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Bristol Photo Festival: building a lasting legacy

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Director Tracy Marshall-Grant gives insight into the year-long festival, and its aims to nurture a new cultural network and celebrate the communities of the port city

Bristol is a city of networks. From the global maritime history to its more recent reputation as a cultural beacon, it is a place built on interconnections. Bristol Photo Festival (BPF), a newcomer to the city’s cultural sphere, wants to celebrate these connections, showcasing talent from both local and visiting artists. Curated around the theme A Sense of Place, the festival rethinks how art can serve its people, and how people can engage with art. 

“Bristol has such an immensely diverse population,” explains Tracy Marshall-Grant, festival director. “I don’t just mean it’s citizens. It’s diverse in terms of its culture, It’s an immensely passionate place with this old-school environment, while also having an urban sophistication. We are situated right next to some amazing wildlife and nature, and we’re immensely passionate about art.” Marshall-Grant arrived in Bristol an outsider in 2019, building the festival team from an open call for members. “We were keen to include those from in and around the city, but also international perspectives,” she explains. Her love for the city is clear. “Bristol brings different dynamics and energies from all these different boroughs, counties and countries. Everyone who lives in Bristol, whether they’re from here or not, is immensely proud.”

'Tired drink picture' , from the series Looking for Love, 1985 © Tom Wood courtesy Martin Parr Foundation.

BPF came into fruition through conversations between Marshall-Grant and her creative team. They wanted a new photo festival, one that did not just present work within a city, but truly became part of it. “It wasn’t just going to be a two or three month festival that happens every two years,” she explains. “We wanted to embed photography in Bristol community groups and education, through exhibitions, workshops and interactions around the city.” As well as collaborating with museums and galleries, the festival has extended its platform to partner with libraries, community groups, charities, schools, and volunteers.

 “All of our shows are free. There is still this perception that museums and galleries aren’t for everybody, and we really want to help fight that”

Curating the program began with securing its core shows, including exhibitions by Bristol-born artists Stephen Gill and Jem Southam. When Covid-19 limitations became unavoidable, Marshall-Grant saw it not as a restriction, but an opportunity. Now, one year later, the festival has been rethought on a much larger scale, with exhibitions and events lined up all year round.

'Tara gets stuck into gardening at St Paul’s Community Garden, with the help of her three daughters, Ashti, Arianne and Astera', from the series Growing Spaces, © Chris Hoare.

With a decade worth of experience working in homeless charities, Marshall-Grant understands the importance of making the festival affordable to all. “All of our shows are free. There is still this perception that museums and galleries aren’t for everybody, and we really want to help fight that,” she comments. “That has driven a lot of the outdoor projects. As well as exhibiting in art spaces, much of the work will be installed across the city and in its natural environment.” Chris Hoare’s Growing Spaces, for example, will be exhibited around farms and pathways scattered throughout the city and its boroughs. Jem Southam’s The Floating Harbour – a collection of images documenting the city’s harbour in the late 70s – will exhibit on the very port depicted within the works.

Elsewhere, displayed across spaces such as the Royal Photographic Society, Arnolfini, and the Martin Parr Foundation, the festival features both local and international artists, all reflecting on its theme: A Sense of Place. Ghanian-born James Barnor’s retrospective at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery displays previously unpublished works, highlighting the influential career of Ghana’s first international press photographer.

© James Barnor Courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière courtesy Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
© James Barnor Courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière courtesy Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

Other exhibitions include IN PROGRESS, a show consisting of five solo exhibitions, commissioned by the Royal Photographic Society and curated by Aaron Schumann. Laia Abril, Hoda Afshar, Widline Cadet, Adama Jalloh and Alba Zari will all present new works exploring overlapping themes of place, identity, morality, creativity and belief. At the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, the Martin Parr Foundation presents Island Life: photographs from the Martin Parr Foundation, in which the institution brings together the works of over 60 British photographers, all exploring the nation over the last 70 years.

'Agonistes', (stills), 2020 © Hoda Afshar courtesy Royal Photographic Society.

It is clear that BPF has an ambitious mission: to serve their community and create a festival with a lasting influence. As well as a whole year of events, the festival has created school competitions, open call commissions, mentorship programmes, internships, and collaborations with local archives. The festival’s inaugural program is only the beginning. “The plan is to bridge each festival with something in the year between,” says Marshall-Grant. “We’ve been given a vacant post office building, and we’re going to run our own education workshops and talk series all year long.” Community is at the centre of this festival, and they have made it clear they are here to stay.

'Crane, Redcliff Quay', from the series The Floating Harbour, 1979 © Jem Southam.

Bristol Photo Festival’s full program can be found here.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.

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