Strangely Familiar

Photographs provide meaning and nostalgia for different times and places. As the camera has evolved, we have been able to record moments in history, which act as a point of reference from the present back to the past. Strangely Familiar is the new exhibition at Project Space Leeds, which invites viewers to look at the city’s industrial past, how it represents not only Leeds, but also the end of the 20th century and the evolution of the city into the 21st century.

Images of the past resonate with the present; they are a record of our evolving culture and changing times. Strangely Familiar is a new photographic exhibition that documents the changing society, and urban landscape of one of the great Northern cities — Leeds.

Project Space Leeds, a new and innovative contemporary art space, hosts this unique exhibition by photographers, Eric Jaquier and Peter Mitchell. Photographed independently of each other, their work illustrates how much Leeds has changed since the 1960s. The photographs of city-folk, the built environment and Leeds suburbs document the changes in fashion, attitudes and the urban landscape between 1969 and 2008, in black and white, and in colour.

Swiss photographer, Eric Jaquier spent time in Leeds from September 1969 until July 1970, and over a one-month period he strolled through the streets of Burley, a suburb of Leeds, with his camera photographing and recording everyday life, before returning to Switzerland, where his photographs have remained hidden for decades. He says, “I had just bought a Nikon F camera, so I strolled around Burley and Armley taking pictures for my own pleasure. It wasn’t my intension to publish these images. I simply like to take pictures, develop and print them, but first of all what I liked about photography is taking the picture. It’s a way to seize reality. Photographs work when the photographer is totally immersed in the scene.”

While working in Leeds as a Betterware salesman, Eric immersed himself in the city’s atmosphere to create a prolific collection of black and white images, which captured the mood of day-to-day life in a Northern city. He snapped what he saw and created a document of Northern life at the close of the swinging sixties; children playing in the street, smart-suited commuters, mods, ageing residents and signs of both affluence and poverty. Eric says, “When I arrived in Leeds, for me, it was very exotic — this city which was industrial and falling apart. It was turning into ruins; the whole thing was exotic in that it was out of my own world in Switzerland. In Burley this was enforced by the fact that the area was slowly being vacated, many homes and buildings were being demolished.”

Thirty-eight years later Eric returned to the area to photograph the people living in Burley, finding little evidence of businessmen in bowler hats or mods on scooters this time around. He says, “All these pictures that I took in 1969 produced 1500 negatives, at that time I developed all the negatives in my bathroom in Burley, and when I went back to Switzerland, I forgot about them for 35 years. Three years ago, I exhibited at a gallery near Lausanne, and I found so many photos, all of the sudden I remembered places that I had been, as if it were the day before.” The photographs exhibiting at PSL are being shown for the first time in the UK since they were taken in 1969.

Strangely Familiar also boasts images photographed by Peter Mitchell, whose work was recently shown in How We Are: Photographing Britain at Tate Britain in 2007. Working side-by-side, Peter’s colour images juxtaposed with Eric’s black and white images demonstrate the reality of a changing Northern city.

Peter’s photographs explore the city in the throes of major change during the 1970s, a period marked by construction and demolition. At the time a lorry driver, Peter regularly passed through the city, photographing construction workers, shop-owners and residents against a backdrop of crumbling buildings. He says, “The 1970s were a terrific start in England for fine art photography. I got lucky after that. I got a show at the Serpentine Gallery and then at The Photographer’s Gallery, everyone wanted to see pictures of Leeds falling apart. My work in Strangely Familiar is not recent, it’s work from the early 1980s. It’s a kind of aesthetic, as well as a record of my first years in Leeds. I was a lorry driver. This gave me inspiration because of all the places I went to; the factories and mills.”

Peter’s photographs of Leeds in disrepair playfully subvert the formality of conventional posed portrait photographs. He says, “I see the images as symbolic of all cities, as all cities are changing, even now at a faster rate. It was actually in the 1970s that the end of the 20th century was apparent, and the 21st century was being eased in somehow. So it is to do with change and how times are changing, also how characters change, and how people now regard houses and shops completely differently to how they did in the 1960s and 1970s. To my utter amazement, these photographs have been going on for 30 years; over the past two years I have had shows in America, Poland and Germany. They all want to see what Leeds looked like thirty years ago.”

Strangely Familiar provides viewers with an overview of the changing urban landscape of cities, as well as our culture and society. Co-curator, Diane Howse, says, “Strangely Familiar represents the industrial past, and the changes that occurred in cities like Leeds. The images demonstrate the cusp of change that emerged in that era born from the industrial past with the city being a particular place at a time when there was a lot of social and economic change.”

Strangely Familiar ran until 10 May 2008 at Project Space Leeds.

Cherie Federico