For the people who live in these places, nowhere is off the beaten track. But for those who follow the well-trodden desire lines of Manchester’s cultural geography, the Millennium Powerhouse in Moss Side might be an unfamiliar destination. 

However, with its recent exhibition, the youth hub stakes a powerful claim to establish its place on that map. In fact, beneath the banner title of Powerhouse Portraits, two complementary exhibitions unfold, linked by the pivotal figure of photographer Ian Johns. A long-term resident and photo documentarian of the neighbouring suburbs of Hulme and Moss Side, the Jamaica-born Johns worked to help develop the headline project, tutoring a group of locals (many of whom were more familiar with the save-or-delete immediacy of the camera phone) in the half-forgotten art of film photography.

Photo of Euphema and family photo by Powerhouse Portraits participant

Working alongside Leo Macdonald Oulds, the director of Segment Arts, and others, including the poet Nasima Bee, Johns cultivated the creative confidence of the participants, both nurturing their technique and giving them the tools to make themselves heard, through being seen. It was, Johns told me when he guided me through the exhibition, Oulds who suggested that the Powerhouse concurrently display a selected retrospective of his own work. The intention was that, in covering the last 30 years of his practice, the new works might be better rooted in the area’s social history and, as a result, connect back to the first arrivals on the Empire Windrush some 45 years earlier.

The strategy is effective. To follow the photographic trail, which makes full use of the Powerhouse’s extensive interior, is to immerse yourself progressively deeper in a maze-like exploratory mission in which fresh discoveries are revealed around every corner and new links are forged between the then and the now at every way-point of your ascent. Some of the subjects, shot by Johns on his first cameras (a Pentax and an Olympus OM-3) are now the grandparents of those caught by the current project’s disposable counterparts. Indeed, Johns’ own grandchildren are among those fixed in a single point in the flux of adolescence, printed large and hung high, looking back at the viewer with a self-styled attitude and a cultivated boredom.

A number of themes thread between the monochrome past and the Kodacolor present. Foremost, perhaps, is that of shared spaces, be they the street or park, where access is free to all. There’s a delightful exuberance in the present day prints of kids surrendering to the simple momentum of swings, very much in contrast to Johns’ more serious street photography of young men gathering to protest against the forced deportation of a local family.

In keeping with this, there’s a pervading sense of home, whether it arises from a bride-to-be in the busy tidiness of her 1990s living room attended by a clutch of child bridesmaids, or the way a bungalow nestles up unobtrusively to the back of a mosque in a proximity that’s as matter-of-fact as the twilight that lends a close-of-day beauty to accompanying shots of backstreet terraces.

Photo of Jadel and Tiesha photo by Powerhouse Portraits participant

Inevitably, too, there are differences. Johns’ impeccably composed photographs, while often shot spontaneously, are at odds with the impromptu imperfection of the recent snaps whose lenses may have been obscured by the butterfingers of inexperience, and whose prints flare unpredictably with mistimed flashes, not always to their detriment.

Indeed, there’s an excitement about seeing this potential in the raw, like looking at a rough draft for tomorrow; a subtle reminder that, wherever we call home, off or on the beaten track, both it and we are works in progress.

By Desmond Bullen

Main image: I See You, Powerhouse Portraits photo by Kooj-Chuhan, Segment Arts


For more information about Moss Side Millennium Powerhouse, click here.