Street photography project in inner city Leeds brings back the art of conversation

A project by two photographers to record images of their local community and its people actually turned into an art of conversation, family and memories.

Friday, 4th June 2021, 4:45 am

Benedict Phillips and Jonathan Turner have known each other for years as well as sharing studio space and, between them, set up Lens Lab Leeds to act as a physical and online platform to discuss photography and its place in the world.

They also wanted to team up with other photographers, but particularly the local residents and workers in the communities of Mabgate, Burmantofts and Lincoln Green near to where their studio is based.

So when LEEDS 2023 wanted projects to play a part in its launch event, ahead of what will be a year of culture, arts, people and celebration of the city - it was the ideal time to get cracking on their first project, 'Portraits of Lincoln Green, Burmantofts and Mabgate.'

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Literally a 'street studio', Lens Lab Leeds hosts photo sessions at Lincoln Green.

Mr Turner said: "We are both very interested in social engagement projects and photography within the community. When this came up, it was a great opportunity for us to do a 'Street Studio'."

Liaising through community groups and organisations they put word out that they would be taking to the streets throughout May with a camera and wanted to snap local people as they go about their daily routine - and it turned out they didn't need to do too much more than that to get people interested.

Mr Turner added: "We took everything out with us, a dark room and all the kit and found a wall or shop front that was north facing. When you go out with a mobile dark room in a Victorian pram, you don't need to try very hard to get people to talk to you. They ask you what you are doing, you say you are doing free photographs and they ask if they can have one. Some people turned up, some even rang to see if they could book an appointment but the majority of people, and this is what's great about it, were people moving through that space during the course of the day.

"We happened to see them walking to work in a morning and would see them again at 3.30pm coming back with the kids to be photographed a second time."

Same image. Different eras. How the same picture looks with a digital and Victorian camera.

The photographers took two images of their subjects. One with a modern super high resolution digital camera and one with a Victorian wet plate process which they develop on the spot and the participants are posted a print of both photographs which they can keep for years to come.

With most amateur photography nowadays being done on smartphones, it was the historical method (and four second shutter speed) that captured people's interest and got them talking about old family photos.

M Turner explained: "They started to think and talk about old photographs and their family and it started a conversation about that, and many have these old photos from 50 and 60 years ago on their phone.

"Having a camera is a passport to talking to anyone and what has been surprising is the number of people saying they have used a camera, or went to art college. One gentleman works at the Aldi but did a fine art degree and knew exactly what I was using. The photos were an in-road into conversation."

Anything north facing was a prime backdrop for the Lens Lab Leeds street studio project.

The next steps for Lens Lab Leeds is to get audio recordings alongside the photographs and to use some Arts Council funding which it has been awarded to carry out a year long research and development project.

Mr Phillips said: "We realised that between us we have got a lot of skills and people set up photo organisations and groups, but in Leeds we couldn't really see anyone that did mentoring, tutoring, training and support. That, with the technology would be interesting to find out more about.

"Our research is about working out what Leeds needs around photography and lens based media."

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People were more than willing to take part in the project.