Last featured in the Sheffield Photographers special (NT33) – Andy Brown remains firmly one of my favourite local working artists. Four sets of images here – Park Hill, The Dark Peak, Westfield Bradford and The White Peak. All taken locally, they show a good cross-section of the hills, and the people that live amongst them. Good photography need not be direct representation. Tonal variation, colour and mood are equally important. The man himself follows.
You’ve chosen mostly images of landscapes for your feature this time around. Why?
It just happens to be the stuff I’ve been working on recently. I’m working on more traditional documentary / portraiture projects too though. The Westfield Bradford images were the result of a trip to Bradford to look at disused shops. The Park Hill images are from work I’ve been doing documenting the redevelopment of the flats up there. The Dark Peak and White Peak images are something I keep coming back to.
What was your shooting method for the Peaks photos?
The White Peak shots are much more representational, and tend to involve driving round in the snow looking for shots. I’ve got stuck down a farm track doing that. I had to get towed out by a kindly farmer. My dad had to come out and tow me once too. Sorry Dad. The Dark Peak images are more about spending time in woods and forests at dusk, shooting until its dark, and then wishing I’d remembered a torch.
I love the Peak District but most photography of it doesn’t move me at all. Anything involving sunsets, graduated filters, and sheep or boulders positioned according to the rule of thirds just leaves me absolutely cold. The Dark Peak images are an attempt to capture something of what it actually feels like to be there. It’s beautiful, but not in a postcard way. All these pictures are single, long exposure images. I find it interesting that although they are very abstract, they feel to me a lot more like being there than anything more representational does.
Have you preferred your portrait or architectural shots of Park Hill?
I’ve really enjoyed the stuff I’ve done up there documenting the renovation for Urban Splash. For my personal work, I’ve tried hard not to photograph the obvious architecture. It’s rare to go up there and not see someone with a camera on a tripod taking pictures of geometric brutalist architecture. It’s just been done to death. I wanted to focus on the people who still live there, and the details that tell you about life up there – the motorbike tracks on abandoned rows, the flocks of pigeons.
Do you work entirely in digital?
Pretty much. I occasionally use 35mm film, but everything here is digital.
I’m assuming Bradford Council didn’t pay you for your work on Westfield Bradford?
You’re quite right ! It’s personal work. I first went to Bradford to take pictures after reading a report arguing that both Sheffield and Bradford had reached a tipping point in terms of empty city centre properties, that both were past recovery in the traditional sense. Bradford is in a much worse state than Sheffield for empty shops. It’s full of lovely old civic buildings with the ground floors boarded up. But then, right in the centre, is a massive hole. It’s like a bomb’s gone off. Have a look online. You can’t miss it. It’s a 51,000 square foot crater. It was cleared to accommodate a Westfield shopping centre, starting in 2004. Problems with securing big-name tenants have meant that nothing has happened since. Just this year, part of the site has been turned into a temporary park, and a scaled-down proposal has been submitted for a smaller shopping centre.
I don’t feel the need to be too political about this, but it’s hard not to draw conclusions about overreaching consumerism. The thing I love about the barrier round the hole is that the slogans and stock imagery are so lazy and completely of their time. What is ‘urban energy’? What does a grinning, oversaturated couple eating vegetables have to do with ‘cafÃ© culture’? They’re meaningless. It shouldn’t have mattered, because they were meant to be fleeting. They were meant to have disappeared years ago, when the Sugababes came to open Boots (which happened at Westfield London). But they’re still here, and the longer they remain the better they look.
What recent work by other photographers has impressed you?
There are lots of great photographers in Sheffield. Gemma Thorpe, James Dodd and Theo Simpson have all been doing some fascinating work recently. Theo’s got a self-published book out called What We Buy, which is a beautifully-made study of the useless products you can get in bargain shops. Richard Hanson has had an exhibition of his work on the rebuilding of Haiti in Sheffield in October and November. It’s at the Workstation and runs til the 3rd November. If it’s still running when you read this, go!
Further afield, two photographers whose work I’ve really enjoyed recently are Anoek Steketee, who has been documenting theme parks around the world, and Taryin Simon, whose work is always beautiful and meaningful.
Are the best photos planned or spontaneous?
The best photos are ones that move you. These can be either planned or spontaneous. Even ‘spontaneous’ images are often the product of hours of work on the part of the photographer though. Street photography is the clearest example of this.
What music are you listening to at the moment? Has it influenced your work at all?
I listen to music for hours every day. Spotify brings out the best and worst of me. Sometimes I’ll discover an incredible band I didn’t know, but equally often I’ll realize I’ve been listening to Manowar or Christian hip hop for an hour. I would like to think that things like 65daysofstatic fit my pictures fairly well. I’ve also been listening to You Are Listening To Los Angeles, a website that streams ambient music alongside real, live LAPD radio broadcasts. It’s mesmerizing and perfect for photoshopping in the small hours.
What other projects are you working on?
I’m very excited to be working on an Arts Council-funded project called Behind the Scenes at the Children’s Hospital. Shaun Bloodworth, Richard Hanson and I have had extensive access to the hospital and have been documenting it on behalf of the Children’s Hospital Charity. It’s a brilliant project, and there are plans afoot for a public exhibition in Sheffield at some point soon.
Why is Sheffield worth documenting?
There are ideas and stories everywhere. It’s about seeking them out and working out how to photograph them. I’ve got a lot of affection for Sheffield. A lot of people are proud of it and feel they belong here, and that’s quite rare I think. Clive Egginton, a great Sheffield photographer, is trying to bring photographers documenting Sheffield together under the banner of Archive Sheffield. His website is well worth checking out.
Is DIY culture in Sheffield achieving as much as in other cities?
I’m not sure how much it ever really achieves, and I’m not that clued up regarding what’s going on elsewhere, but there are loads of creative people here doing their own thing through all sorts of channels. Sheffield Publicity Department, Article, all the stuff going on at Bank Street, Counterfeit magazine, the Statement images collective, the recent fanzine workshops at Site, you lot at Now Then. I think there are blurred lines now more than ever concerning what constitutes DIY. Sheffield does seem to have an incredible number of good creative types though, and good work will always be noticed if you keep at it.Interview by Matt Jones.