“Throughout my adult life I thought I couldn’t draw.” Len Grant, sketcher, writer and photographer
I once spent an afternoon with the subject of a Len Grant photograph, specifically because he’d been the subject of a Len Grant photograph, for the purposes of a magazine column.
It was a sundry few hours in the company of a wistful crematorium technician, loading coffins into Manchester’s Southern Cemetery furnaces as they rolled through from the day’s funerals on the other side of the curtain. Howard, he was called. In Grant’s photograph (from A Way of Life: Portraits from the funeral trade) he stands before his ovens avoiding the camera’s gaze, fire gloves clasped in the performance of repose. It told a tale.
Grant has been telling stories with his camera for 30 years now and, more recently as a sketcher, with the pen. Most have been Manchester stories. I’d never met him until I took his picture for this piece. I’d just met Howard, the man in the photograph, some 21 years ago, albeit for longer than Grant ever did.
“As I recall, he told me he was having some mental health issues and thinking of changing his job,” Grant tells me.
Subjects captured at a moment of transition have been a staple over the course of Grant’s career. Death, homelessness, immigration, teenage motherhood, social cleansing and, perhaps above all, regeneration. From the destruction of the old Cardroom Estate to the construction of the Manchester Arena, Grant has documented the city’s rapidly changing landscape and its reflection in the faces of its inhabitants.
These days he says he’s happier with the pen than with the camera. “I think I was repeating myself, photographing regeneration over many years, getting similar jobs. A book about the building of a building…I wasn’t pushing myself.
“Throughout my adult life I thought I couldn’t draw. But I could sketch, which is different, you can get it wrong but it’s still right. It’s still storytelling. The things I can do as a sketcher I can only do because I was a photographer. It’s about the urban environment for me, about people.”
- [From A Way of Life, 1999] “An interest in those who work in the funeral industry led to this pensive portrait in Manchester Crem. The subsequent book and exhibition were surprisingly uplifting.”
- [From Cardroom Voices, 2004] “I was too wrapped up in getting the lighting right to notice May had started to cry as I photographed her and John on the site of their council house in what is now New Islington.”
- [From Billy and Rolonde, 2010] “10 years ago homeless alcoholic Allan took me on a tour of all the places he slept rough around Gorton. We’re still in touch. He’s recently moved into new sheltered accommodation.”
- [From Arena!, 1995] “The flower, the truncated cast iron columns, that expression. One of my favourites from the Arena project at Victoria Station.”
- [From Life Without Papers, 2012] “In the 12 months I documented ‘Ruth’ she and her young daughter moved five times. Then an undocumented migrant, she now has the ‘right to remain’ and is a brilliant teaching assistant.”
- [From From the Ground Up, 2001] “Agnes stayed in the home she loved whilst the Cardroom Estate (now New Islington) was demolished around her. On the day she moved, she was distraught as one of her cats went missing.”
- [From B of the Bang, East Manchester regeneration, 2004-10] “The only structure I photographed being built and then ‘de-constructed’. A fantastic piece of public sculpture and a real loss for east Manchester.”
- [From Arena!, 1995] “My first construction commission. Back in 1992 I had no idea this would become the ‘focus’ of my photographic work for the next two decades.”
- [From Her First Year, 2011-12] “The Her First Year blog about teenage mum Frances and her baby Mia had followers around the world.”
- [From The Rusholme Sketcher, 2018] “Rusholme, in my mind, is Manchester’s most vibrant neighbourhood and the ideal location for a year-long blog and my first sketching book. Never a dull moment.”
- [From Mayfield Stories, 2019] “I have the best job: sketching inside the iconic Star and Garter pub and indie music venue on Fairfield Street. Now part of the Mayfield development.”
- [From I’ve Missed You Too, 2021] “Artworks of Manchester scenes became my homage to the city I was missing during lockdown. Now a mini exhibition on a fence on Redhill Street, Ancoats.”
Len Grant’s most recent photographic book, Regeneration Manchester, looks back over his career. It’s available here.
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