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Berris Conolly: Factory accurate photography

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The cover of Sheffield Photographs 1988-1992

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Photographer Berris Conolly has been capturing the changing face of Sheffield since 1988. His sparsely populated photographs depict a lost world of smokestacks and tower blocks, of empty melting shops and shuttered pubs.

In Conolly's work of the early nineties, a new Sheffield can be seen germinating in the ruins of the old. Both the tram and the arena are seen rising phoenix-like from the half-abandoned Don Valley. A new 104-page book, Sheffield Photographs 1988-1992, captures Conolly's black and white work from the time. We asked him about the role he played in documenting the evolving city in which he still lives.

Tell us a bit about the book.

The photographs are the result of a 1988 commission from Untitled Gallery (now Site Gallery) to record Sheffield, particularly the Lower Don Valley at a time when many of the old steelworks were being demolished.

Sheffield now looks quite smart and clean, but back then there was still evidence of soot and grime from the years of steelmaking

Six months before publication someone suggested contacting Geoff Nicholson, who was raised in Sheffield, and he kindly agreed to write 'Alive in Sheffield' as an introduction to the book, which also contains detailed notes about the photographs by local photographer and writer Adrian Wynn.

What inspired you at the time to take photos of factories and abandoned buildings, instead of more traditionally beautiful subjects?

This is mainly a result of the loose brief from Untitled, to document the landscape and buildings before much of it disappeared. Today this could be labelled as dereliction porn, like similarly afflicted cities such as Detroit. And anyway, there are already plenty of books showing the delights of Sheffield and its surrounding countryside in glorious colour.

Very few of these photos have people in them. Why is this?

Yes, there are only two photos that could be called portraits, where people are aware of the camera. Figures can often be a distraction, drawing the eye away from the rest of the frame, and for this reason the photographs try to concentrate mainly on the landscape. From 1988 to 1991, several other photographers were commissioned by Untitled, and some recorded local people in another manner.

One of the most startling aspects of these photos is seeing the birth of Meadowhall surrounded by steelworks and scrub land. What has changed the most about Sheffield since you took the photos and what has stayed the same?

Coming from London, one of the first things I noticed was the lack of traffic and how there was barely a rush hour in the city centre. A lot of things were also much cheaper than down south.

Sheffield now looks quite smart and clean, but back then there was still evidence of soot and grime from the years of steelmaking. While many parts of the city are now almost unrecognisable, particularly the centre and universities, some of the views have changed remarkably little. A few years ago I did a series of colour photographs from the same position as the originals, and one thing I noticed is how many trees, both planted and self-seeded, have grown over the last 30 years, confirming Sheffield as one of the greenest cities in Europe.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on a series of colour landscapes taken within a one-mile radius of my house in Pitsmoor.

Sam Gregory

Sheffield Photographs 1988-1992 is out now from Dewi Lewis Publishing. You can see more of Connolly's work, including from his recent One Mile series, at his Flickr.

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'Don Valley Bowl, 1990' by Berris Conolly.

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