Northern England 1983-1986: Mon-Fri 1-5pm | Collectors By Appointment

6 December 2021 - 25 February 2022

Michael Kenna is well known as one of the most celebrated, international photographers in the world. I am proud to say that he is my uncle. Some years ago, he used to babysit my four brothers and me, as we all grew up together in the industrial town of Widnes, in the North West of England. Cheshire is often listed as Michael's county of birth. I think it is important to note that Michael was actually born in Lancashire, a county considered to be part of the historic cradle of English industry. Widnes only became part of Cheshire in 1974, due to some national boundary changes. The two adjoining counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the subject of this book, have much in common when it comes to their industrial development. Fiercely competitive, both historically and today, they share a common border, a spine of mountains known locally as the Pennines, which helps to produce rain, a lot of rain. The rise of a powerful local cotton and wool industry has been attributed in part to these high levels of precipitation. 1745 saw the first steam-powered cotton mill opened in Manchester, Lancashire. Many more would follow, to the point where the city was nicknamed Cottonopolis. Over in Halifax, Yorkshire, the Dean Clough mill began producing worsted, a high quality wool yarn, which became a huge success and was traded across the world. The textile industries expanded and proliferated until the second half of the twentieth century, when there was a sudden, rapid decline and eventual decimation. A few mills have survived to supply the diminishing levels of demand, but many buildings have been demolished, others have undergone facelifts and redevelopment to modernize and change their commercial usage.

 

Being born in Widnes, close to the River Mersey, Michael and I are a part of a population located below Scotland and above the Midlands and Southern England. We are known throughout the UK as Northerners. In 1727, Daniel Defoe chronicled his visits to the Northern region in his tour of the British Isles, and discussed visiting Liverpool during its growth as a slave-trading city. He also wrote about Manchester as an important cotton trading city. Widnes, at this point, was just a series of villages on the northern bank of the River Mersey. Michael's humble beginnings were situated at the higher end of Widnes, above the smoke and pollution which festered for years at the lower end, near the Mersey. The youngest of six children, he lived at 49 Birchfield Road, in a basic two-bedroomed chemical worker row house. As a boy, Michael attended the local school and church of St. Bede's, and grew up playing in the neighbourhood. Summer holidays would include day trips to seaside towns such as Blackpool, New Brighton or Scarborough, which the working classes had been visiting for generations. At age 10, Michael left Widnes to enter a Catholic seminary boarding school at Upholland. From there he went on to study art in Banbury, and later photography in London, before moving to the U.S.A. and settling in San Francisco in the late seventies. Between 1983 and 1986, Michael made a series of trips back to the North of England to photograph the empty and decaying cotton and wool megaliths, and the seaside towns of his childhood.

 

Returning home after a period away can be likened to a reacquaintance with an old friend. Changes occur while being detached over a passage of time. A familiar place, once considered ordinary, can become interesting, perhaps even extraordinary. Michael inevitably changed while he was away, due to influences, experiences and fresh personal views. These elements enabled him to approach places with different eyes than before he left. At the beginning of his photographic career, he had made a practice of studying the work of masters whom he admired; Bill Brandt and Josef Sudek for lighting and shadow, Eugene Atget for his visual approach and range of subject matter, and Mario Giacomelli for his abstractions. At the same time, Michael had explored a range of experimental physical and chemical photographic approaches, modified over time both in the field and darkroom. Using long exposures, involving reciprocity failure factor times, and special development and printing techniques, he was advancing the next stage of low light and night photography previously practiced by others, including Brandt and Brassai. Walking about at dusk or during the night with a camera is not an everyday activity. Cameras and film are designed for daytime use, and our bodies are wired to be awake during the day and sleep at night. However, during his explorations of Northern towns and cities, Michael ventured out at all hours of the day and night to photograph.

 

I once investigated some of the same locations Michael photographed in Halifax as I wanted to experience what it was like to follow his steps in a similar manner to how he had earlier learnt from Brandt. I found some of the locations where Brandt had photographed in the '30s and Michael in the '80s, in particular a snicket (cobblestone walkway) which connected a railway bridge to what was the original Dean Clough Mill. Bill Brandt had explored this location as part of his study of British life in 1936. He made several photographs here, which were published in the 1948 Lilliput feature "Hail, Hell and Halifax". The Snicket image is one of Brandt's most famous photographs and presents a moody, atmospheric image with a surrealistic feel. Michael learnt much from Brandt and, like the master, he began to recognize and photograph mystery, atmosphere and dark beauty, which others might not see. Michael's image titles such as "Bill Brandt's Chimney, 1983" and "Bill Brandt's Snicket, 1986", are his way of showing appreciation and acknowledgment of his debt to Brandt.

 

This book of work from almost forty years ago can be considered something of a time capsule, an early vignette from Michael's far-reaching photographic odyssey. Some of these photographs are familiar, even famous, and many have never been seen before. It is incredible to think that this work has been lying dormant, stored away in a series of negative boxes. Michael normally travels extensively and is not able to keep up with his printing. It took the Covid pandemic and lockdown for him to go back into his archives, find these negatives and spend the time in the darkroom to print them. Michael learnt from studying Atget's work that nothing is ever the same. These images show a Northern England that doesn't exist anymore, and they remind me of the proverb, time and tide wait for no man. Time has certainly not waited in Northern England. Please enjoy this collection and remember that no matter where my Uncle Michael happens to be living or working, he is and will always be, a Northern English lad.

 

Dr Ian B Glover, MA, PGCE, PhD, is a photographer, writer and educator, interested in the photographic representation of Northern England. His work has featured in over twenty exhibitions, including the most recent, which he curated, Photographing the English North (1890-1990). He is currently Programme Leader for Visual Communication at the University of Bolton.