Celebration is the word. The photographs in Bury Art Museum’s new exhibition may be mainly in monochrome, but they’re bursting with local colour.

Cannily curated by Paul Wright, founder of the British Culture Archive from where these images have been plucked, they create a stir. Where art so often claims that it aims to start a conversation, these photographs unpretentiously loosen tongues. At the exhibition opening, making itself heard above a disc jockey playing the likes of Althea & Donna’s indolently glorious Up Town, Top Ranking, it’s the hubbub of chatter that fills the gallery space. Part reminiscence, part fascination, the sound of the crowd makes up a soundtrack testimony to the immediacy of the photography on display.

Oxford Road, Manchester 1979, Copyright Luis Bustamante, British Culture Archive

Oxford Road, Manchester 1979, Copyright Luis Bustamante, British Culture Archive.

It’s a vocal endorsement of the archives themselves. Established by Wright to record the way that documentary photography captured the changing faces of British culture as it found its way out of the 20th century, it has seemingly struck a chord in the popular imagination as did the editorial policy of the early Smash Hits.

Indeed, it comes as a surprise to find that there isn’t a copy (or two) to complement the contents of the glass display cases giving pride of place to exhibits from the crowdsourced sister project, The People’s Archive. Commenced in 2017, it forms a sort of fanzine counterpoint to the professionalism of the main archives, affording the non-professional a voice in Kodachrome. Polaroids of Ant People in Tippexed warrior stripes jumble up with a 7 inch copy of the pre-Frank Sidebottom Chris Sievey‘s near-hit I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk.

It’s the pictures on the wall, however, which make a lasting impact. Grouped to reflect the work of four photographers, each collection has the instantaneity of newsprint, a kind of headline clarity. And, importantly, more often than not they encapsulate the celebratory joy of the exhibition’s subtitle promises, rather than the stock cliché of grimness.

Bolton Alleyway, 1970s' Copyright - Don Tonge, British Culture Archive

Bolton Alleyway, 1970s. Copyright – Don Tonge, British Culture Archive.

The closest brush with bleakness is perhaps to be found in Adam T. Burton’s postcards from Hulme before its Crescents were made to bite the dust. Handmade posters warning of Giro Mugging are very much a sign of those times, but, by way of contrast, a couple looking out from a balcony in John Nash Crescent, Hulme seem to survey the concrete around them with an almost proprietorial air, literally above it all.

The subjects of Thomas Blower’s photographs seem more aware of the camera’s eye, if divided among themselves as whether to avoid its gaze with music paper insouciance, or meet it gleefully with a flick of the Vs. A Mancunian himself, Blower’s images remained criminally unseen for some four decades before being published by the archives in 2019.

It’s an oversight that’s hard to reconcile with the sharpness of his eye and the balance of his composition. In a snapshot of Girls In Moss Side, Manchester, 1970s, the flick and volume of their respective hairstyles, the careless angles of their Kojak lollipops, encapsulate a decade bored by the lull between punk and Two Tone.

Much as Blower trained his eye on his home terrain, so did Bolton-born Don Tonge pin the lives and times of his friends and fellows to photographic paper. The selected images demonstrate Tonge’s ability to seize the moment, even as it was passing, in the quixotic enterprise of the Dial A Pint car, or the Corner Shop fly-posted with its own special offers (at prices that seem all the more improbable from the vantage point of inflation’s unwelcome return). Perhaps the most exquisite example of this skill, however, is Skating Up Slater Lane, Bolton, in which a quartet of youngsters roller-skate into the space age modernity of the 70s, leaving the mill looming behind them as background to fade into the past.

Hattersley Kids copyright Thomas Blower -British Culture Archive

Hattersley Kids. Copyright Thomas Blower, British Culture Archive.

Chilean refugee Luis Bustamante, rounding out the room, is the only photographer to have trained an outsider’s eyes on the region, but the results, redolent of curiosity and empathy, have all the insight of the insider. What pulls the carpet out from under the viewer’s feet is time’s quicksilver velocity. The composition of Oxford Road, Manchester 1979 is unchanged in its angles, but the details are dissonant.

In the face of so much to enthuse about, the hairs of the comparative lack of biographical material about the photographers barely seem worth splitting. Certainly, their absence does little to detract from these indoor fireworks, a black (and white) celebration of photography with a pop art accessibility.

By Desmond Bullen


Main image: Bolton Fair in the 1970s. Credit: Don Tonge, British Culture Archive. 

The collection of photographs is on display at Bury Art Museum until May 18, 2023. For details on how to plan your visit, click here