Street View – Photographs of Urban Life

Dec 13 2016

Catherine Troiano, curator of the exhibition Street View: Photographs of Urban Life, gives an insight into some of the photographers on show:

I began working with the photography collection at Museums Sheffield in March in preparation for the exhibition Street View: Photographs of Urban Life, currently on view at the Graves Gallery. Though modest in size, numbering about 400 photographs, it is a relevant collection which was intentionally and thoughtfully collected. Photography has been part of the Museum’s Social History collection since the 19th century, collected by what was then known as Sheffield Public Museum. But, it was in the 1970s that the then-director, Frank Constantine, decided to actively collect photography for Sheffield’s Visual Art collection.

Since then, the collection has grown to include photographs from the turn of the twentieth century to the present day. Some of these works have periodically been on display over the years, but many of them have remained unexhibited for decades. Every museum inevitably faces challenges related to historical documentation and Museums Sheffield is no different. Lack of contextulising information for certain works makes it difficult to display them, so they tend to be omitted when it comes to selection for an exhibition.

Part of my role has been working to improve catalogue records and documentation so that objects from the photography collection can easily be included in future shows. During this process, I have had the luxury of spending a lot of time with these works, discovering contextual information about the collection and unearthing interesting anecdotes from artists and curators along the way.

Sheffield’s photographs collection might be most recognised for its whimsical landscape photographs by Fay Godwin or Paul Nash, its portraits by Cecil Beaton or its cityscapes of Sheffield. However, I have uncovered a different side to the collection; its holdings of 1970s-80s colour. The use of colour photography began to change in the 1970s. Prior to this, colour was largely used in commercial or advertising images with black and white film reserved for ‘fine art’ photography. American photographers such as William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld and Stephen Shore are well-known for their vibrant, immediate colour images. However, there were other, lesser-known artists who made similar moves towards colour, some of whom are represented in Sheffield’s collection.

Peter Mitchell was one of the first British photographers to start working in colour. Mitchell grew up in North London and moved to Leeds in 1973, where he has lived ever since. After graduating from Art College he took a job with Sun Electrical as a lorry driver, delivering goods in Leeds and the surrounding areas (including Sheffield). During these years in the mid-1970s, Mitchell travelled the region photographing what he saw. In 1979, Impressions Gallery in Bradford mounted a show of Mitchell’s work, titled A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission. This show featured colour photographs taken in Leeds; portrait photographs and street scenes depicting local factories, shops and residents. The concept was that aliens had landed on earth and were discovering Leeds themselves, and each photograph was mounted onto a space chart. In order to emphasise this, Mitchell often made the photographs standing on a stepladder, as the high vantage point gave the images an eerie quality.

Despite the complete contemporaneity of this exhibition and its pre-empting of both conceptual and colour photography in the UK, Mitchell has not, comparatively, received much recognition for his work. However, in more recent years his reputation has grown. Martin Parr has been a long time champion of Mitchell’s, and he enjoyed solo exhibitions this year in Arles and at Impressions Gallery, Bradford.

Ken Phillip is a photographer based in Sheffield who began shooting in colour in the early 1980s. He has lived in Sheffield for decades and has greatly contributed to nurturing local photography. He began teaching at Psalter Lane Art School in the 1970s, shortly before it merged with the polytechnic university which would later become Sheffield Hallam University. He was a Lecturer of Photography and cultivated students’ practice there for over twenty years until his retirement in 1997. Phillip also co-founded Untitled Gallery, which became a hub for contemporary photography in Sheffield and was integral to the development of the medium in the city. Untitled still exists today as Site Gallery, based in the city centre, and is still a supporter of emerging artists.

Phillip’s work in Sheffield’s collection consists of scenes in and around Sheffield; Grimesthorpe, Rotherham and Neepsend. His compositions are carefully thought out, combining vibrant colour with strong graphic elements which result in visceral works that effectively convey the essence of the place and period depicted.

Work by Mitchell and Phillip is on display in the current exhibition Street View: Photographs of Urban Life, at the Graves Gallery  until11 March 2017.

 Image: Langdon Clay, Untitled from the series ‘Cars’, New York, 1977. Image © Langdon Clay






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