Wholesale Memory Commission

Exhibition artist statement, Library of Birmingham March 2018

‘Over the months I’ve been making portraits at Birmingham’s Smithfield Market, it’s seemed more and more to be a kind of heart. Like our own hearts it can seem invisible, but its workings are immanent, and essential to the city.

It’s intimate to the flow of our collective life, hidden not through obscurity, behind those Moat Lane walls, but in depth. 2018 is my 21st Birmingham year; and that’s over half my life eating food that’s passed through these halls, into the caverns of my body, and into the very walls of the cells that not only make me, but are me, mostly. If it’s true that every seven years we’ve replaced our physical selves with fresh molecular matter, then there’s almost three whole Dans gone down the tubes that came, in part, through here. 

The wholesale markets are a tatty cathedral of commerce and culture, housed the produce before I filled my bags, at the outdoor market by St. Martins, from Aziz on Hallam Street, SMS or Rehmans on Edward Road, Raja Bros on Ladypool, or Moseley General Stores opposite Lidl on the Moseley Rd, Ruprai on Station Rd, or from the mournful young man who sells bunches of parsley opposite Sainsbury’s in Kings Heath. I’ve seen shopkeepers I’ve known for years and photographed many more wholesale buyers from all over the Midlands over this last year, and had the privilege to spend time with traders and presenting them with their own personal portraits. A wholesale customer confided; ‘we here, we are family; these are my brothers’. This sense of family is coming to an end, in this form, here at least. 

Starting to photograph in a new place is always daunting. It takes time to gain a little trust and to communicate one’s authentic interest in recording or celebrating a place. I’ve shot large format, 5 x 4” negatives; it’s a process that slows making portraits down, creating a spectacle of photography that marks a ritual or occasion.  The longer exposed images have a stillness to them that is monumental; fitting for the large prints exhibited. It’s also been useful to have a conspicuous amount of kit and a big old camera, to be recognisable, to be a presence; to almost start to feel like a fixture myself. 

It’s been a pleasure to make these portraits with the market community; I hope the project prompts reflection on how our food networks extend way beyond our plates, and on the way we might better value those we depend on, but we don’t always see.’

I was working on a different project alongside Sandra and Lee from Friction Arts, Balsall Heath in Conversation, and they asked me to make portraits of traders at Smithfield as part of the HLF research they were beginning to record and celebrate the social and cultural importance of the market there, prior to its demolition, the transfer of the businesses to a private (non-council run) site in Perry Barr and its still-pending redevelopment. 

The style of the portraits I was making with them when this began, I’ve called instant-ish, for their relatively quick print turnaround – there’s a longer story to the coining than that, here – and I’ve used the approach often since 2008, almost like it was the one trick. 

Using an old MPP 5×4 field camera, and paper negatives rather than film, and usually framing the subject closely, with a shallow depth of field, a slow shutter speed, and elaborate set-up, frame and focus, black hood to be sharp on the catch light in the eyes…. all this led to a look that worked in a range of situations, in part because the performance of making images in this way, contrasting with the ubiquitous phone snap, was a hook to attract subjects, as was their getting a print in an instant(-ish).

When we started, the idea was to collect portraits of traders as a celebration of their vital work, to illuminate and memorialise, to reveal them in that unseen world. The way the work was shot changed, as I moved away from instant-ishtechnique, and spent many hours listening, looking and thinking about how and what to shoot. I got used to feeling like I’d finished a day’s work at 9am, then getting on with the developing, scanning, printing and cataloging. I still see people I met over those months and I shot almost feverishly at the end, right around the birth of my daughter in the spring of 2018. There are around a couple of hundred portraits, shot on 5×4 paper neg, 5×4 black and white film, and 6×7 colour neg, as well as dslr and phone images, and a few of the site empty, pre demolition and the Everything Must Go installation there by Friction. It’s a small selection here, but it shows some of the shape of the project. 

There was a show of big prints from this project in the Library of Birmingham Gallery, called Wholesale Memory, including works by other artists, notably Nita Newman and heritage material relating to the market.