After 50 years, the photographer is raising funds to publish his archive of a fishing community
“There are no H’s in Hull,” Alec Gill explains. With the local accent, Hull becomes ‘Ull, happy becomes ‘appy, and Hessle Road becomes ‘Essle Road. Gill, a photographer “born and bred” in the northern port city, has photographed the area and local community for five decades. Now, his 6000-image database is finally being turned into a photobook.
Gill was raised in Hull’s Old Town, another working-class area. Using a makeshift darkroom in his parents’ house and a 12-exposure Rolleicord, he blended “psychology” with street photography, as he became acquainted with the people he was photographing. “The Rolleicord was ideal because once you’ve got the camera ready, you can talk to the subjects, get to know them,” he explains. It is immediately clear Gill was, and still is, a people person. He is driven not by the specifics of the camera, but by real human stories. “The camera is a passport into people’s lives,” he says. A passport, not the destination.
“I don’t really call myself a photographer,” he says. Behind him, old metal storage cabinets hold a lifetime of images and research documents, all Gill’s. Folders, boxes, and files fill the shelves, an ordered collection of a career dedicated to Hull. Gill describes himself as a “psychologist with a camera,” an image-maker concerned with people. “In the early 1970s, I was studying psychology,” he explains. “We were told to specialise, to find a subject. The Hessle Road area is a handful of streets near the fishing port, rows and rows of family houses for those working on the docks – this became my specialty.” Gill created a boundary map for Hessle Road, planning to photograph everything inside the demarcated circle. He continued to do so for the next 15 years.
The new book, which sees the 74-year-old venture into the world of crowdfunding, began when his publishing partner, Iranzu Baker, first saw the work. “Her mother discovered it by chance at an exhibition and showed her the images. Since then we’ve been working together on this Kickstarter,” he explains. Like many photographers – especially since the beginning of the pandemic – Gill wanted an alternative to traditional book publishing. “It’s an amazing system, and I love the global feel,” he adds. Donations for the book have come in from across the world, all from people who continue to be interested in a long-gone fishing community.
Hessle Road itself has gone through major changes since the project began. When Gill started documenting, the fishing industry was already in decline, and soon after many buildings in the area were demolished. Now, Hull is a different city, partly regenerated through its time as the 2017 City of Culture. “Sometimes, it feels like I’ve been in a time machine,” he says. “I guess in a way, that’s what the camera is; a time machine.”
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.