Arriving at Halifax in the car, one foggy day in September, we were faced with an imposing set of Victorian built Mills, set cheek by jowl beside a spaghetti junction of 60s roadways and flyovers and the ancient Yorkshire countryside – a fascinating and beautiful picture of what was once the industrial north.
The Mills were in fact our destination – Dean Clough, a converted wool Mill in the centre of Halifax, where we would be staying for the night before our show at the Square Chapel Arts Centre.
Now entirely re-developed, the site houses a complex of shops, restaurants, art galleries, our Travelodge for the night, and a cookery school; whilst still managing to maintain the grandeur of the original buildings.
Obsessed with composition and intent on entering the burgeoning scene of street photography I have recently bought a new camera. Street photography attempts to capture those fleeting, illuminating flashes of interaction between people that happen all around us, all the time, in the blink of an eye. I would argue that the right snap at the right moment could tell as much story, as much biography as any painstaking recreation.
With some time to spare as we pulled up and always in pursuit of another elusive vignette, I asked Matt (Llewellyn-Smith – stage manager extraordinaire) to help distract a group of men whilst I took their picture.
On the journey from Grantham that morning we had heard a radio programme about a woman with one prosthetic arm, which she had managed to keep hidden from almost everyone she met for many years. On one occasion, it wasn’t until the run of a show she was dancing in had ended that her fellow chorus members discovered that she only had one arm.
We decided to adopt some of her distraction techniques. Matt and I chatted as we drew level with the group, paused in the correct place and both pointed rather awkwardly at something off in the distance as I surreptitiously snapped.
Then one of them called over to us – “what are you looking for?” “oh, erm…” Assuming we’d been caught in the act we stumbled over our words and managed to mutter “somewhere to eat?”
Matt led the conversation as I took a few more shots from waist height. As it turned out, my three middle-aged subjects were jovial and welcoming and the five of us quickly fell into conversation.
We spoke about the Mill itself, about what we were up to and about how they decided who got to sit on the only deck chair they had between them. We mentioned that we had played Stamford the night before when one of the crew disappeared, momentarily returning with a dusty copy of ‘Villages of Rutland’. “It’s the smallest county in Britain for half the year – except when the tide is in on the Isle of Wight” they laughed. I asked them for a photo, and to my surprise, they agreed.
The group directed us in the opposite direction, towards ‘E’ Mill (the different Mills are distinguished by a different letter), the main building off to the left of us, where David Hockney had once painted a wall and sold it for £25,000. But despite the Hockneys and the original blueprints and photographs of this incredible building, the work we were told specifically to look out for was one made of Lego.
Matt and I left the workers to their tea, paid the parking and laughed as we pored over my photographs. In my opinion the best shots are definitely those taken covertly. Unposed photographs capture the live energy of intention and action, by comparison those that are posed look rigid and staid and surely serve only posterity.
An hour or so later I was working my way around the photography gallery inside ‘E’ Mill when two of the three workmen from earlier appeared from an internal staircase, hulking a step ladder. “Have you seen it?” they asked. But I didn’t know what I was looking for, I wasn’t even sure that they weren’t having us on earlier.
But sure enough, around the corner, standing at least a metre and a half in height and around five in depth stood a massive Lego reconstruction of the entire Mill.
“Not quite the whole thing”, they corrected me. The ‘A’ Mill Loading Bay, where we had met earlier and the oldest building on the site (built in 1841) had not yet been constructed. My friends’ hands hovered in the air at the end of the structure, indicating where it will be when they’ve finished it. And they will – Jeff pointed to a window half way along the Lego building “that’s where they are now – in that pokey little office, working on it.”
Jeff proceeded to walk me round the Lego exhibit pointing out which lights were in the wrong place and which gutters were missing. They had to admit though, that apart from a few misplaced wheelie bins it was very accurate.
Having chatted over all matters of the Dean Clough Mill as we stood, it was clear that having worked here for a combined period of over 50 years, they were extremely proud of the site and their time-honoured place within it.
On the way back to the café, Jeff pointed out a postcard in the gift shop depicting the ‘A’ Mill Loading Bay – their spot – and then very persistently challenged one of the passing curating staff about the whereabouts of what turned out to be a portrait of Jeff.
Evidently Jeff was no stranger to portraiture. A previous artist exhibiting in the gallery had taken Jeff as his subject and it was a source of great disappointment to us both that it now resides with the artist and not here at the Mill for all to see.
Jeff said that he gets a lot of photographers taking pictures of him, “because you don’t see many people in overalls anymore” he said. He is no longer one of a whole gang of workers maintaining this building but one of three. Just like the Mill itself, Jeff has become an artefact, a memory of a time gone by.
But he is incredibly proud to still be a working cog in this redeveloped wheel; this new era for Dean Clough, and the requests of artists to capture and record him flatter and excite him.
And so he should be, by putting a subject in a frame and hanging it on the wall, the artist shows the subject admiration, acknowledgement and respect. They are focussing the looker’s attention on this image alone and saying ‘look here, you might not have seen it in this way before, you might have overlooked this.’ Jeff got such a kick from the Lego and his portrait and the photograph of ‘A’ Mill that maybe posed and re-constructed artworks do have their place. Maybe I’ll ask next time, before I shoot.