Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Capture Manchester, CUBE

If you could sum up Manchester in a single image, what would it be? And is it possible? An exhibition at CUBE sets out to capture the spirit of Manchester, comprising of hundreds of images - mainly photos - sent in by the public. The postcard size images offer snapshots of Manchester life, from its landmarks to small, neglected corners and alleys most of us walk straight past on a daily basis, with ten winning entries receiving £500 for their shots. There's no single image that, taken in isolation, says Manchester and sums up its essence, but taken as a whole the images give a sense of the chaotic fragments that make up life in the city.

I wasn’t impressed by the judges' choices of winners which, apart from a shot of graffiti boasting 'Gorton girls know all the words to songs by Chaka Chan', seemed a bit predictable. Winning images will be printed as postcards (click here to read Phil Griffin's excellent article about the lack of variety of Manchester postcards).

As you’d expect, Castlefield is well represented in the submissions, including the often seen shot of its two towers - an old, redbrick one rising from the shadow of the Beetham tower that dominates the city skyline. The famous curves of Central Library are returned to over and over again, and it’s good to see B of the Bang commemorated before it goes forever.

Many photos take the architecture of the city as their starting point, often focusing in on quirks like gargoyles. Old and new is a recurring theme, and one of the most effective shots places ornate redbrick turrets against the protruding glass blocks of the new civil justice centre in Spinningfields, a bizarre and extreme juxtaposition. The derelict Department of Employment building, its former purpose just about identifiable from battered letters on the front, takes on a new relevance for our times. Victoria Station deservedly gets a look in, with its map of railway routes, and the destination signs outside, where a tiny Hull is squeezed in between Newcastle and Belgium.

There is a large number of photos of triumphant symbols of the new Manchester like Urbis and the big wheel, many of which are embellished with technical trickery and special effects. The ones which are unplayed with are more effective, though, showing Manchester in its natural state, from the utilitarian street namies of Ancoats - Mangle Street - to a row of boarded up terraces. Pictures close in on doorways and abandoned entrances or the front of an Asian grocer's and an MEN newsagents. A worthy winner would have been the photo taken from the top deck of a Magic Bus, a rival Finglands in the background - what could be more typical of the Manchester experience than a journey along the Wilsmlow Road corridor at peak time?

My favourite photos are the ones that look beyond the glossy image - all shiny glass and big gestures - that's sold to tourists and could be seen in any of the council's promotional literature. The photos are best when they just show what's there already, and make us look at it closer, rather than trying to impress by montaging or photoshopping. For example, the area outside the Thirsty Scholar and the Attic with its spiral staircase is given a new, fairytale magic when framed in black and white that would be missed by the casual observer.

Among my favourites are those which look past Manchester's monuments and architecture, forego grand aerial views to get down to the level of its inhabitants - one photo even crouches down to a goose's eye level.

It's Manchester's inhabitants that make the city what it is, after all. A portrait of a teenager wearing a tshirt asking ‘Do I f***ing look like I’m a people person’ is instantly recognisable to anyone who spends anytime in Cathedral Gardens at the weekend, where teenagers congregate. Canals and woodland are more interesting when they have people silhouetted against them, Piccadilly Gardens more alive when children play in its fountains. The shiny new city of Spinningfields is made more human by a woman waiting by a 'Meet me in Spinningfields' poster -the advertising message becomes literal rather than an empty slogan of redevelopment.

The best photos are those dictated by circumstance, such as sunshine catching on street sculptures in New Islington, a springboard for a burst of sunlight to leap out against a cloudy sky. One of my favourite photos shows the outline of a couple holding hands in the snow, next to the Temple in Heaton Park.

Until April 18.

Incidentally, I'm far too disorganised for submitting anything to any exhibitions. I think this is my favourite Manchester photo, of Plymouth Grove pub in Ardwick, taken well over a year ago. It was the first photo I developed by myself, and wasn't meant to come out so dark, but I thought the darkness suited it perfectly, making its distinctive clock tower (Grade 2 listed) stand out against a moody Mancunian sky. The pub's derelict and boarded up, in an area that's had huge building programmes going on all around it. I don't know if it's still there, but I hope so.

1 comment:

CMS said...

Love the pic of the Plymouth Grove. There's something magical about creating your your own pictures. The atmosphere is great in this one.