The art of photography often strikes a balance between composition and content, the decorative and the didactic. Each perspective has its place, since the dichotomy is ultimately a false one. It’s little surprise then that the most arresting images in this year’s Photo North festival reconcile the opposites, marrying the aesthete’s eye with the documentarian’s curiosity.  

Now in its fifth incarnation, the festival continues to make good on the community-sustaining aspirations of curators Sharon Price and Peter Dench. The ambience is invitational, so that conversation bubbles up as naturally as the course of visitors meandering their way through the babble of the displays, contributors and exhibition-goers alike on a level, two-storey playing field.  

The documentarians on display encompass several degrees of empathy, their terrain ranging from East Manchester to Eastern Europe. At one end of the continuum, represented here by a set of typically vivid images taken in the Somerset village of Chew Stoke at the beginning of the 1990s, is Martin Parr. Displaced from the relentless now of the city and its cultivated self-consciousness, Parr peers in at an England adrift from the tsunami of urban flux, his magpie lens alighting on the bright and the gauche, where every hour is amateur hour and the clock never quite ticks forward. Caught off-guard, Parr’s composition frames his subjects at their least composed, revealing the oddness in their everyday, keeping himself at one quizzical remove.  

Photo by Peter Dench

By way of contrast, Anne Worthington‘s photographs, taken in Beswick, Clayton and Openshaw at the beginning of the century, place her at the heart of those communities, even as they are dismantled. Where Parr looks inward, Worthington shares the same raft as her subjects, as, with the insouciance of youth or the pragmatism of age, they negotiate the planned wreckage of their estates. The vibrancy of her images lies in this reciprocal relationship, the giving of a voice that goes with the taking of the picture. Attentive to the situation, they’re attentive, too, to the moment; the human tableaux they depict framed and balanced with painterly delicacy.  

Meanwhile, there’s a certain distance in the way Peter Mitchell’s photographs depict the streets of Leeds as it used to be, but, unlike Parr’s watchful detachment, it’s rather a sense of scale in which buildings, particularly shop fronts, are as much foreground as backdrops for human drama. Shot with the saturated colours of snapshots developed by post, they blaze unfaded from the second they were first fixed to film, snatched from the forgetfulness of the official record, tattooed with the inks and typefaces of how we used to live. Imbued with Mitchell’s prescience, in recognising the time of their passing, they live and breathe with a vitality that gives the lie to the reheated remains of much of what passes for nostalgia.  

Beyond these shores, self-severed in petulance from Europe, are images from the continent’s eastern edges, among them dispatches from a Ukraine whose struggles for freedom are actual and urgent. Of these, Andriy Rachinskiy’s set from Saltivka wrong-foots the viewer to devastating effect. From the vantage point of a country for which war is only footage on the teatime news, a set of graffiti tags in Cyrillic on disused buildings is revealed to be a marker of a different kind; a signal that, though damaged and perhaps unsound, they remain inhabited. Though only the bricks might be visible, Rachinskiy’s photo stands as a reminder that, with a resonant image, empathy can be evoked even in the absence of the ‘people’ the Cyrillic tagging proclaims.  

The fifth Photo North lays open a world. At its best, it peels aside its ribcage to expose a beating heart. Here’s to the sixth. 

By Desmond Bullen

Main image by Anne Worthington


Photo North