradictions,

In spring we are showing the first retrospective of Paul Reas. It will include bodies of work from his long and varied career, such as his early work from The Valley’s Project (1985), Heritage (1990), his award-winning advertising campaigns (cited by him as ‘provocations into that industry’, 1990s editorial work for colour supplements, and his ongoing work From a Distance. Reas is considered to be one of the leading British documentary photographers who began working with colour in the early 1980s. It will look at, amongst others, the language of consumption and cultural phenomena. This retrospective is part of our commitment to showcasing and re-assessing the work of mid-career artists.

October brings the second edition of Ways of Looking with photography stages in various galleries, non-art venues and artwork in public places in and around Bradford’s city centre. The theme is BEAUTY and will consider the complex and sometimes fraught relationship between photography and beauty, and will consider what importance beauty might hold in today’s world of crisis, recession and austerity.

Roads To Wigan Pier, 28 September until 5 January, Impressions Gallery, Centenary Square, Bradford, BD1 1SD. www.impressions-gallery.com


1. Lunch break at Thomas Clarke and Sons, a traditional iron foundry in the Don Valley, ® Tim Smith. Courtesy of Impressions Gallery
2. Club 81 watching videos at the Hyde Park – Park Hill Unemployment Centre, ® Tim Smith. Courtesy of Impressions Gallery
3. The toilet is outside the house…, ® Russell Boyce courtesy of Impressions Gallery
4. Mary Solbie , ® Huw Davies. Courtesy of Impressions Gallery